When you want to connect with a child, shyness can be a barrier. But there are ways to break through
Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW
| 4 min read
Kids are born with different temperaments — and those temperaments determine how they interact with the world. IT affects how a kid responds to other people, activities or new situations, as well as their distractibility, resilience, energy and mood.
There are many types of temperament but perhaps the one most misunderstood by adults is the shy kid. What can seem like disinterest or even disdain to an adult might really be the hallmarks of a highly sensitive child. Shy kids have difficulty making eye contact. They often speak in a quiet tone or not at all in social situations. And they are incredibly slow to warm up. But, despite the effort it takes to engage the shy kid, it is worth it to put in the time.
Shy kids are excellent listeners and observers. When they aren’t busy talking like other children, they are keenly aware of what’s going on around them. Shy kids can also be great team players, too, because they actually care what others think about them. They crave acceptance — so a shy child might pass the ball more or make a personal sacrifice because it’s better for the team.
There’s a fine balance to coaching a shy kid — too much attention and the child will sink into embarrassment; too little attention and the child will not engage fully with the team.
Here’s how to make it work.
Notoriously slow to engage, shy kids need to be able to participate at their own pace. Don’t rush them or you risk losing the child to quitting. Allow a shy player to just watch at first if that’s where the comfort level begins. Then slowly offer opportunities to participate with the team. If the player resists, that’s your sign to dial it back a bit more. If he or she takes you up on your offer, though, reward them with quiet praise and positive feedback in the form of a high five, pat on the back or kind word at the end of the practice.
Remember, it’s about coaching the kid — not the sport.
I’m not sure anyone loves abrupt change. However, shy kids like to mentally prepare for variations in their environment. Give the shy child updates and warnings to allow time for adjustment.
When a cautious kid feels comfortable and safe, a beautiful blossoming can occur. Get to know the shy child off the field. Does the child have a hobby? Is there a beloved pet to bond over? Find out the favorite color and wear that at the next meeting. Bottom line: Gently try to connect in any way possible.
Shy kids do not like to be singled out or feel different. The best way to avoid that is to plan activities and games that work to the strengths of the introverted child, without drawing undo attention.
In a paper for the Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, researcher Erin Hatch recommends teaching anxiety-busting techniques to the whole team — so all children benefit. “The idea,” Hatch explains, “is to make these interventions part of the culture of the team so it’s not this weird, strange thing that’s being given to one person because they are struggling.”
Given time to adjust, shy kids can be excellent assets to the team. But they’re often pushed aside long before that happens.
A patient, caring coach can completely change the shy child’s life. Take time to know the child, develop your relationship and make him or her feel comfortable, and you can see miracles happen.
Catherine Pearlman, PhD, LCSW, is a therapist, avid youth sports parent and founder of The Family Coach.