Sports Medicine

"The Yips": 7 Ways to Help Your Child Master Fear After a Sports Injury

It’s happened to the pros, the amateurs, and everyone in between. Injured athletes return to the game, and suddenly they find themselves with a case of “the yips,” unable to play.

As any injured athlete knows, the yips are real. For some, it's physical: Their body just needs more practice and conditioning. For others, it's both physical and mental: There’s hesitation or anxiety adding to the problem.

If your child is struggling to get beyond these issues, here are some ways you can help.


1. Remind Your Child That Fear Is Normal

Kids want to fit in and feel like they’re part of the team. So, when they see their teammates running around fearlessly, they can feel self-conscious about their own fear and anxiety.

Help your child recognize that pre-game anxiety is completely normal, and it doesn’t make them any different from their friends. If they’re not buying it, remind them that plenty of successful pro athletes like LeBron James and Ryan Zimmerman have had the yips, too.


2. Instill Confidence in Your Child’s Physical Abilities

Even when an injury has healed and your child has been cleared to return to play, a certain amount of uncertainty is normal.

Have your child keep up any at-home physical therapy exercises, and pay special attention to warm-up and cool-down routines. Reassure your child that while re-injury is possible, taking smart steps like these will lower the likelihood of it happening.


3. Encourage Your Child to Take it Slowly

When your child is sidelined, it might mean days, weeks, or even an entire season away from practice. As your child starts up again on that newly healed ankle or leg, they might wonder if their sports performance will ever match the heights they were used to.

You can help your child combat this fear by encouraging them to ease slowly back into the game, rather than jumping in head first. Your child can start by practicing at home or in a non-crowded park, where there are no onlookers. Or they might invite a few close teammates to join in and play a practice game.

When they get back to team practice, they’ll feel more confident in front of the other kids.


4. Reduce Stress

Young athletes often put stress on themselves. And while you might not be able to get rid of your child’s stress entirely, you might be able to help reduce it.

Stress reduction is important—it decreases anxiety and depression, and it enhances feelings of well-being and relaxation.

Have your child try stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, proper breathing, light exercise, or listening to music.


5. Prevent Rumination

If your child’s team loses a game, it’s normal to be upset. It becomes problematic if they start ruminating—reliving the mistakes. They might begin to blame themselves for the injury. And too much rumination can cause even more anxiety.

Mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or yoga, have been shown to help prevent rumination. You might also ask your child’s care provider for some tips to help get them back into the game mentally.


6. Set Realistic Expectations

Avoid making promises like “You won’t fall down,” or, “You won’t mess up.” Instead, tell your child that you’re confident they’ll try their best, improve steadily, and be able to cope if they make mistakes.

With this approach, your child won’t be too hard on themselves if something goes wrong. They’ll also be able to look back and see that they did, in fact, meet their goals.


7. Try Visualization

Visualization (also called imagery or mental rehearsal) is a form of preparation. Athletes use it to meet their goals.

This technique has been shown to:

  • Reduce anxiety and stress
  • Accelerate healing
  • Boost confidence
  • Increase focus
  • Improve performance

There isn’t one correct way to practice visualization, but keep this general process in mind as you help your child get started:

  • Set a very specific goal (e.g., throwing a ball a certain distance).
  • Imagine and see yourself achieving that goal.
  • Use all of your senses to imagine every detail—sweat on the forehead, the smell of the field, the color of the opponent’s uniform, the taste of ice-cold water.

Ask your child to try this for 5 minutes a day. It’s actually been shown to help improve performance in Olympic athletes.