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Can team sports change a child's brain?

How team sports change a child’s brain” by Gerry Everding, reveals some interesting findings by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis. Lisa Gorham, lead author of the study and a senior majoring in cognitive neuroscience in Arts and Sciences, said, “We found that involvement in sports but not non-sport activities such as music or art is related to greater hippocampal volume in both boys and girls, and is related to reduced depression in boys.”

Athletes' Performance & Well-Being

I am frequently asked, “What does a sport counselor do?” This article by Delia O’Hara offers
a nice summary of what a client working with a counselor proficient in sport performance and trained in mental health can offer to an athlete and/or his/her support team.

https://www.apa.org/members/content/petrie-athletes-performance

What me worry?

Everyone worries. It’s a part of being human. Our brains naturally watch for danger and prepare to assess and quickly solve problems. There is great benefit to identifying potential problems and threats in our environment so we can respond effectively. Excessive worry, however, can take this adaptive brain response and exaggerate it into a repetitive and uncontrollable negative anxiety loop.

In some sports, there is a real life threat of danger each time an athlete participates. Some of these sports include, race car driving, cage fighting, boxing, ice hockey, free solo rock climbing  and a host of other sports. But in sport environments such as baseball, basketball, swimming, soccer, tennis, golf there is a much lower chance of day to day physical danger. Yet frequently athletes in these latter sports express that the level of intensity of their worry gets in the way of their performance potential. Worry frequently shifts into anxiety. If we were to listen to an athletes’ thought processes, it often involves a heavy dialogue of “what if’s”. For example:

What if I play poorly?
What if I don’t win?
What if I I don’t play well and the coach benches me?
What if my worries overcome me and all these people are watching?
What if I mentally freeze up and forget the plays?
What if I can’t coordinate my arm rhythm and double fault or can’t throw the ball?
What if all the people that doubt me were right and I am not as good an athlete as I thought?

The list can go on and on and you can add your own “what if” thoughts.

Once the “what if” worries get going they are usually accompanied by physical symptoms and behaviors. This list often includes:

Feelings of restlessness.
Irritability
Startle response in which sounds or interruptions can be upsetting.
Muscular tension, headaches.
Feeling sluggish.
Difficulty getting to sleep or restless sleep leading up to the athletic event.
Upset stomach.
Feeling fatigued easily.

Each person has their own unique symptoms that accompanying their level of anticipatory worry and it is helpful to identify how worry affects you.

During excessive worry the internal mental dialogue ends up being a mental push and pull battle ground that can sound like:

I am so terrible.
Think positive.
I let everyone down.
I have to play to hold up the team.
I can’t believe I am losing.
Be positive.

Worry is the anticipatory preparation of future problems and feelings of uncertainty of whether the player can meet the demands of the challenge. The downside of worry is that it can maximize all the negative thoughts while minimizing all the positive thoughts about a situation. It can pull a player’s attention away from the present and instead make one focus on all of the myriad of possible negative outcomes of the future.

For example, a tennis player playing on a team may be worried about her next match and start to say things to herself like, “If I don’t play well then I may lose my place on the team. The coach is going to be disappointed. I won’t be able to face my teammates and they may talk behind my back about me not being as good a player as I used to be.” This worry focus on the possible negative aspects of the future prevent the player from staying in the present and playing with a “go for it attitude”.

Worrying does not alert the player to present problems that need solving on the court—worrying actually interferes with problem solving on the court. The path to having less trouble with worry on the court involves changing your relationship with worry instead of trying to change the worries themselves.

The following are some cognitive coping strategies and habits that are effective in reducing and redirecting worry:

*Take time ahead of any situation that you know causes worry to write down all the possible worries that may come up for you. Putting your worries on paper ahead of time allows for review and problem solving and also can alleviate much of the power those worries have. For example, in tennis, a player may be very worried about playing a particular opponent, but writing down these worries can help the player actually review the strengths and weakness of the upcoming opponent and decide how to play more effectively. Worry then becomes a reasonable problem solving task. The player may not be successful in their outing but they redirect their worries to a specific task, versus feeling like they don’t have any control.

*Allow yourself to know that you will not fully banish all worried thoughts. This is different from trying to ignore the worries, and/or control, or push away your thoughts and feelings. When you have worries, acknowledge them. Know that they will be there and instead of focusing your thoughts on your worries, redirect your time and energy to focus on your game plan. It’s useful to have a flexible game plan. Creating a game plan allows you to focus on what can be adjusted as the match/game goes on.

*Adapt self-regulation skills. Successful performance at a high level is a balanced blend of mental and physical training. There are an abundance of simple and useful self-regulation tools available for athletes. Diaphragmatic breathing, progressive relaxation, visualization skills and meditation are all skills that can help with managing anxiety and worry. There are many apps that can be used to help develop competency in these techniques. Consistency, repetition and practice are essential and allow these techniques to be an automatic part of the athlete’s abilities. When an athlete has developed a mental/physical worry cycle around competition, those thoughts and actions will potentially reactivate every time they are competing. When a tennis player switches from a semi-western grip to a full western grip it takes time and multiple stages of practice to make the adjustment to the point where the new grip is a natural fit under all conditions. The same applies to taking on a mental skills program. It takes awareness and ongoing practice and training to make the shift from an automatic worry cycle to more present awareness.

Worry is a part of the human condition and it will always be with us. The brain is a problem solving organ but too much worry promotes a way of thinking and acting that isn’t in the best interest of your athletic goals. Don’t expect worry to go away but by taking steps to respond differently it is less likely to limit an athlete’s goals and potential. This takes training, awareness and action.