The anxious anticipation of the starting gun. The red, flashing shot clock that causes one’s stress to rise as the numbers count down. The deep breaths taken in the locker room to calm one’s nerves away from the public’s watchful eye.
This summer Olympics brought to the forefront the immense pressure that young athletes and high school students face, but they’re also becoming more vocal about setting boundaries to protect their mental health. From Simone Biles to Naomi Osaka to Michael Phelps, high-profile competitive athletes have been shining a light on mental health as a key component of overall wellbeing.
In some ways, the pandemic may have opened the door for these conversations, as we’ve all become more aware of how stress, mental illness, and anxiety can affect our state of mind in the past year and a half. From complex coronavirus protocols to having suffered loss, competition cancellations, feeling isolated, or being physically removed from their support system, training and competing in tournaments during a public health crisis only adds to the pressure and mental health concerns like anxiety disorder, or depression one might face.
But school athletics and mental health should be just as central to the conversation. It’s important to help high school athletes build the coping strategies they’ll need to handle the stress of competing before it increases throughout their athletic career.
The State of Competitive/High School Sports and Mental Health
We often talk about the mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity. Still, evidence suggests that as young people compete more intensely in sports, gains in mental wellness may be replaced by mental health challenges particular to competitive athletics.
- In one study of competitive Canadian swimmers, 68% of the college athletes studied met the criteria for depression.
- A study done by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association found that student-athletes report experiencing negative emotional states more often than non-student athlete adolescents.
Increasingly, high school student-athletes are specializing in just one sport like cross country or lacrosse and playing throughout the school year and even the summer as a means to gain athletic mastery of the sport. A few years ago, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons found that a third of high-school, college, and professional athletes surveyed trained in a single sport.
For the athletes whose identity is wrapped up in the sport they play, their self-worth can become linked to their performance. Or, they may feel pressured to keep playing long past the time they stop enjoying their sport because of the sacrifices and investments they and their parents have made. If they do finally quit, they sometimes feel guilt or like a failure for letting others down, which can lead to self-destructive behavior and other student-athlete mental health issues.
The challenge of balancing it all – teammate relationships, workouts, academics, sleep, daily activities, and other interests – can feel overwhelming for student-athletes. Though parents and coaches are often best positioned to remedy student-athlete mental health issues, they can exacerbate the problem by adding to the pressure these athletes face.
All of these factors make high school sports and mental health such an important topic. But, the good news is that the overall problem is coming more and more into focus for many programs across the nation.
On the heels of the chief medical officer of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) discovering that mental health was student-athletes’ top concern, college sports programs began to add therapists to their athletic departments, screen players for anxiety and depression, and trained staff on how to detect warning signs.
It’s not a stretch to assume that, over the years, similar support for high school sports and mental health practices will become commonplace at that level, too.
High School Athletes and Mental Health: The Unique Stressors They Experience
Student-athlete mental health issues can arise from the stress of the balancing act they have to navigate each and every day. The tension can compound for the young athletes who are also attending school or pursuing a degree while competing.
A student-athlete has to focus their time and attention on studies, rigorous training, social life, work, close relationships, other interests or hobbies, and normal day-to-day activities. To address the stress of it all, Shane F., a former student-athlete, shares his advice:
“Don’t be afraid to seek counseling or therapy. The pressure of being a student-athlete can be overwhelming, and it can be difficult to talk to peers.”
Injuries, concussions, overtraining, sleep disorders, and anxiety are just a few other factors that also impact athletes engaged in high school sports and mental health issues that can arise.
Additionally, they’re facing a lot of pressure to perform. Robbie G., a former All-American collegiate wrestler and current professional mixed martial arts fighter, says, “Stress and anxiety are normal, built-in traits that helped keep us safe from predators and rivals in prehistoric times.” Today, student-athletes often experience adrenaline rushes and fight-or-flight responses. Robbie offers a recommendation to young athletes:
“To help lower stress, believe in your training and visualize events happening, so it doesn’t feel like the first time you’re experiencing an event or competition. Create a goal and focus on that rather than the anxieties that may exist.”
