More pro athletes are discussing mental health. Let’s help young athletes follow their example.

In recent years, more professional athletes have come forward to discuss their challenges with mental health. I am grateful for them and their messages, as this is a critical message that parents and coaches of young athletes need to hear. And kids who play sports today definitely need to understand depression, anxiety and more and let their parents and coaches know they are struggling. It’s a topic I wanted to explore in more detail, and I did for my latest newspaper column.

Would criticism of Simone Biles keep athletes from discussing mental health?

In August, I wrote a column discussing Simone Biles pulling out of the Olympic team gymnastics competition citing mental health issues and the enormous pressure she faced. While I received mostly positive comments, I was surprised how many criticisms of Biles I heard in the media, claiming she simply quit on her teammates. I can’t pretend to know what was going through her mind. I can only take her word for it. But I’m sure she – and other elite athletes – heard those criticisms. I worried the fallout might have a silencing effect on other athletes dealing with similar issues.

Also read:
Simone Biles and Talking To Our Kids About Mental Health in Sports

Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown opens up on battle with depression, suicidal thoughts

Fortunately, the opposite seems to be happening. The latest example is Tennessee Titans wide receiver A.J. Brown. Last week, the former Ole Miss star posted a video on Instagram discussing his battle with depression that caused him to consider suicide during the 2020 NFL season until a former college teammate helped him through it.

Athletes face many of the same mental, emotional health issues as the rest of us.

During my years working in sports medicine, I’ve seen so many fans consider these athletes to be almost superhuman. In many ways, they are. But in other ways, they are just like the rest of us. And in terms of mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and more, athletes often face the same challenges, sometimes even more than non-athletes.

Young athletes don’t have access to the mental health resources of pro and college athletes.

While professional sports teams and colleges athletic departments have increasingly brought in professionals to work with athletes and treat them for mental health problems, athletes at the high school and youth sports levels don’t have those same resources. Often our young athletes suffer with depression or anxiety, and we fail to recognize it.

Mental health issues do exist in youth and high school athletes.

According to a 2015 Consensus Statement from the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, mental illness is being reported at increasing numbers among young adults aged 18 to 25, with many of the underlying factors starting during adolescent years. While only 3 to 7 percent of 15-years-olds have been diagnosed with depression, student-athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than students of the same age who don’t play sports. Young athletes also face higher levels of sleep disturbances, mood issues, loss of appetite, inability to concentrate, and decreased self-confidence.

While obviously not true for all young athletes, for many, sports just aren’t fun anymore. More than ever before, adults place huge amounts of pressure on kids through sports.

The pressure on kids to succeed in sports

Maybe it’s the flawed notion of the “10,000-hour rule” being the only path to sports mastery, or maybe it’s the tempting anecdotes of athletes who willed their way to multi-million dollar pro contracts. But somewhere along the line, we seem to have decided that the best way for kids to succeed in sports is playing one sport year-round with no break, often playing for multiple teams, and giving up everything else. And it’s not just parents. Coaches and private teams and leagues need to stay in business, so they push this idea to justify the huge fees families pay.

Kids today basically play sports as if they’re pros. A study presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons shows that current high school, college and professional athletes spend a comparable number of months training each year.

Pressure to please parents and coaches, impress scouts, and earn a college scholarship often take the fun out of a once-enjoyable activity. Even if parents don’t outright yell at their children to “win or else,” the young athletes recognize how much money their parents have spent on the travel teams and private coaching and stick with a sport they just don’t love any more. Plus, the pressure to play that one sport and succeed at all costs often requires them to give up other activities they enjoy.

Young athletes are exhausted – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Young athletes are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. The time playing sports, meeting academic demands, and facing overwhelming pressure to not let their parents, coaches, and teammates down affects their sleep, compounding the exhaustion. It’s a recipe for burnout, much like we are seeing in higher-than-ever numbers in the workforce.

Also read:
Concussions can lead to mental health problems in children

The emotional impact of injury on kids’ sports identity

Many young athletes today exhibit a phenomenon known as “sport identity foreclosure,” meaning they only know themselves as a soccer player or basketball player, or often more specifically, a Bishop England soccer player or Oceanside basketball player. What happens when that athlete suffers a season-ending, or even career-ending, injury? For some athletes, the emotional impact can be devastating.

Coaches, doctors and athletic trainers can play a big role by recognizing athletes who appear to be struggling and recommending they seek treatment. But largely it comes down to the parents.

Parents, talk to your kids.

Talk to your kids. Ask them how they’re doing and if everything is ok. Listen. Show concern. Don’t minimize their feelings or try to fix everything. Show that you care and that you will do whatever it takes to help them, including seeking professional help.

If we truly care about sports and love our kids, we need to address some of the issues leading to depression and mental health issues in the first place, and then recognize and treat them when they occur.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the November 25, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.