Child Phobia: Sports Phobia, Fear of Playing Sports
Here's a child phobia. Some kids fear playing sports. Discover why and how parents can help a child with a sports phobia.
Sports offer children an important outlet for physical, social and emotional development. While many young athletes flock to the courts or ball fields, some consider sports competition as dangerous and dreadful. Fears of injury to either their body or self-esteem build barriers, excuses, and patterns of avoidance. The longer they remain stuck in their sports phobic attitudes, the quicker they fall behind their age mates, further compounding the problem.
Parents, and especially fathers, are often frustrated and confused by their children's sports avoidance. Some push too hard, and heighten walls of resistance, while others pull back without attempting to understand and possibly dismantle those walls. Those parents who are sufficiently patient, gently probing, and properly prepared can help their children eventually overcome these participation barriers.
How to Help Your Child Conquer Sports Phobia
Here's how to help your child deal with his fear of sports:
Identify the likely contributions before approaching your child. Parents are more successful at opening up sensitive discussions when they have fully considered the triggering issues. Potential sources include self- perceptions of ineptitude, fears of injury, avoidance of the emotions surrounding competition, or other factors. Some children are so intimidated by the forcefulness they have witnessed in others at play that they cower at the thought of joining the fray. Others have convinced themselves that sports are "not my thing" and simply write off all athletic interest.
Correct past mistakes before attempting to open their mind to your help. For some young children, having a catch with dad stirs up such bad memories and painful feelings that it's unrealistic to expect them to be receptive to any discussion. The subject of sports has become associated with humiliation, rejection, and anger. These parents must first clear the path for a new dialogue, primarily through explanation and apology. Be direct and accept blame, such as in the following, "I want you to know that I have really messed up when we have done sports things together. I was totally at fault for expecting you to be able to do things exactly like I told you to. That wasn't right and it probably gave you the idea that you're no good because you weren't picking it up as quickly as I expected. I was wrong and I am very sorry."
Back up your words with realistic expectations and strategies that guarantee levels of success and confidence. When practicing basketball, if a child is unable to throw the ball within the hoop, offer one point for hitting the net, two points for the rim, and three points for making it through the net. During baseball, follow a similar graduated path that helps inoculate the child from the fear of injury and/or failure. Begin with a tennis ball and wide plastic bat, substituting for the "real" equipment only when they express eagerness and interest. Demonstrate pride with words and facial expression, especially when they continue to make efforts that fall short of success. Be careful not to step into the "demanding dad" role, with too many tips about how to throw, catch, stand at the plate, etc.
Prepare their self-esteem and emphasize the importance of effort, not success. Those children who easily succumb to feelings of defeat are often suffering from vulnerable self-esteem. Sports may be perceived as personal tests of adequacy, and avoidance is the preferred path. Parents can help such children build a "thicker skin" to allow the inevitable frustrations and disappointments of sports to "bounce" off them. Coach them in doing so by providing these instructions: "Let's think of something that you know you are really good at. Maybe it's reading, drawing, or riding your bike. Next, we'll take a picture of you doing that and record that image in your mind. The good feelings about yourself that comes from that proud picture can help you when you are trying your hardest to get better at other things, such as sports." Once this template is in place, cue the child to "step into your proud skin" before sports participation. Point out how proud you are at the number of times they attempt to throw/catch/score points, or number of minutes they put into practicing, rather than the points scored. Steer away from counting success through points, balls caught, balls batted, etc.
About Dr. Steven Richfield: Known as "The Parent Coach," Dr. Richfield is a child psychologist, parent/teacher trainer, author of "The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society" and creator of the Parent Coaching Cards.
Last Updated: 18 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD