By Robert B. Andrews MA, LMFT/The Institute of Sports Performance
Over the last few weeks, I have seen quite a few athletes who are leaving for college for their freshman year. Some are going to schools close to home here in Texas. Others are heading off to schools a long way from home in The Midwest, New England, and the west coast.
I am grateful to have been able to spend time with these athletes before they left. We spent our time together talking about their sadness around leaving home, family, and friends, their joy about starting a new phase of their lives, and anxiety about being on their own and trying to make their college team.
There are so many transitions going on with these kids. Their lives as sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and athletes are changing profoundly.
This is such an important time not only for athletes leaving home, but for any athlete, their family members, and friends. I feel that this is a very valuable and necessary topic.
Making Transitions Can Be Stressful
Fall is a particularly busy time for me in my work with athletes. Football, volleyball, soccer, gymnastics, and many other sports start up, and with this start up comes the stress and pressure of performing at higher levels. Athletes move up to higher levels of competition with each new season. Expectations of coaches, parents, and athletes are higher. The game moves faster, the ball is hit harder, tackles are more intense, athletes are bigger, quicker, and stronger. Required skills are more difficult to obtain.
Making the transition from junior high to high school, JV to varsity, high school to college, level 9 to level 10, 16 U to 18 U, or college to professional can be intense and stressful.
Increased stress and pressure from attending a new school, making new friends, balancing social life, tougher academic requirements, leaving home, managing time schedules, and finances, can make it easy to see why athletes struggle during this time of transition.
The psychological warning signs of these struggles can be increased anxiety, moodiness, irritability, poor grades, withdrawal or isolation, depression, frustration, and even experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Athletes might be unable to perform skills that they have mastered in the past or show poor overall performance. They may try hard to “get it right”, or exhibit perfectionist traits. Some might become afraid of disappointing coaches, parents, or scouts. Others may choke or struggle with what used to be easy and fun.
These warning signs or symptoms are cries for help. The athlete is saying “HELP! I am struggling and I don’t have the tools to make it through this difficult transition.”
Many athletes face the embarrassment of not performing up to the expected standards that they and others have of them. It can be humiliating to go out practice after practice, game after game, and struggle. What was once fun, and a source of confidence is now eroding confidence and creating self-doubt.
Helping athletes prepare for these times of stress and self-doubt and teaching them the life skills necessary to make a healthy transition is critical.
The Theory of the “Bigger Box”
In addition to teaching valuable life skills, I use “the theory of the bigger box” to help athletes during these difficult times.
Remember when your kids were young and had to face a transition like moving from elementary to junior high? They left behind a very safe and familiar environment. They knew their way around the classroom and campus. They knew the teachers, schedules, and required routines. They were familiar with this “box”. They knew where the top and sides of the box were, and the shape of the box. But on some level, they were ready to move on to a bigger box. They were pushing up against the sides and ceiling of that box. They had grown so much that it was uncomfortable, and they were ready for a bigger challenge. They were ready to move on.
New challenges such as moving up a grade, playing on a more talented team or moving up a level requires leaving behind the familiar “box” and stepping into a “bigger box”. They must cope with the overwhelming feeling of not knowing their way around the box. They must learn where the sides and top of the box are all over again. There will always be initial feelings of anxiousness, and fear. It is normal. As they acquire the tools and skills to make the adjustment to a bigger box, things begin to calm down. By gaining knowledge and experience in the bigger box, confidence is restored and performance returns to high levels.
Transitioning to a bigger box requires learning how to communicate effectively, set healthy boundaries, management time, get adequate sleep, eat well, balance social life with school and sports requirements, and learn how to “recharge” your mental and emotional reservoir. These are important tools that will help make these times of transition easier.
Life will continue to hand us bigger and bigger “boxes”. Graduations, getting a first job, getting married, having kids are all “bigger box” events. If you start learning important transition tools early on, it makes it easier to recognize, adapt, and grow in response to these challenges.
I have worked with many athletes who have gone off to college or tried to make it in professional sports. Some come back home because they did not have the tools required to make these difficult transitions. Coming back is never an easy transition, and many struggle profoundly. They are confused and lack direction.
Do your young athletes a favor and provide them the resources they will need to acquire the life skills to help them adjust and thrive. It helps them learn how to avoid pain and suffering and build character and self-confidence. These traits will take them far in life and in sports.