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The Junior to Senior Transition: How to Manage Youth Athlete Stress and Anxiety

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

The junior-to-senior sport transition for youth athletes is one of the most challenging transitions you may go through during your journey in sport. With all the challenges that come with it, it's normal to experience stress and anxiety during this period. But, that doesn't mean that stress and anxiety have to hijack your performance and well-being, and this blog is here to show you how to manage that.

Young academy footballers playing in a match

Moving up to senior sport will expose you to a lot of new challenges that you might not have faced before. Bigger, stronger and potentially more skilful teammates or opponents, with more competition for places and a higher emphasis on winning than you're used to. The move to the senior level may also cause you to place more expectations on yourself to succeed, criticising yourself if your performances don't meet those expectations. For some youth athletes, this can cause a temporary drop in confidence and performance, and, an increase in stress and anxiety about their future in sports. Alongside that, you may have changes and important events going on in your broader life that need your valuable energy and attention. Now, I don't know about you, but it seems to me that feeling stressed and anxious about all that would be a pretty normal response for a human being.


For all people, identifying that we are experiencing a demanding and stressful situation commonly leads to feelings of anxiety. For athletes, researchers suggest that anxiety is experienced when you view the demands of the situation to be greater than the resources you have to cope with those demands. This leads to symptoms of anxiety, which can show up in different ways but commonly involve difficult thoughts, worrying, feeling uncertain, struggling to concentrate, a tight chest, shallow breathing, a higher heart rate, or sweaty palms, which all add some extra challenges for you to deal with when trying to perform at your best.

Anxiety in the junior to senior transition visual

When you experience anxiety, a natural but often unsuccessful approach to managing it is to try and 'get rid' of it or avoid the feeling any way you can. For example, if you're a team sport athlete and you're feeling anxious about looking less experienced in training with senior players, you might avoid getting involved in the session as much as possible by staying quiet and not asking for the ball. You will likely feel some relief from your anxiety through doing this as you didn't get 'exposed', but you will only be faced with the same challenge in the next session and you likely know that 'hiding' in sessions is not going to develop your skills or mindset.

 

2 Tips to Manage Sport Anxiety During the Junior to Senior Transition

1. Develop your self-awareness

Self-awareness has been shown to be key to developing the ability to reflect on challenging experiences that result in stress and anxiety, such as those in the step up to the senior level. Through reflection, you can begin to understand what is needed to succeed and begin to behave and perform in ways that will reduce levels of stress and anxiety. To develop self-awareness, try to do some self-reflection after each training session, competitive situation, or significant event. Self-reflection can be done in numerous ways, such as writing in a journal, speaking into your

A journal and pen on a table

phone, or using a worksheet. Ask yourself questions such as, "Why did we do that today?", "What did I do well?", or, "What could I have done better?". Questions like this allow you to explore what happened more deeply and encourage you to find ways to solve problems and improve. Self-awareness also helps you to manage the difficult experiences that cause anxiety symptoms, as you become more certain of what you're doing, why you're doing it, and how you can improve.


2. Learn to 'unhook' from difficult thoughts and beliefs

When you're faced with challenging situations during your transition into senior sport, such as being smaller than other athletes or having to make new relationships with coaches and teammates, it can be really daunting. During these challenging situations, you may experience anxiety, and your mind will probably throw difficult thoughts at you and come up with beliefs about you that you don't want to be there. Don't worry, your mind is actually just doing its job to protect you from harm and get you out of that challenging situation! The problem is, sometimes what you're doing is challenging but important to you, so you don't want to get out of there. You want to excel in there. But, all these thoughts and beliefs are in the way, dominating your mind and pulling you in the direction you don't want to go in.


If that sounds like your experience as a youth athlete moving into senior sport, then you could benefit from learning to 'unhook' from difficult thoughts and beliefs. Imagine your thoughts and feelings attaching a fishing hook to your clothes and pulling you towards being the athlete you DON'T want to be. We'll call that 'hooked'. To 'unhook', there are ways to detach yourself from those thoughts and beliefs so that you can engage, pay attention to, and do what's most important to you. The thought or belief might still stick around, but the aim is to simply notice it without getting hooked. I'll cover two of the simplest ways to unhook here:


1. 'I notice I'm having the thought that...'

When you notice a difficult thought or belief about yourself or your transition to senior sport, start by saying, 'I'm having the thought that ... (e.g., I'm not good enough)'. Repeat that. Then, add to it, 'I notice I'm having the thought that I'm not good enough'. See if you feel yourself separate from the thought, if not try this technique below.


2. Thank your mind

Your mind is just trying to help when it tries beating you up with thoughts and beliefs, so, silently just thank it for its input, but let it know you're going to focus on whatever you think is important at that time. It might go a bit like this:


Mind: Awful pass! You're never going to make it (belief). Might as well give up now (thought).


You (silently of course): Oof. Thanks for the input mind, but I'm going to ask for the ball and try again.


It might seem silly, but this is a proven tool that helps many people to unhook or feel some (or a lot) of separation from those difficult thoughts and beliefs. When that happens, you can engage with what's around you and perform the actions that you believe will move you in the right direction.

 

I hope this blog was useful for some of you out there that might be finding this part of your life particularly challenging. The junior-to-senior transition is truly demanding for youth athletes, and at Challenger Mindset we strive to help you excel during yours by spreading knowledge and tools from sport psychology that we wholeheartedly believe makes a huge impact on athlete experience and performance.


If you feel like you need more support with the mental challenges of the junior-to-senior transition, our mindset training packages can help you learn strategies to manage those demands and focus on what you do best. Book a FREE 20-minute enquiry call here, or, get in touch via Whatsapp at 07950378048 or by emailing Ross@challenger-mindset.com. Take the first step in building a challenger mindset today!



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