There is growing concern that the pressure to succeed is driving some athletes to suicide. Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, M.D., was interviewed by Psychiatric Times on how to protect the mental health of young athletes and encourage a balanced and healthy lifestyle. See highlights below or read the full interview here.
By Leah Kuntz and Rashmi Parmar, M.D.
Q: Olympic athletes like Simone Biles are openly discussing the enormous pressure many of them experience.3 How can we preserve the mental health of young athletes?
Parmar: People who participate in sports at a young age benefit in numerous ways. In addition to positively affecting their emotional wellbeing and overall personality development, it can help them develop better communication skills, networking abilities, and resilience towards accepting loss/failure.
However, excessive involvement in sports also has its downside, especially if it is not balanced with other activities. You must also learn to deal with the competitive attitude of sports, and thereby cope with winning or losing in a graceful manner.
Here are some ways to preserve the mental health of young athletes:
- Parents and coaches can start by modeling positive behaviors. Children observe adults closely in their reaction to stress and will imitate them when dealing with a stressful situation.
- Emphasize positive values like fair play, sportsmanship, and respect. Put focus on learning and improving at a sport rather than winning or losing a game. Create balance by incorporating some fun and lighter moments whenever possible.
- Encourage children to try multiple sports rather than specializing in one. Research shows this is linked with better overall success and fewer sports-related injuries.
- Lead conversations about mental health and stress management. Teach stress-management skills and encourage participation in other activities or hobbies outside of sports to create a healthy balance.
Q: How much pressure is too much?
Parmar: This is a very subjective question that is quite difficult to answer. In general, a healthy amount of pressure is essential for improving performance and boosting self-confidence. This rule generally applies to most aspects of life, whether it is academics or sports. However, too much pressure will affect a child’s performance as well as their overall physical and emotional well-being.
Everyone needs to be challenged and encouraged to reach for goals, especially when we consider competitive sports. Prepare them in advance for the pressures they will face. Expectations should be based on reality and in sync with their overall abilities. Pushing them too far when they clearly lack the required skills can create false hope, leading them to disappointment when they later realize their shortcomings.
Some of the early signs that a child is under excessive pressure include:
- Visible signs such as withdrawn behavior, tearfulness, sad mood, and anxiety symptoms
- Excessive fatigue, low motivation to do things
- Waning level of interest in sports and/or other activities
- Changes in sleep and appetite
- Decline in overall performance at school and/or sports
Q: Is early specialization dangerous to a child’s mental health?
Parmar: Specializing in a single sport, especially before puberty, is linked with more injuries, overall stress, and burnout in athletes. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends trying different sports when young to reduce the risk of longer-term adverse outcomes.
Participating in different sports benefits overall personality development, leadership and team-building skills, develops a broader spectrum of skills, and encourages better health in general. When you specialize in a single sport, you are at higher risk of overusing the same group of muscles, which are bound to get worn out or injured over time.
Q: How does injury impact a child athlete’s mental health?
Parmar: A significant sports injury not only hurts the child physically, but it can have lasting emotional effects. Many are devastated and lost without the sport, especially if they have devoted a significant part of their life to it. They may feel pressured to hide their true emotions and act tough.
Teach athletes that difficult emotions are a normal part of play just like physical injuries. It is OK to take time to process them and ask for help when needed. Unattended emotions can lead to serious conditions like depression and anxiety disorder, and even alcohol or substance abuse as they struggle to cope with feelings.
Athletes need to be physically and mentally fit. Star athletes like Simone Biles face tremendous pressure when they represent their countries on a global stage. One can only imagine their true internal feelings before facing every game, weighed down by the pressure of an expected flawless performance. The world can forget that even star athletes are humans and are vulnerable to weaknesses and can make mistakes.
There is a huge taboo amongst younger athletes to seek help for their mental health. Many embrace the “perfect” or “superhuman” identity as a normal part of their lives. External pressure from coaches and parents only makes it worse.
It must have taken Simone Biles a lot of courage and determination to withdraw from the Olympics. She helped pave the way for future athletes to advocate for their emotional wellbeing in face of stressful situations.
- Harry Miller: Ohio State offensive lineman says he is medically retiring from football, citing mental health struggles. CNN. March 11, 2022. Accessed March 14, 2022. https://www.cnn.com/2022/03/11/sport/ohio-state-harry-miller-medically-retiring-spt-intl/index.html
- Fieldstadt E. Parents of Stanford soccer captain found dead in dorm say they ‘had no red flags.’ NBC News. March 4, 2022. Accessed March 14, 2022. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/parents-stanford-soccer-captain-found-dead-dorm-say-no-red-flags-rcna18700
- Silva D. ‘We’re human, too’: Simone Biles highlights importance of mental health in Olympics withdrawal. NBC News. July 27, 2021. Accessed March 3, 2022. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/olympics/we-re-human-too-simone-biles-highlights-importance-mental-health-n1275224