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Helping Young Athletes Handle the Pressure

expert advice on signs kids are struggling and how parents can help

The subject of athletes’ mental health tumbled into the spotlight during the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when champion gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of multiple competitions. But it’s an issue that extends beyond elite levels of sport. Kids in community leagues or on school teams can feel serious pressure and take a real hit to their well-being. We connected with Kimberly Williams, a clinical social worker at the Children’s Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine in Plano, about what parents should watch for and how to help.

DFWChild: How common is it for young athletes to struggle with mental health when it comes to the pressures of their sport, and on what levels can it happen? Can even our little ones in T-Ball experience this?

Kimberly Williams: Athletes of all ages, at all levels are vulnerable to a range of mental health problems. Athletes often set unhealthy standards for themselves due to the nature of constantly comparing and being compared to other athletes. This drive for perfectionism naturally makes them their own toughest critic. Athletes often perceive “negative performances” as failures, they often feel they have let themselves down, along with their families, coaches and team.

Athletes have additional pressures in addition to their sport, including school performance, family obligations, etc. It is important not to see your child only as an athlete, consider the other commitments they have in their life.

Watch for Signs

C: What are some signs that kids are having challenges?

KW: Notice when your kiddo starts to withdraw or avoid activities they once found pleasure or joy in doing. Pay attention to their sleep habits; are they able to fall asleep at an appropriate time and stay asleep? Do they appear tired, without energy during the day?

Often with athletes we see excessive worrying. This excessive worrying can lead to changes in appetite, weight loss or weight gain, decline in performance in school, emotional outbursts that are uncharacteristic for your child.

C: How should parents address those challenges?

KW: Be aware of your child’s expectations they have set for themselves. Be sensitive to their goals and desired outcomes. Encourage without flooding them with questions. Create a safe space for them to process their feelings, to share why they might be struggling without trying to solve it for them; listen for them to be heard, not to respond. Validate how they feel.  Ask “what do you need from me today, for you to feel successful?”

Awareness is key in identifying and responding quickly with early intervention for young athletes who need the help. Therapy is not always about “fixing” something; we need to reframe how we perceive therapy and think of it as an opportunity to learn new skills, healthy way of coping with stressful situations. This is what they will carry with them in all areas of life, not just their sport.

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When to Seek Help

C: When do you know you need to seek a professional’s assistance for your child, and are there mental health professionals who specialize in working with young athletes?

KW: When you notice a change in your child’s mood, that persists for two weeks or longer, it might be time to seek professional assistance. When a child continues to withdrawal or avoid social interactions. If your child is increasingly irritable or having anger outbursts; this is often a sign that there is something triggering an emotional response. Look for changes in appetite, sleep, performance in the classroom.

Yes, there is a wealth of providers who specialize in working with athletes of all ages, who can target interventions specifically to your child’s needs and create a treatment plan that is tailored to their role as an athlete and whole person.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

C: What would you say to parents who are concerned that taking a break from a sport or toning down the intensity could have a negative ramification on a college scholarship or other future plan, and who think that being a strong athlete or person means pushing through those challenges and competing?

KW: I would say to parents that a child’s sport, them as an athlete, is not their sole identity. Their sport is a piece of their narrative but does not and should not define their value and worth as a person. Come back to “why” you got into the sport in the first place; where is the reward, re-evaluate your goals and purpose as an athlete, don’t lose the fun in it all.

C: What message do you think Simone Biles sent by withdrawing from most of her Olympic competitions? It sounds like an example parents could point to in showing their children that their mental-emotional well-being comes first.

KW: I believe that Simone Biles created an incredibly powerful awareness of mental health in athletes. We can see the physical impacts of sports on our kids; injuries, exhaustion, etc., but their mental health is often silent and unseen. Simone Biles showed parents and athletes that she “won” by speaking up and taking care of her health first and foremost. She showed the human side of an elite athlete and did what was best for her instead of what the world expected of her. She has allowed an opportunity for parents and coaches to have these conversations with their child-athlete, and has broken down the stigma of mental health.

Image: iStock