Varsity Extra

Handling state tourney pressure cooker can be key to athletes’ success

After finishing first in the girls 1,600 meters, Mountain View freshman Lexy Halladay, left, congratulates teammate Kortlyn Lowry on her state-qualifying run in the same race at the 5A District Three track and field meet.
After finishing first in the girls 1,600 meters, Mountain View freshman Lexy Halladay, left, congratulates teammate Kortlyn Lowry on her state-qualifying run in the same race at the 5A District Three track and field meet.

Jenn Halladay beat Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong in the 2007 Boise Twilight Criterium cycling race, but nothing makes her more nervous than watching her daughter run.

Mountain View High freshman Lexy Halladay ranks among the nation’s best in multiple distance events this season. She’ll be a heavy favorite to win four golds at the 5A state track and field meet Friday and Saturday at Dona Larsen Park in Boise.

Consider it a 15-year-old’s version of a pressure cooker, and Lexy isn’t alone.

Thousands of Idaho high school athletes will be a bundle of nerves during state competition this week in baseball, softball, track and tennis. The trick is keeping those nerves from defining the experience.

“I always tell my athletes that the state championship is just another game, the only thing is how you perceive it,” said Boise State assistant professor Eric Martin, who has a Ph.D. in sports psychology. “That pressure you put on yourself is just there because you are putting it there.”

Eagle High graduate and current BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum can relate.

Mangum was a starter for the varsity football team as a freshman, and by the time he reached his senior year, he was coming off a summer in which he beat out Jameis Winston at the exclusive Elite 11 quarterback camp for MVP honors. Winston later won the Heisman Trophy and led Florida State to a national championship, and is now the starting quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But even Mangum — who is now known for his 42-yard Hail Mary as time expired to win at Nebraska in 2015 — couldn’t script the perfect ending to his high school career. The Mustangs lost 49-28 to defending champion Coeur d’Alene in the 5A state championship on Nov. 18, 2011.

“Life is full of hard moments, and competition is no different. You have to learn how to maintain a positive outlook despite the setbacks that come your way,” Mangum said. “Competition is pressure-filled. A lot can go wrong, a lot of adversity comes up, and a lot of obstacles will get in your way.

“But if you can learn to accept and embrace those challenges, develop a positive, can-do mindset, and train your mind to focus more on what’s in your control, i.e. your attitude toward the next play, the next throw, the next shot, the next task at hand, then you can be more successful in those moments of stressful competition.”

Even if Tanner – heaven forbid he got hurt and didn’t get to play ever again – he would look back on it and say, those experiences were tremendous and helped me become the kind of person that I am today.

Karen Mangum, mother of BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum

While athletes are focused on channeling their nerves, parents can help alleviate their child’s stress, too.

There’s no benefit to making a scene in the stands.

“Let the coaches coach, and the parent, we celebrate, and we honor their effort and we honor that they’re out there having fun,” said Karen Mangum, Tanner’s mother. “For my kids, they put enough pressure on themselves. They’ve always done that, so I don’t need to. If they have good coaching — which we’ve been very, very fortunate in this Valley to have wonderful coaches — I let them do their job, and my job is just to encourage.”

Over-analyzing or pointing out a child’s mistakes is counterproductive, experts say.

“It is important parents convey that their child is loved no matter what the result. They’re proud of them for getting out there, trying their best,” Martin said. “The great thing about sports, I think, is everybody is trying their hardest, and there’s going to be winners and losers. And you can learn a lot from winning, and you can learn a lot from losing.”

I think sport is a unique context that kind of helps kids learn how to deal with that pressure and really develop those skills that are going to help them be successful later on in life.

Eric Martin, Boise State professor

Whether Halladay can win in the 800, 1,600, 3,200 meters and 4x400 relay this weekend remains to be seen. What won’t change is her family’s approach.

“We always tell her, you’ve just got to enjoy what you’ve got and always be grateful for that,” Jenn Halladay said. “Because you don’t know what will happen, or what’s around the corner.”

Rachel Roberts: 208-377-6422, @IDS_VarsityX