In athletics, what you want to do is be able to put yourself in a situation where you’re challenged, which by definition is going to be anxiety. Your expectation is maybe a little higher than your performance, and you’re trying to figure out how to get there. In addition, you’re trying to figure out how to get there with other people. The problem with that is that if you continually put higher expectations than you can ever receive, you’re in a state of chronic stress, chronic anxiety.
You want anxiety to be episodic, so you want the athlete to be able to feel a little anxious and then push and push and get there and then feel relieved and then recovery. For all of us in anything we do, we want to have that push and recovery, just like you’re lifting weights or anything else. That’s how you build your brain, especially in an adolescent, but even in a child. You learn that comfort, that, “I didn’t think I could do it, but I could do it.” That’s the message that you can take on into your adult life.
But if you’re put in a situation where you’re always pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, pushing, and you never get it, you get this sort of sense of hopelessness, or you get a, “I’m never going to be able to do this.” If the challenge is there and the coach is saying, “You can do this,” and you know you can’t or you think you can’t, you never get to the point where you build that confidence that you just do the additional push. It leads to all sorts of conditions. Chronic anxiety affects the immune system, and it certainly affects brain development, particularly regarding memory.
You want to help avoid those situations, and athletes just find themselves get caught into those things. Socially they’re pushed into staying in that anxiety-provoking situation. Now, perfectionism is another thing, and you may get a coach or a teacher that’s driving that perfection. We see the same thing in musicians, for example. They focus on what isn’t right with them, and they miss out on what’s right with you and what have you learned from this.
And I think that there is that danger just built into sport in some sports, particularly that puts you at risk for, “Am I too heavy? Do I have the right body? Did I move exactly the right way? What if I make a mistake?” For adolescents that are impressionable and idealistic and who have this maybe optimistic bias that they can do it, without good coaching, they get sucked into this very dangerous culture.