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This year my son tested into our district's Math Field Day competition. He was very excited to show us the results and we all agreed to commit to the weekly practice sessions after school. He enjoys playing games with our family, loves math, and enjoys making new friends. So this seemed a perfect fit. Indeed, he comes out of practice feeling energetic and enthusiastic about what they did.

However, as the competition day approaches, he's been more and more reluctant to go to practice. It's like a magnetic repulsion; the closer he gets in time and space to the classroom where they meet, the more agitated he gets. Yesterday, my wife finally asked the right questions and we discovered he's very worried about competing in the tournament.

As far as I can tell, the anxiety comes entirely from within; we aren't putting pressure on him to perform and I don't think the teachers are either. From what I know now, he thinks math is really important, he knows he should do very well, and he doesn't want to let himself down. He doesn't mind losing at board games because they aren't so important. (As an aside, I see a lot of myself in him at that same age.)

How can we talk him through this worry so that he will be able to deal with other competitions later in life?

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There are some great suggestions below for talking him through his fears, but you should also consider that some people never enjoy formal competition, and that one can be successful in life without this skill. One of my kids has always found that the stress of competition far exceeds the joys or benefits, and he rarely engages in anything competitive. Yet he shows strong leadership potential due in part to his cooperative spirit. The amount of competition our children are invited to engage in is disproportionate to the amount most will experience as adults. –  MJ6 Mar 8 at 20:37

6 Answers 6

I am so glad I found your question! I have been in 3 mathematics competitions in my life (I have a BA in Mathematics, Magna Cum Laude). Additionally, I have competed in other competitions from computer programming to spelling... none of them are like any others and they all cause a different type of anxiety.

The more one knows about mathematics, the more one knows that they will never be a Leonard Euler (he disproved one of Fermat's theorems while blind, invented the symbol i for the square root of negative one and... well, just name it!) We hear people talk about the previous events, know a bit about math, and the more our knowledge grows, the more we fear that Euler will be there (in his next form, ofc).

The chance of him winning is too small (at least in his view). However, that should only be a secondary goal. During 2 of the 3 competitions (the last one I won b/c I was the only person who showed up!), I received questions about things I'd never heard of... and I remembered those to help me grow. His point at attending should be 3 fold:

  1. Meet other people like him
  2. Learn what he can
  3. Have fun
  4. Do his best (and, ofc, win if possible)

You can comfort him most, imo, by letting him know that you're proud he's able to go and are excited that he'll meet people who enjoy the same things as he does.

Sometimes anxiety isn't well-placed. In this case it is. Accepting that to him and encouraging him to enjoy the experience and get the most from it is the best way to go because that's how he'll get the best benefit from the event.

Competing in a competition doesn't necessarily provide the solution we were looking for, but may provide an unsought solution.

And, it can't hurt to share with him what one of the best math professors I ever had the chance to chat with told our class: Mathematicians do not solve hard problems. They re-write them as easy problems and solve those. (Dr. Charles Biles)

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While I was a very competitive child (and thus didn't have this sort of anxiety), one of the reasons was that I enjoyed finding out the areas I was more skilled in, and the areas I could focus on learning more about. I would suggest portraying the competition as an opportunity for him to find out how he compares to other students, and which areas he needs to work on improving. Thus, take the focus off of "winning", and turn it to "learning".

You also might try to find out whether he has any social pressures - such as if he feels that if he fails to win he will lose some social standing. That was more of an issue with me (as I was the "smart kid" but not very social, so most of what social standing I had rested in my ability to keep up with the upperclassmen). If he feels that he may fail and lose friends or otherwise lose something socially, this might be more stressful.

If so, you might point out that math competitions, particularly as you get to high school, are excellent ways to make friends - even if you're not the #1 student, you can join a team and have a lot of fun experiences (in "mathlympics" or whatever your area has that is similar - academic decathalon, Math Counts [which is middle school, even!], etc.) which can be a great way to make friends, whether at your school or at others.

