Helping youth athletes cope with stress and mental health challenges of playing sports – 10 tips for parents

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Professional athletes face unique types of mental health struggles due to the need to perform at high levels under the spotlight. Tennis star Naomi Osaka recently brought this issue to the forefront after withdrawing from the French and German opens citing stress and anxiety.

Dr. Tony Kemmochi, a sport psychologist with Intermountain Healthcare, says some of these issues can begin in youth athletes when children play sports.

He also notes that kids can face greater mental health burdens because their brains aren’t as fully developed and don’t always know how to process the stress and pressure of competition.

To help protect youth athletes’ psychological wellbeing, Dr. Kemmochi has 10 recommendations and tips on what parents should watch out for in their child’s behavior, and steps they need to take to ensure they aren’t adding to the problem.

  • Brain Development:
    • Dr. Kemmochi reminds parents that children operate from the emotional center of the brain (amygdala) vs the logical center of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which creates a gap in communication between adults and children.
    • This, according to Dr. Kemmochi, makes it even more crucial for adults to learn how to speak emotion rather than logic to help children navigate through struggles. Also, this is another reason why it’s important for adults to have realistic expectations and not get too frustrated when children behave or communicate in an irrational way. Emotion is not always logical, and it’s developmentally appropriate.
  • Motivation:
    • Be mindful about why children are playing sports, and make sure parents don’t end up taking away their love and joy for sports, said Dr. Kemmochi.
    • “Think of a long-term consequence,” he noted. “Many athletes end up feeling burnt out because they began playing for external reasons, such as approval, recognition, pleasing parents, etc. Also, don’t just take a child’s word for it. How many children would feel comfortable to tell their parents, ‘I feel pressured by you.’”
    • Many children want to please their parents and are likely to say what parents want to hear. Similarly, pay attention to see if your child is using sports as an escape. It’s easy to assume that your child is doing well and happy if your child is performing well.
    • But, it is quite common for youth to use sports as a coping mechanism (e.g. that is one place they feel safe or good about themselves). If parents don’t notice this and keep encouraging them to focus on sports, they could be missing their unmet emotional needs, or they could be unintentionally motivating youth to bury/ignore personal issues.
  • Expectations:
    • Don’t over or under expect.
    • This is tricky, says Dr. Kemmochi, because if you over expect not only could it create too much pressure that can lead to anxiety but also can make some youth athletes feel alienated.
    • “Being an extraordinary athlete may sound good but can also feel isolating because it also means that you are that much different from the rest, which has its own downsides,” said Dr. Kemmochi. “The higher you fly, the lonelier it gets because you are further away from the ground where everyone else is.”
    • It also gets scary for kids to think about how big of a fall you’ll face when you crash. It can also limit their opportunity to develop a fuller identity because they become trapped in their athletic identity, not being able to experience/explore what more they could become or enjoy.
    • On the other hand, if you under expect, youth can internalize that to mean that they aren’t important, people don’t care for them, etc. Not to mention, we also risk them ending up hating sports/physical activities, setting them up for a sedentary lifestyle, and associated health risks.
  • Reactions:
    • Hold off expressing your feelings about your child’s performance and ask your child first. If you immediately focus on your feelings, your child will associate their performance with your feelings (“this makes dad proud” and “this makes mom happy”).
    • By asking a child’s feelings first, parents can help their child learn that their feeling comes first and that they get to play for themselves rather than to please others, said Dr. Kemmochi. Join their feelings instead. “I’m happy that you are happy.” “It’s great to hear that you feel proud. I feel proud of you too.”
  • Outcome vs Process:
    • Do not overemphasize outcomes, such as winning/losing and success/failure. If you condition children to excessively focus on outcomes, they develop unhealthy thought patterns that make them more prone to anxiety, as well as extreme thought patterns and loss of motivation (e.g. “I know we can’t win, so I don’t want to even play” “I lost, so it was all for nothing”).
  • Autonomy: 
    • Dr. Kemmochi encourages autonomy and self-generated thinking and problem-solving.
    • “It’s true that we have to teach children how to play sports. But, if parents overdo with teaching and correcting, they could end up conditioning their child to just follow instructions, especially when this is combined with fear of failure/mistakes,” he said.
    • Many athletes end up struggling later in life because they had been conditioned to follow instructions, and they feel anxious when there is no clear instruction or right answers. They often “need to be told what to do” or focus on what they are “supposed to do.” As a result, they can have a hard time with life issues that are not black or white.
  • Conflicting Messages: 
    • Some youth athletes also struggle because of conflicting messages they get from different people. Some may overly endorse their athletic identity while some may criticize or even shame it (e.g. a teacher who resents student-athletes for prioritizing sports over academics).
    • Kids may also face harmful stereotypes (e.g. “dumb jock”). They may act tough and say it doesn’t bother them, but many of them actually end up developing insecurity, especially when this is combined with coaches’ comments like “Why did you do that, dummy!” and “I don’t need you to think. I need you to do what I tell you to do.”
  • Criticizing Opposing Players:
    • Be careful putting down opposing players. Parents are indirectly putting down their own children because they share the same athletic identity (e.g. both your child and opposing players are football players).
    • “Even if the criticism isn’t directed at your own child, it is being directed at an athlete, and your child is an athlete,” said Dr. Kemmochi. So, your child’s mind will learn that they too could be rejected or criticized by you.”
    • Imagine, he said, what it would be like for a child to hear their parents tell them, “It’s OK to make mistakes. Just do your best,” and at the same time hear them say, “Look at that kid. That was a stupid mistake (laugh).”
  • Self-Esteem:
    • Many athletes struggle with a feeling of inadequacy (“I’m not good enough”).
    • “This is because there are so many conditional messages in sports, which cause athletes to learn that love and acceptance are conditional that they must excel to be loved and accepted. The moment they fail, their self-esteem drops to the ground because their mind immediately goes to fear of rejection or disappointing others. It is important to learn how to respond when a child fails,” notes Dr. Kemmochi.
    • Also, be careful with comparing your child with another player for the same reason. It’s also important to use action statements rather than identity statements, he advises. Instead of saying, “Be the best you can be,” which can tie into “not being good enough as a person, say “Do the best you can!”
  • Future:
    • Think big picture and be careful pushing your child to invest in sports too much. If your child tells you that they are going to invest all their earnings in a single stock, what would you tell them? So, why should we tell children to do that with their life? Similarly, be careful with the “backup plan.”
    • While it’s smart to have a backup plan, and many parents tell their youth athletes to pursue education as a backup plan, this very message can be problematic because we end up conditioning their minds to view other possibilities/options as “secondary” or even “what I do because I failed.”
    • Encourage them to keep their options open without reinforcing this idea that it’s what you do in case sports do not work out. Rather than saying, “you have to do this in case it doesn’t work out,” parents can say, “What else interests you in life? If you weren’t playing sports, what do you think you may be enjoying instead?”

For more information on Intermountain Healthcare’s behavioral health resources click here.

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