The benefits of youth involvement in athletic programs have long been touted. Studies, such as those done by health.gov and The President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Science Board express the myriad of positive effects that athletic involvement can have on youth development.
It is indisputable that involvement in athletics can play a substantial positive role in the life of an adolescent, both in the short term and long term. However there is a rising concern among parents and professionals alike about an alarming trend in youth sports. Negative mental health influences and even an increase in suicide among young athletes has been making headlines for some time. During the pandemic reports, such as one featured in the Washington Post, attributed youth athlete suicides to the sense of isolation and the loss of a major aspect of their life during lockdowns. With the worst of the pandemic behind us however, youth and young athlete suicides are still causing concern.
In 2022, Lauren Bennett, Sarah Shulze, and Katie Meyer, three young NCAA athletes took their own lives. While high profile stories such as these are the ones that make headlines, this is a problem acknowledged by many in the youth sports arena. Dr. David Baron, Director of Center for Behavioral Health and Sport at Western University, says that mental health is something that needs to be addressed when talking about the overall well-being of athletes. “All athletic programs must treat the mental well-being of their athletes as they would their physical well-being. Modern athletes have modern problems. Research is showing factors like a global pandemic, social media, and financial stress all play a role.”
The Pressure to Perform
An Anne Arundel County mother who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained the decline in mental health that she witnessed her child go through while playing competitive sports. “There is a difference between a coach who inspires and encourages with tough-love, and a coach who is just plain abusive,” she says. “These coaches pushed them to perform at their best all of the time, failure was not an option. They were being asked to suppress their emotions sometimes to the detriment of their own well-being. They are doing their best, but still not living up to the unattainable standards of athletic excellence. The culture was competitive almost to the point of self destruction.” She still believes that sports can be a positive opportunity for growth, acceptance and a sense of belonging, but says it is important to have coaches who understand how to support athletes from a holistic perspective rather than only through the lens of athletic excellence and physical ability.
Rhi Gruppuso, LCSWC says that as a provider and a parent she is seeing an increase in athletes who play for multiple teams simultaneously, striving to perform at their best for every team at every game. Gruppuso says that in addition to their performance in athletics, “these kids are trying to maintain high GPAs and community service hours for college applications. Most of them start looking at colleges and doing practice scouting trips as young as their freshman year of High School.”
A Heavy Load of Responsibility
The time, money, and effort that parents and coaches put into helping young athletes excel is admirable, but can also be contributing factors in pushing youth to perform past their abilities and sometimes at the expense of the athlete’s well-being. Arman Taghizadeh MD is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and the founder of Mindset Training Institute based in Lutherville Maryland. As a NCAA Division I Wrestler, and a mental health provider, he understands both sides of wanting to see a young athlete rise to their full potential while honoring their limitations. He says that sports in general play a profoundly positive role in the growth and development of adolescents. “There are however risks that we need to be aware of and mindful of with increasing competition and encouraging kids to specialize sooner.” He says. “Everything about elite sports and teams is expensive… There is this mindset that forms in many parents, that if they are spending all this time and money, then kids need to be 100% committed, 100% of the time, no exceptions.”
Monica Chetelat Gentilcore, parent and clinician, says that for many youth, sports is becoming a high-pressure environment at younger ages each year. “Sports has become a big business and parents are willing to pay thousands of dollars to have their kids on elite teams. With the price tag comes pressure to perform.” She says. “Kids are not only expected to excel in sports, but also in community service, and in academics to be able to get into college, so they become overscheduled and overburdened.” Gentilcore says that data shows the benefits of kids being in multi-sport programs, aiding in brain development and preventing overuse injuries. She says that for many of these young athletes, the pressure to specialize early and perform to perfection becomes too much and something they love becomes something they loathe.
Samantha Straub, School Counselor and LCPC, says “because of the economic component, parents are sometimes getting so personally involved and invested that it can become a burden to their children unintentionally. The pressure to perform because of the money being spent and the play by play, recaps, and performance critiques in the car after a game can become too much very quickly.”
Key Players When it Comes to Change
Dr. Baron says that there are two key players in addressing the issues associated with poor mental health among young athletes, coaches, and parents. “Coaches get training in concussions and basic first aid, but they need to be aware of some of the warning signs of mental health concerns in their players as well.” He goes on to say that “we don’t expect them to provide mental health care, but they need to be aware of what to look for.”
Straub says that while many coaches for elite teams and high level sports are well connected in the industry and can help advance a child’s athletic opportunities, many are not experts on the emotional or social needs of youth. “These people know the sport, but aren’t necessarily an expert in communicating with kids and cultivating a sense of connection.” She too agrees that it would be a “step in the right direction” for coaches to receive training on mental health and effective communication when dealing with youth.
Gruppuso seconds the importance of parental involvement. “As parents, we need to make sure that we’re pushing our kids to reach their dreams, not ours. And to support them with skipping practices here and there or not juggling so many teams.” She also stresses the importance of teaching time management and coping skills to help contend with the natural stressors that come with being a student athlete.
The Path Forward
Sports do not need to be done away with altogether, they just need a bit of fine tuning. “Telling kids to protect their mental health or asking coaches to be aware of mental health is not the same as actually doing something about it,” says Taghizadeh. He says that impactful change can start as simply as being aware and consistent with the language we use. “Mental health and mental illness are two different things and yet we use them interchangeably. You can experience depressive symptoms without being clinically depressed. We need to collectively come up with more education surrounding the language we use to describe, identify, assess, and work through mental health struggles.” He also says that parents need to be present and advocate for their children. He asks the question, “How can we support our kids for a sustainable athletic career and help them be competitive, but in a way that is inspiring, enjoyable, and sustainable?”
Dr. Baron says that for many teams, the change needed comes down to the culture of the team. “A good coach makes every member of the team feel like they are important and they matter… A good coach understands their team and provides them the support and motivation they need. Good coaches understand positive motivation. Bad coaches sometimes let their own frustration seep into their actions toward their teams.”
Dr. Melissa Hallmark Kerr and Brad Snodgrass are co-founders of This Is Surf Club, a pilot program starting at Magothy Middle School in Fall 2022 that will teach youth how to handle the challenges and stressors of life from a resilience-based perspective. The program was developed from their collective backgrounds in teaching and coaching. When asked what their hopes are for this program Snodgrass says “Every major league team has a sports psychologist. Our program provides similar skills and tools to a cross section of students and families to help them face the broad spectrum of life’s challenges including those present in many of today’s youth sports experiences.”
Taghizadeh’s program There’s NO crying in baseball! Or is there?, is a seminar for coaches designed to help them “understand modern trends in competitive athletics, recognizing mental health vulnerabilities, managing parent-child-coach conflicts, and integration of mental skills into practice to improve performance.”
Programs, training, and awareness campaigns are all integral parts in addressing the mental health struggles faced by youth athletes who must be viewed from a holistic lens. Student athletes are more than a batting average or a position on a field. It is also important to recognize that not all youth athletes are going to go pro, and not all of them want to. Mediocrity in sports is ok, but regardless of the level or ability, each athlete should still be able to find genuine enjoyment in their involvement with the sport. At the end of the day it’s the athlete themselves that matters most, not their performance.
Jillian Amodio is a mother of two, mental health advocate and creator of Moms For Mental Health, and social work student at Salisbury School of Social Work. She is passionate about family, health and wellness, and spreading joy like glitter! She lives in Cape Saint Claire with her husband, children, and crazy dog.