Finally, you might consider role-playing. Hopefully the teachers are running practice runs of the entire competition (either straight through, or at least all of the parts exactly as they will be done); if not, encourage them to, or even hold your own with some of his friends. Further, you might role-play his reactions to certain things - say, "Okay, imagine that your team just lost. How do you feel? Now, imagine you had the last question of the event, and if you got it right you win, if you got it wrong you lose. How do you feel in each case?" Help him to think about the reasons why it makes him feel bad (and what kind of 'bad' it makes him feel) and how he can turn that into a positive, without telling him "Don't feel that way" (as the feeling is legitimate and valuable in itself).

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Ask him what emotion he feels most about the event - fear? Shame? Guilt? Anxiety?

Ask him what thought is attached to that emotion - "i will fail"; "people will laugh at me";

Ask him what evidence he has for those thoughts.

Allow him to feel those emotions. They are real for him.

Then talk to him. Ask him to think about alternatives.

"Well, I am pretty good at math. And I have been practicing. So all I can do is try my best. So what if I don't win? I'll just try harder next time".

Discuss the concept of failure, and that failure is not only allowed but welcome. Talk about people who play music. They need to practice and that doesn't mean they fail each time they practice. It just means they get better over time.

I think it's important to acknowledge his fears and not to start to try to reduce them until he's had a chance to talk about them.

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My wife came up with a good solution, as usual. She arranged a meeting between our son and the coordinator of the event. After one of the practice sessions, the three of them talked about the competition and what it would feel like. She used an illustration of how people naturally fold their hands:

Folded hands

Whether the fingers are crossed or clasped, everyone feels having either the left or the right hand above the other is more comfortable. The teacher explained that practice is like that; it's about getting comfortable with the math. But the competition is like reversing the order of your hands. Now you don't feel so comfortable. But you can still do it. Having heard that explanation, my son instantly felt better about the competition. It's still a few weeks away, but much of the anxiety has dropped away.

Several things occurred to me:

  1. I doubt he would have taken the same advice from me. We'd talked through my anxiety as a boy his age with similar competitions and he wasn't convinced. I'm a lot more confident in uncomfortable situations now than I was even a few years ago, so I don't think he believed I could be as worried as he was.

  2. The illustration is probably too simple to cover all of his fears. But it honed in on the critical one. Once that was settled, it was a lot easier for him to think through the rest of his concerns.

  3. It was a team effort: all three adults and my son needed to work together. If the coordinator hadn't been sympathetic, there's a good chance we would have needed to let my son quit. Thankfully, she has many years of experience both as a teacher and principal and knew just how to approach the matter. He wouldn't have talked to her if my wife hadn't taken the lead.

  4. Thinking about my own experience, the only way to gain confidence in unfamiliar situations is dive into them and prove to yourself that you can make it.

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That kind of anxiety usually stems from a fear of making mistakes in front of other people. He is likely imagining an unrealistic reaction of the spectators, where they focus on his mistakes out of proportion to his successes. Mostly he just needs to experience a few successful meets in order to get over his anxiety, but there are a few things that help a little:

  • Look at some successful athletes and point out how they are still considered very good players even though they occasionally miss baskets, strike out, or throw interceptions. Ask him about his own reaction to their mistakes. Does he dwell on them, or does he hope they will do better on the next one?
  • Point out even if he misses every single question, he still beat out people that didn't make the team.
  • Point out previous events that scared him until he tried them. Assure him he will feel the same way about this after it's over.
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The general concept is to teach your son that failing is not a problem, but something everyone does every day, and in the end it is only a variation of learning. Technically you should try to associate that potential failure with something positive.

The question is: what is your son afraid of? Failing in front of others or failing you?

If it is the first, you should tell your son a story from your life, when you were in a similar situation and then everything went as horrible as you feared in your worst nightmares. But then out of that failure something really good emerged, like you found your best friend, a girl, won a competition out of surprise. Anything goes where out of failure something positive emerged.

If he is afraid of failing you, then you should talk to him and explain why you as parents have an unconditional love for him and no matter what happens, you'll still love him as before. And to "proof" that, promise your son to do something great if he wins, and something even better if he looses. Like waterpark on win and Disney World on loose. Just don't do this too often. You want to teach your son that loosing a test is like loosing a board game, and not that loosing in general is something desirable.

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