Meet two Olympians who know what it takes to succeed … and when the pressure to perform is just too much.
Medal Heads (L-R) Rebecca Soni and Caroline Burckle help young athletes get into an Olympian headspace. Both are Olympic medalists in swimming. Photo credit: David Kafer
From Tiger Woods to the Williams sisters to Wayne Gretzky, the list of professional athletes whose journey to athletic stardom started at a young age is long. And when you see your child excelling at a sport, it’s hard not to wonder, even a little: Are they next? Then, the other questions come. Are they feeling too much pressure to succeed? Are they over-training, feeling stressed or lacking confidence in their abilities? Olympians Rebecca Soni and Caroline Burckle faced tough questions like these throughout their careers as competitive swimmers. They know the road to success for young, up-and-coming athletes isn’t always easy. The physical and mental demands of being involved in sports on a highly competitive level can be challenging to endure—especially when academics must be juggled too. That’s why they founded RISE Athletes in 2015.
RISE Athletes matches young athletes with Olympian mentors. The program benefits youth who are looking to elevate their training beyond or in addition to traditional coaching (the kind offered at their school, for example).
Each young athlete is paired with their mentor based on several considerations, including how they learn best and their personality, as well as who they aspire to be. Often, they’re matched with an Olympian specializing in the same sport.
Weekly mentoring sessions take place on RISE’s online platform. Both athlete and mentor simply sign in to their dashboard, find their upcoming session and click “join now” to be linked by video.
From improving young athletes’ self-awareness to helping them deal with anxiety, RISE’s mission is to give today’s youth the upper hand in achieving their best. There’s even a nutrition expert on staff to help youth navigate their dietary needs.
According to Soni, “As former Olympians, we know the pressures athletes face—especially (but not exclusively) at the high school and college levels. There is a difference between being active to build energy, sportsmanship, camaraderie, teamwork, positivity and self-esteem [versus] being pressured to perform by coaches, parents, peer comparison and our own selves, which can lead to anxiety [and] depression, among other outcomes.”
Soni says RISE strives to find a middle ground—“a place where youth can gain all the positives of an active lifestyle and success in sport without losing the reins of control in the face of pressure to perform.”
While every situation is unique, Burckle says there are signs an athlete may show when feeling overly negative about their sport. These range from mentioning they do not like their sport anymore to comparing themselves often to others. They may appear fearful, resentful or unhappy.
“Those doubts are natural, and it is helpful to let the athlete know that their feelings are valid,” says Burckle. “It’s also imperative that that communication is continued with you, the parents, so that the athlete feels they can dive into why they have negative feelings.”
RISE provides a free guide for parents that includes practical tips and tactics that help in situations like these (visit rise-athletes.com and click “Get the E-book”).
RISE’s top tips include recognizing the importance of the words you use when complimenting your young athlete. For example, instead of saying “You’re the best,” which is ego-focused, highlight the behavior or strategy that makes your child successful. (The RISE team suggests something like this: “You did a great job passing the ball to Jen because you used the inside of your right foot, planted your left foot … and had great follow-through.”)
Another essential for parents? Avoid performance comparisons with the athletes your child is competing against. Kids of the same age may be at completely different stages of development. The RISE team points out that one 12-year-old boy may have the physicality and abilities of a teen; another may be much more slight and still growing into their abilities. Because of this, making comparisons is inaccurate and can be very confusing for your child.
And what about when your athlete has issues with the coach at their school or club? Burckle says communication is key. First, write down the situation as the athlete sees it, and then perhaps how the coach sees it. What links up? What is different? Start there, and then be sure to promote healthy communication with the coach in a non-confrontational way. One-on-one meetings off the field, for example, can be very productive.
“This communication then leads to self-realization, which is very empowering for the athlete,” says Soni.
For young athletes who are juggling the demands of school along with an intense training schedule (and are feeling overwhelmed or under tremendous pressure as a result), Rebecca Soni and Caroline Burckle suggest key words and strategies to keep top of mind.
Awareness. Balance is achieved by learning how to structure your time so that you are aware of the amount of the rest and recovery you are taking in conjunction with the work you are putting out.
Sleep. Rather than use the midnight hours to do schoolwork, consider getting a good night’s sleep and waking extra early to finish what needs to be done with a fresh mind.
Community. Your world is right where you are right now. What everyone else is doing is cool, sure, but so is what you are doing. Focus on who and what you have around you in order to maximize your fun factor.
Grace. Take a day off if you are overwhelmed or feel yourself getting sick. Time and time again, athletes neglect to listen to their bodies. If needed, give yourself time, grace and love—and you will accomplish great things.
Your fitness matters too! Driving your athlete to practice, eating on the run and/or watching from the sidelines can easily get in the way of keeping yourself active and fit. Even just a few minutes a day can make a difference. Here are some ideas to consider.