Professional athletes face unique types of mental health issues due to the need to perform at high levels in the limelight.
Tennis star Naomi Osaka recently brought this issue to the fore after pulling out of the French and German openings due to stress and anxiety.
Dr Tony Kemmochi, sports psychologist at Intermountain Healthcare, explains that some of these problems can arise in young athletes when children start to excel at sports. He also notes that children may face bigger mental health issues because their brains aren’t as fully developed and don’t always know how to handle the stress and pressure of competition.
To help protect the psychological well-being of young athletes, Dr. Kemmochi has ten suggestions on what parents should watch out for in their child’s behavior and the steps they should take to make sure they don’t add not the problem.
1. Brain Development – Dr Kemmochi reminds parents that children operate from the emotional center of the brain (amygdala) to the logical center of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which creates a communication gap between adults and children . This, according to Dr. Kemmochi, makes it even more crucial for adults to learn to talk about emotion rather than logic in helping children get through struggles. This is also another reason why it is important for adults to have realistic expectations and not get too frustrated when children behave or communicate irrationally. Emotion is not always logical and is appropriate for development.
2. Motivation – Be aware of why kids play sports and make sure parents don’t end up taking away their love and joy in sports, said Dr Kemmochi. Think of a long term consequence. Many athletes end up feeling exhausted because they started playing for external reasons, such as approval, recognition, enjoyment from their parents, etc. Plus, don’t just take a child’s word for it. How many children would feel comfortable telling their parents, “I feel pushed by you. Many children want to please their parents and are likely to say what the parents want to hear. Likewise, be careful to see if your child is using sports as an escape. It’s easy to assume that your child is doing well and that they are happy if they are doing well. However, it is quite common for young people to use sport as a coping mechanism (for example, it is a place where they feel safe or good about themselves). If parents don’t notice and continue to encourage them to focus on sports, they might miss out on their unmet emotional needs, or they might unwittingly motivate young people to bury / ignore personal issues.
3. Expectation – Do not over or under expectation. This is tricky, says Dr. Kemmochi, because if you expect too much, not only could it create too much pressure which can lead to anxiety, but can also make some young athletes feel alienated. “Being an amazing athlete might sound good, but it can also give you a feeling of isolation because it also means that you are very different from others, which has its own drawbacks,” says Dr Kemmochi. “The higher you fly, the more lonely you feel because you are further off the ground than everyone else.” It also becomes more and more frightening to think about how much fall you will face if you fall. It can also limit their possibility of developing a more complete identity, as they are trapped in their sporting identity, unable to experience / explore what they might become or enjoy more. On the other hand, if you don’t expect it, young people can internalize this to mean that they are not important, that people don’t care about them, etc. Not to mention, we also risk that they end up hating sports / physical activities, preparing them for a sedentary lifestyle and associated health risks.
4. Reaction – Do not express your feelings about your child’s performance and ask your child first. If you immediately focus on your feelings, your child will associate his performance with your feelings (“it makes daddy proud” and “it makes mommy happy”). By questioning a child’s feelings first, parents can help their child learn that their feelings come first and that they can play for themselves rather than to please others. Instead, join their feelings. “I am glad that you are happy.” “It’s great to hear that you feel proud. I’m proud of you too.”
5. Outcome VS Process – Don’t overemphasize outcomes, such as win / lose and success / failure. If we condition children to focus excessively on results, 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 even want to play “” I lost, so it was for nothing “).
6. Autonomy – Encourage autonomy, self-generated thinking and problem solving. It is true that children must be taught to play sports. But, if parents abuse teaching and correcting, they might end up conditioning their child to just follow directions, especially when this is combined with fear of failure / mistakes. Many athletes end up having difficulty later in life because they have been conditioned to follow instructions, and they feel anxious when there are no clear instructions or correct answers. They often “need to be told what to do” or focus on what they are “supposed to do”. As a result, they may have difficulty with life issues that are not black or white.
7. Mixed messages – Some young athletes also find it difficult because of the mixed messages they receive from different people. Some may approve of their athletic identity too much while others may criticize or even shame it (for example, a teacher resenting student athletes for prioritizing sport over academics). They may also be confronted with harmful stereotypes (eg, “Dumb jock”). They can be harsh and say they don’t mind, but a lot of them end up developing insecurity, especially when combined with comments from coaches like “Why did you do that, idiot! And “I don’t need you to think about it. I need you to do what I tell you to do.”
8. Criticize opposing players – Be careful when knocking down opposing players. Parents indirectly belittle their own child because they share the same sporting identity (for example, your child and opposing players are soccer players). Even if the criticism isn’t directed at your own child, it is directed at an athlete, and your child is an athlete. In this way, your child’s mind will learn that he too could be rejected or criticized by you. Imagine what it would be like for a child to hear his parents say, “It’s okay to make mistakes. Do your best ”and at the same time hear them say,“ Look at this child. It was a stupid mistake (laughs). “
9. 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 sport, which cause athletes to learn that love and acceptance are conditional that they must be good to be loved and accepted. The moment they fail, their self-esteem collapses because their mind immediately begins to fear rejection or disappoint others. It is important to learn how to react when a child fails. Also, be careful when comparing your child with another player for the same reason. It is also important to use action statements rather than identity statements. Instead of saying “Be your best” which can be linked to “not being good enough as a person, say” Do your best! “
ten. Future – Think big and be careful about pushing your child to invest too much in sport. If your child tells you that he is going to invest all his earnings in one stock, what would you say to him? So why should we tell kids to do this with their lives? Likewise, be careful with the “backup plan”. While it certainly makes sense to have a back-up plan and many parents tell their young athletes to continue their education as a back-up plan, this very message can be problematic as we end up conditioning their minds to consider to. other possibilities / options like “secondary” or even “what I do because I failed.” Encourage them to keep their options open without reinforcing the idea that this is what you do in case the sport doesn’t work. Rather than saying, “you have to do this in case it doesn’t work” parents can say, “What else interests you in life? If you weren’t playing sports, what do you think you enjoy instead? “
For more information on behavioral health resources, click here.