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Sports and mental wellness: 8 things parents need to know

Being a teenager isn't easy. The teen years are a time of tremendous growth, change, challenges and self-discovery.  Sports can create amazing opportunities, and at the same time sports also introduces its own unique set of challenges. Student-athletes are usually high-achievers with high expectations, and the demands they feel from parents, coaches and peers can be massive. It’s not surprising the pressure to excel can lead to high anxiety and depression when faced with challenges. Giving your kid the skills they need to regulate emotions will help make them a healthier and more successful person on-and-off the field.

What is good mental wellness?

Our mental wellness can be a helpful and positive force in our lives. When we care for and practice mental wellness, it allows our mind to become a positive partner in working towards achievements, but if not cared for or considered, our mind can become a negative distraction to our goals. Mental wellness lets us appreciate and value good relationships with others and has the ability to express and manage a range of emotions on a daily basis. It’s also being able to identify and navigate through unforeseen circumstances, like an injury.

At the end of the day, student-athletes are still teenagers, and they’re dealing with a lot socially and academically, in addition to playing competitive sports. Here’s how you can help when it comes to your child’s mental wellness.

Tips for parents

  • Understand the message you’re sending

How you react on the sidelines or in the stands is critically important when your child is playing a sport, no matter what his age. Think of the message it sends if you get upset or lose your temper because he misses a shot or strikes out. You’re telling your child that any mistake is big time and detrimental to their dreams – when it’s really not. Help your child understand mistakes happen and it’s ok to move on.

  • Know the difference between anxiety vs. nerves

It's normal for kids to feel nervous and have butterflies in their stomach before a big game, but it becomes a bigger problem when those nerves start disrupting their world. Anxiety is when they are no longer having fun or connecting with the game, has negative thoughts about the sport, doesn’t feel satisfied after playing or has a hard time identifying the good in their performance. If you sense your child has anxiety, you can help them learn how to cope or seek help from a clinically licensed social worker or psychologist that can teach them how to manage anxiety effectively.

  • Learn how to identify depression

14-years-old is a critical age to start monitoring your child for anxiety and depression. Check-in regularly. Most kids will start to close off from the rest of the world when depressed, so be aware if your child doesn’t want to come out of the bedroom and is not willing to engage with the rest of the family or friends. Emotional dysregulation – angry outbursts, behavioral outbursts or aggression before or after practice and games - is also another warning sign.

Many times, kids will even tell parents something isn’t right. Your response is incredibly important. Thank your child for telling you and let your child know that you’ll work together on next steps.

  • Have an open line of communication

Having an open dialogue with your child is important, but you also have to communicate that nothing is off the table. You can’t be afraid to have the difficult conversations. Your child will avoid telling you if they have anxiety or are feeling depressed if they think it’s not what you want to hear. No child wants to be a burden.

Mental health is mysterious to people, so help your athlete understand what you will do if they come to you for help. If that’s taking your child to a therapist, – let them know what to expect and that they don’t have to be a happy person after therapy. Therapy is place where they can just talk and get a different perspective.

  • Teach kids to problem-solve

Kids are parented differently today than they were years ago. Kids had a lot more independent play in the past.

For instance, if a couple of kids were out playing baseball 20 years ago and broke a window, they had to figure out between the two of them how they were going to fix it and what they were going to tell mom and dad when they got home. Struggling was a part of growing up.

Today, play is mostly organized and struggle-free. There’s always a parent or a coach who can intervene when there’s a problem or something goes wrong. There’s less opportunity for a kid to problem-solve on their own.

So, it’s not surprising that when a kid today encounters a struggle it really rocks their world. Everything they’ve grown up with tells them they shouldn't have to struggle. Need directions – use GPS. Need information – look it up on Google. Have a question – ask Siri or Alexa.

As a parent, show your child how to resolve issues, but don’t do it for them. Teach them how to go to the coach or a teammate when there’s an issue. Don't do it for them. Give your child the tools they need to deal with emotional regulation, whether it’s losing a game or not making the big play. We’re too quick to intervene and we’re not teaching our kids how to handle situations on their own.

  • Help your kid with adjustment

Athletes with sports injuries need to learn how to adjust. Help your kid realize that things are going to feel different. She may have looked forward to going to practice before an injury; but now is frustrated or feels lost at practice because she can’t participate or perform like before.

Help her understand that the team and sport will still be part of her world as much as possible, but it will be different until she heals. Let your child know it can still be a positive experience.

Coping is going to be an important development through this adjustment time. A lot of athletes believe they’ll be slammed into neutral with an injury and lose their skillset. The truth is there is value that can be gained during this time, whether it’s learning patience, how to deal with disappointment or how to push through challenges such as difficult physical therapy.

  • Provide support

There are many ways to provide the support your child needs, whether your child speaks with you, a sports therapist, a physical therapist or a doctor.

Peer-to-peer support can also be beneficial. It can be isolating for athletes who have been injured, battle depression or have performance issues because many times their friends can’t relate. We started a free monthly support group to help connect our teenage sports medicine patients with other student-athletes who have faced similar situations, whether pre-op, post-op or someone who has already gone through it and can share their experience.

  • Empower your kid

Help your child understand that emotions will come and go. Great moments will come and go, just as awful moments come and go. Challenges help them grow and sometimes growth doesn't feel great. Teach them to feel empowered with that and to let them know they can deal with more than they think.

Learn more about Sports Medicine at Children’s Mercy.

Learn more about Child and Family Mental Health Services at Children's Mercy.