As a therapist and Mental Performance Consultant (MPC) I think it is important to start the conversation surrounding the mental health of high school athletes. High school is a pivotal time in an athlete's career. In the first year of high school most athletes decide what sport or sports they are going to commit to. Towards the middle of high school athletes begin to associate their sport performance with their identity. In the last years athletes have to make the choice of continuing their sport into college, and face the pressure of being ‘good enough’ to do so. All of these stages have a different impact on an athlete's mental health. Playing a sport can have positive and negative effects on children's mental health. Lets go over the good, the bad, and different ways to help support the mental health of high school athletes.
Playing a sport can be an incredible resource to help strengthen young athletes' mental health. They learn how to develop skills, communicate with others, build confidence, and feel like part of a community.
Consistency in a sport can mimic the type of consistency to expect in other aspects of their upcoming adult life. Additionally, that same consistency can reduce anxiety because they know what to expect within their sport.
Once established in a sport, athletes can find safety and comfort within a team (even with individual sports). Feeling safe allows them to build confidence and feel empowered to take appropriate risks that can help improve their performance.
High school athletes are expected to put their sport performance first, school second, and mental health last. Professional athletes are encouraged to take a break to address their mental health, high school athletes are pressured to put their mental health on the back burner because they ‘need to remain competitive.’
When a high school athlete does not feel like they have performed well enough they often associate themselves with total failure, rather than understanding they might have just had an ‘off day’ (psychology refers to this as “black and white thinking'').
How therapy can help
When athletes attend therapy they are given the opportunity to put themselves and their mental health first. Sometimes processing their emotions regarding sport is the catalyst to expressing their emotions in other aspects in their life.
Therapy is a judgment free space which allows for open conversation. This is especially important for athletes who have been expected to stay competitive and only speak positively about their experience in their sport.
What parents can do
Acknowledging and celebrating your child's non-sport related achievements. Your child is so much more than just their sport and reminding them of their accomplishments can help them feel more than just an athlete.
Make time for your child to explore and engage in other hobbies. If your child is having a difficult time exploring non-sport related activities, start with something small you and your child can do together.
Try not to talk about a game with your child directly after the game, regardless of performance. Check out this article that discusses why talking about athletic performance right after a game is not helpful and creates more stress around sport.
There are many other points that can be made addressing the good and bad of how sport can impact a high school athlete's mental health, and there are many other ways therapy and parents can help support their athlete. Open and honest conversations regarding sport and mental health may be the first step you can take to help high school athletes better understand how their sport(s) impact’s thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Athletes deserve to be seen as more than just their sport, and can greatly benefit from gaining that understanding.
Madison Repak, LPC