Sonia O’Sullivan: Go and enjoy is the best lesson children can learn about sport
Nerves before a race are normal and parents should ease pressure rather than ramp it up
“I have often shared the stage with sports psychologists and it always amazes me how the real life athlete stories can align so perfectly with the science of sport,” says Sonia O’Sullivan. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Most parents know the perils of allowing their child to take any sport too seriously, although I received an email over the weekend that caught me by surprise.
It came from the Little Athletics club that I have been involved with over the past few years. My youngest daughter, Sophie, is a member, and as parents we are required to help out with the running of the programme most weekends.
Little Athletics is an introduction to athletics across all events for children age six to 15, run throughout the spring and summer seasons in Australia.
Each Little Athletics club runs a weekly programme, and towards the end of the season any athlete can enter the regional event with the chance to then qualify for the state championships.
This would be similar to the Irish underage athletics competitions, starting at the provincial championships, and then qualifying for the national championships.
What took me by surprise was the introduction of a psychology session for parents. It’s designed to help them to deal with anxiousness amongst young children ahead of competition. Particularly at regional and state level.
It’s certainly normal to feel nervous before taking on any sporting challenge or lining up for a race, although it seems extreme that school children would get so nervous that they fail to enjoy the sport. Or worse, that they should feel pressure to perform even better as the competition intensifies.
Where does this pressure come from, especially at such a young age? I remember the first time I ever came across a sports psychologist. We were in camp ahead of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. I was 22 and already felt I had been through quite a bit at that stage in my life. I’d experienced lots of ups and downs and various injuries during my four years on a running scholarship at Villanova University. Still , I didn’t think it unusual that sports psychology had never crossed my path.
It is only now when I think back at all my years at the elite level that I am surprised how I got away with so much, without actually consulting a sports psychologist. There are so many ways to manage your emotions in the lead up to a big event. For most of my career there was no signpost directing me to the door of a sports psychologist, so I had to work things out for myself. That often meant rising above the voices in my head that tried to throw road blocks in my path.
Enforcing the belief
Of course I did have people around me to keep me on the straight and narrow, enforcing the belief necessary to go out there and do the best you can. But also to accept that sometimes your best may not be as good as someone else’s. That doesn’t mean you have failed.
I also know I had coaches who took on a role far greater than just providing the training sessions and race plans. I think every coach I worked with was able to instil confidence in me and teach me what to expect when I lined up to race. When the work was done on the training track, the race was the fun part; this is what you had worked so hard for; this was the game where you could go out and use your fitness, ability and tactics to outsmart your competitors.
I often talk about a team that helps the individual, but this team needs to work together and often the roles can overlap and each person helps the other out. We all need mentors, people we can trust. Maybe this mentor could be your coach, physio, manager or training partner. It can depend on who you feel most comfortable sharing your fears and weaknesses with. Or maybe it’s just the person who can read you best and nudge you back on the right path when you may be wavering.
I have often shared the stage with sports psychologists and it always amazes me how the real life athlete stories can align so perfectly with the science of sport, and how to deal with anxious moments when the doubts creep in. Later in my career, I also consulted a life coach and spoke with sports psychologists, although never to the point that I was dependent on them.
I liked having the confirmation that everything is lined up and ready to be tested. Once I had this knowledge written out, then I would put it in my sports bag and line up for the race relaxed, without any fear of tension creeping in.
The one part of all that experience I reflect on most often is the message I was given one time, when training wasn’t going well. I had a race coming up but I was underprepared, anxious and worried about the result.
The message was simple and clear: “Think back to when you were a child, starting out in athletics, the fun and enjoyment you had and what you loved most about running. Leave your watch at home, go for a run along your favourite running route, and feel the enjoyment and relaxation and the freedom you get from running.”
The message worked perfectly for me. These days, if our children are so anxious and nervous about competing in sport, we need to help them realise that this is only a game, something that is there to be enjoyed. It may be difficult at times, but even after times of disappointment, you always come back better prepared, physically and mentally. And that should never take away from the enjoyment of running your own race.