Inside the Helmet of Youth Athletes
An analysis of the correlation between youth athletes and mental health
Youth sports are more competitive and rigorous than ever. If you go to any game or practice, whether recreational or travel, it is commonplace to see parents screaming at parents while their 10 year old son or daughter plays the sport they love or vigorously trains. While physical activity has countless benefits for young athletes, it can easily be argued that the mental impact of youth sports' unique pressures outweigh the physical benefits. This begs the question, are youth athletes more susceptible to physiological stressors than non-athletes? If so, what are the outside forces that cause this, and how can they be curbed? More often than not, these stressors can be attributed to either parental pressure, confusion between athletic performance and personal value, identity fallacies and a lack of conversation at home and in the locker room. These 4 issues are extremely detrimental to an athlete’s mental health and are terrifyingly common.
“My kid is going to the league”. “Why aren’t you playing my kid? They’re the best you have”. While incredibly obnoxious and delusional these are phrases that you can hear at any youth sporting event. Every team has the parent or group of parents that takes everything way too seriously. While their investment and involvement within their kids life is wonderful, their exuberance is often detrimental to their child. This concept was beautifully summarized by the co-founder of Gladiator Custom Mouthguards (a popular mouth guard manufacturer within youth hockey), Bobbie Quinn. Quinn says that “Nothing good ever comes from this and it just puts unfair pressure on the child. It’s embarrassing for them and foments insecurities, as they always envision their parent screaming at them from the stands. It also puts them in a bad position with their coach The continuous screaming and belittling often originates from parents who gave up on their own dreams. Thus, they pressure their child to succeed where they failed, without regard for their child's own dreams. In addition to the unneeded yelling parents will force their child to specialize to a certain sport or position at a very early age. This often causes burnout and overall dissatisfaction with themselves and sports in general. A study from Cogent Psychology researched the “psychological effects of sport specialization by examining relationships between youth hockey players’ level of specialization, psychological needs satisfaction (PNS), psychological needs dissatisfaction (PND), mental health and mental illness” (Cogent Psychology, 2016). Unsurprisingly, their results corroborate with my previous claim. Of the 61 male hockey players the highest scores of PND came from youth athletes that specialized at an early age while recreational male hockey players reported the lowest PND scores. This makes sense, imagine from a young age you were told you were going to grow up and be an accountant. Not just an accountant but your boss is going to continuously breath down your neck and pressure you to become the best accountant of all time, despite you ever showing any interest in becoming an accountant. The same goes for youth sports. A washed up dad who played football in college makes his son or daughter play football despite them ever asking to. This same dad constantly screams from the sidelines and at home telling him or her what they did wrong. While the father's intention is to make them a better player, the result is a kid who hates football and feels like they are never good enough.
Confusion between athletic performance and personal value
It is a universal phenomenon within all athletes to feel bad about themselves after a poor performance on the field, ice, court, etc. This is particularly prevalent with youth athletes that are highly involved with their sport. Due to their heavy involvement with their sport, poor performances make the athlete feel as if they are a failure. As an athlete who is highly involved with their sport, our perception of reality can become warped. Thus, leaving us with the train of thought that if we have nothing to offer to your team we have nothing to offer to this world. This fallacy in collaboration with overbearing parents as previously discussed, can be extremely detrimental to a young athlete’s mental health. A nationwide study performed by the U.S National Library of Medicine National Institute of Health, found that a staggering 55% of all adolescent male athletes and 36% of all adolescent female athletes that are “highly involved” have been injured from a suicide attempt (Sabo et al., 2005, Graphic on page). These terrifying statistics reflect the widespread pain of youth athletes. These athletes' continuous pursuit to become the best performer they can has warped their perception of themselves so severely they consider ending they’re own life as a means to escape the constant pressure and stress. We need to teach our youth that they are a person who competes in athletics, rather than an athlete that competes to be loved and validated.
