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How to support student-athlete mental health

  • Up to 70% of children quit organized sports by age 13. Some kids leave because of mental health challenges and the barriers to receiving treatment.

Kids in sports score many physical, mental and social benefits. Physical activity can prevent obesity, improve coordination, prevent depression and boost their academic performance.  

Participating in sports can also bring on mental health challenges. Unlike cuts, bruises and other sports injuries, mental health issues aren’t easy to diagnose. Keep reading to learn how to identify mental health challenges in young athletes and support their overall well-being. 

Mental health risks for kids in sports

About one in six adolescents have a mental health condition. Common mental health risks for kids in sports include anxiety, depression and chronic stress. Some may be hesitant to talk about their mental health because of the stigma in sports. It’s okay to not be okay and asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

Breaking through mental health stigma

Signs of mental health issues in young athletes

Your student-athlete has a lot of balls in the air, and so do you. You help them balance the pressure to perform well on the field, get good grades, eat healthy and maintain a social life. 

Common signs of mental health challenges in student-athletes include: 

  • persistent sadness or irritability
  • heightened anxiety
  • lower self-esteem
  • sudden weight loss or gain
  • lack of sleep
  • lost interest in playing sports.

What causes mental health
challenges for kids in sports

Mental health challenges can happen to anyone, even professional athletes.

  • Recovering and returning from a sports injury. Sports injuries can happen to anyone. Injuries can impact mental health issues because being active can some children cope. They may feel anxious, frustrated or depressed during the recovery process. As a parent, your encouragement and support can keep their mental health on track. The emotional trauma of returning to sports after an injury can impact their performance and increase their risk of another injury. Remind your student-athlete to know their limitations and take it easy their first game back.
  • Performance anxiety. The pre-game jitters are normal. Performance anxiety is more severe and can last beyond the last buzzer. Lofty expectations from parents can worsen their anxiety, hurt their self-esteem and increase their risk of developing long-term mental health conditions.
  • Burnout. Aspirations to become a professional athlete can be healthy until they experience burnout syndrome. Youth sports burnout is often brought on by overtraining, a lack of recovery time and chronic stress. Burnout can cause fatigue, lost interest in playing sports, injuries and hurt their athletic and academic performance. Reduce the risk of burnout by assessing their schedule and ask if they feel overwhelmed.

How to prioritize student-athlete
mental health

  • Set realistic expectations. Focus more on their strengths instead of their weaknesses and remind them it’s okay to make mistakes. While every parent wants their kids to succeed in sports, they likely won’t go professional. There are about 480,000 NCAA athletes and only about 2 percent advance to the professional level. The good news is that team sports can prepare your kid for the real world.
  • Encourage an open conversation. Address any negative behavioral changes as soon as possible. Ask questions such as, “Did you have fun playing today?” or “What do you like about your teammates?” If your child shares concerns or wants to quit a sport, ask what you can do to improve the situation.


    When is it OK for my child to quit a sport?

  • Talk with their health care provider. A yearly well-child exam or sports physical can help prepare your athlete for youth sports and prevent injuries. It’s also a good time to talk about your student-athlete’s mental health and discuss personalized treatment options for their lifestyle.

 

This season, take your rising star’s mental health as seriously as their physical health. Talk to your athlete about mental health before challenges emerge. Early intervention can prevent long-term mental health challenges and help them feel supported when they need it most.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

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