Healthy Family: Head in the Game

An Athlete’s Mental Health is Also Important

When it comes to youth and sports, intensity seems to be growing at an alarming rate. Rampant peer pressure, coach and parental pressure and self-imposed pressure, coupled with hectic schedules and little down time for rest and reflection, can create an environment of high stress. As such, the mental health needs of young athletes have become a real concern.

Dr. Deepak Prabhakar serves as medical director of outpatient services at Sheppard Pratt Health Systems and specializes in sport psychiatry; he is certified by both the National Football League and Major League Baseball. His goal is to address athletes’ mental health needs so that players are better served as well as the team as a whole. Frederick’s Child asked Prabhakar about youth sports and mental health concerns.

Are today’s athletes under more pressure or are we just more attuned to it now and better prepared to recognize it? Are teams today becoming more likely to address mental health issues?

It’s a multifactorial issue. First, participation in sports and almost elite-level performance expectations are being tied to a promise of scholarships and admissions to higher-level education. Second, we live in the day and age of data analytics; for every level, we now have access to performance data that is being shared widely.

This has inadvertently led to performance pressures in younger athletes, thereby moving the focus away from joy and camaraderie to competitive advantage. Third, social media has enabled individuals to express themselves in ways that were previously unknown or not possible. For example, someone may be physically isolated, yet able to communicate their thoughts and feelings with hundreds and thousands on a social media platform. Hence, we are now aware of something that previously would have gone unnoticed.

With growing appreciation of mental health issues and their negative impact on overall health, society is paying relatively more attention to an athlete’s emotional state now compared to the past. Teams are trying to address these issues; however, the outcomes are highly variable depending upon the openness of the stakeholders and available resources. Unfortunately, stigma and disjointed health care continues to impede progress.

Are some activities higher risk for kids who may be more vulnerable to anxiety or depression?

Athletes are representative of the general population. Some sports have more of a risk of physical injury, thereby increasing the risk of mental health sequela. However, there is no one sport that can be identified as particularly stressful. It is important to understand that the individual and the surroundings can affect the stress level. If done right, sports participation should be a net positive for an individual.

Do student athletes feel more pressure from peers, from coaches or from themselves?

Student-athletes feel pressure from all of the above. Just like they can be motivated from within and from their peers, coaches and family, they can also feel pressured to perform a certain way by all of these.

What are the signs of distress to look for? And what sort of actions should we take if we see warning signs?

Isolation, lack of interest, missing practices, bodily symptoms right before performance, drug/alcohol use, poor sleep and poor nutrition choices are some of the warning signs. If you see any of these signs, you should seek professional help, leading to appropriate and timely diagnosis and management

How can we foster good mental health from the start?

By focusing on the overall growth and development needs of an individual rather than looking at sports through the solitary lens of performance outcomes. A key point for parents to remember is that participation in sports should be a matter of joy not only for the student athlete, but for the family as well.

How does involvement in sports and physical activity present positive opportunities for good mental health in young athletes?

Participating in sports can offer opportunities for physical activity, positive and age-appropriate social engagement, sense of belonging, responsibility and accountability to self and others, planning and executive-function skills. All of these foster mental health and overall wellness.

> Three more takeaways:

Protect the athlete and promote the positives.

“Sports is part and parcel of life and transitions,” Prabhakar says, adding that at transition age points (transitioning from elementary to middle, to high school, to college), parents need to pay attention to what the child’s needs are elsewhere, not just in the sport setting. It is important to consider academic stress, social issues and familial issues.

There is a longstanding culture in sport that pushing through pain is somehow a good thing. “For kids, that mentality can be harmful not only physically, but psychologically. We are learning, but we aren’t quite there yet,” Prabhakar says. Being attentive to appropriate safety measures includes not only protection from injury, but also awareness of how the athlete is feeling.

Sports provide fundamental opportunities to grow and learn and are in general a valuable and positive experience for kids. “Not all learning is books,” Prabhakar reminds us.