Identifying with the sport and not the soul
Personally, this is a concept I struggle with for a long time. I had always thought of myself as the hockey player, Nick Wilcox. Only recently after getting away from the game did I realize that my sport does not define me as a person, my words, actions, beliefs and how I carry myself define me as a person. This concept is so difficult to comprehend for a young athlete because of how much they are involved with their sport, and it makes sense. Youth athletes who are highly involved often spend more time with their teammates than their family or friends. Thus, their sport and performance may become their primary personality trait. Young athletes don't spend enough time alone away from the sport to develop their own personality and sense of self. This is extremely dangerous. As previously stated in regards to the confusion of athletic performance and personal value, a young athlete with no sense of sense of self is going to believe all they have to offer to the world is what they do on the field. This can lead to a myriad of mental health issues and is one of the main reasons that rigorous athletic competition is detrimental to young athletes. In addition, when these young athletes grow up and are forced to leave their athletic career behind them they often fall into a depression due to their lack of knowledge about themselves as people and their passions outside of the sport. The former athlete cannot help but feel like a failure and as if their life is over, all because they didn’t play Division 1 in college nor professionally. This lack of sense of self can often lead to the slippery slope of becoming an overbearing parent and thus, the cycle continues.
Starting the conversation
With the unprecedented negative impacts on young players mental health, how can we preserve the sports that athletes love while curbing the negative drawbacks? One way is to simply start the conversation. In an article published by USA hockey, the assistant coach for Augsburg University, Mark Wick offers suggestions to coaches to help keep their players' mental state in a good place. Wick suggests, “Get to know your players as people, not just hockey players. Every conversation shouldn’t be about hockey. Get to know their personality a bit. Players have different skills but they also have different emotional dynamics, so if you know them as people, you'll recognize changes in their behavior more easily” (Wick, 2019). While such a simple concept, this approach is so impactful. An open relationship between a coach and their players fosters a healthy environment where speaking up is accepted and encouraged rather than scary and punishable. This outlet will help players feel as if they are valued as a person rather than just an athlete, thus encouraging the development of the players sense of self and character development. Wick also suggests that parents should have an open dialogue with their kid about how they are feeling and why they are feeling that way. Additionally, if you see a teammate visibly struggling or seeming off don’t be afraid to let them know you are there for them. As previously mentioned athletes often see their teammate more than their own family, thus treat them as such. You never know how a small gesture such as “Hey are you okay” or “I’m here for you if you need anything” can mean so much to someone struggling. Just to know that there are people around you that care about you and love you can be incredibly comforting and helpful.
Yes. Youth athletes are more susceptible to physiological stressors than non-athletes. These stressors include parental pressure, confusion between athletic performance and personal value, identity fallacies and a lack of conversation at home and in the locker room. In combination with one another, high intensity youth sports can be severely damaging to the mental health of young athletes. They can be left feeling like a failure, empty and lost with no sense of self. While mental health is not a sport exclusive topic these four stressors are exclusive to young athletes and need to be treated as such. Mental health does not have a one size fits all solution, thus those young athletes affected by these stressors need to be helped as the amazing, hardworking, young athletes that they are.
MCFADDEN, T. et al. Investigating the influence of youth hockey specialization on psychological needs (dis) satisfaction, mental health, and mental illness. Cogent Psychology, [s. l.], v. 3, n. 1, 2016. Disponível em: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=psyh&AN=2017-04288-001&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Acesso em: 31 ago. 2020.
Mann, S. (2019, July 19). Addressing Mental Health in Hockey. Retrieved September 08, 2020, from https://www.usahockey.com/news_article/show/1036040
Sabo, D., Miller, K., Melnick, M., Farrell, M., & Barnes, G. (2005, May 23). HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETIC PARTICIPATION AND ADOLESCENT SUICIDE: A Nationwide US Study. Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2563797/
Quinn, B. (2017, November 01). Parental Pressure: Avoiding the Parent Trap. Retrieved September 21, 2020, from https://crossicehockey.com/avoiding-parental-pressure-sports/