All of that would be a lot to handle for an adult, but when you put that weight on someone who is still psychologically, biologically, and neurologically developing, the pressure and stressors that youth athletes face may put them at risk for the development or exacerbation of mental health disorders.
Matt Snider, a former collegiate football player, and retired NFL player, notes more resources are available today than there ever were before. He says:
“The focus on today’s athletes’ mental health is 100 times more thought out than it was when I was playing professional football, college football, and high school football decades ago. Now, it’s recognized that the athlete’s brain and mental wellbeing are oftentimes way more important than the athlete’s physical wellbeing, body, and strength.”
Snider notes that coaches, athletic directors, and general managers are acknowledging that mental health issues will affect a student-athlete’s performance. He also brought up the point that one’s performance can directly affect their opportunities or even their job in the case of professional athletes — and that can compound the pressure and stress of having mental health experiences affect performance for athletes.
Helping Student-Athletes with Mental Health
Studies show that the stigma is the most important perceived barrier to seeking help when it comes to student-athlete mental health. Other notable barriers were a lack of mental health literacy and negative past experiences of help-seeking.
The parents and coaches of competitive, collegiate, and high school sports athletes can help overcome these barriers and support prioritizing mental health by following these helpful tips:
- Spend time outside of training to be or get in attunement with the teen or young adult. If you’re only focused on training for high school sports and mental health and relational connection take a backseat, you’ll lose valuable insights into your teen’s day-to-day needs, feelings, and challenges. Building that connection will help in getting them to open up when they need to do so.
- Talk openly about issues and encourage them to educate themselves. If you’ve had experience with mental health issues, tell the teen about it — show them that it’s normal. In sharing your experiences, you’ll start to educate them, and can encourage them to continue doing so.
- Be conscious of language and the treatment of others. Words matter, and if the vocabulary you use is charged with words that negatively speak to mental health conditions, you’ll perpetuate the stigma. Instead of ‘crazy,’ say ‘wild.’ ‘Nuts’ can become ‘unbelievable.’ Show compassion to those experiencing mental health issues.
- Treat their mental wellbeing as equal to their physical wellbeing. Check-in on their mental state just as much as you inquire about their physical condition. Similar to how you’d want the young athlete to fully recover physically before getting back on the field, track, course, or court or back in the pool or gym, allow them the same time to recover from anxiety, stress, or trauma.
- Make it a priority for yourself and lead by example. Do your own work, so you can model a healthy approach to addressing mental health issues and emotional responses.
- Focus on the positives and empowerment that can come from mental wellness. Addressing student-athlete mental health means a teen or young adult is taking control of their life — that’s empowering and takes strength.
Sports Traumas Effect on High School Sports and Mental Health
Sports traumas can stem from things like injuries, a perception of failure, team or coaching conflicts, and negative media/public attention — among other things.
- The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 8.6 million sports- and recreation-related injuries occur each year.
- One study found that early sports specialization leads to a greater risk of injury.
Whether a scholarship or a career is on the line, the fear of injury can also cause anxiety and impact a student-athlete’s mental health.
How Brainspotting Helps Student-Athlete Mental Health
Athletes can experience performance blocks that can be linked to traumatic experiences. A common athletic performance block is the loss of ability or struggle to perform a typically unconscious or automatic task, such as a basketball player dribbling the ball down the court.
Brainspotting, a therapeutic method that taps into the emotional and somatic areas of the brain and bypasses the areas of the brain that control thought and language, can help athletes overcome these performance issues.
In brainspotting, the athlete identifies spots in the visual field that trigger traumatic or psychologically intense memories using the feeling of somatic activation. Once they’ve located that visual trigger, the athlete maintains their gaze while observing their internal response and processing the memory.
By processing the hidden trauma in the brain, the athlete can reduce the symptoms, including physical pain, that are attached to the trauma. Other traumatic processing interventions, like Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), are also effective.