“When your kids start backing out of things they used to love for no reason or start making excuses, you have to take a closer look at things. You have to know your child”
- Shannon Collopy, parent of student athlete.
Being a student athlete can be stressful business for our kids, no matter what level they play. Athletes manage responsibilities like school, training, friend and family life and can sometimes feel overwhelmed. But when overwhelmed turns into something more than a few rough days, it could be something else.
Emotional stress and mental health are real things that our athletes deal with. It is important to remove the stigma from talking about these things so we can start talking about the resources available to us as parents and coaches. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t.
Anxiety and Depression are Real
“Anxiety and Depression are bed fellows; one could lead to the other. Sleep, mood, interest and nutrition are things to pay attention to,” Dr. Jennifer Bellingrodt, PsyD., Licensed Clinical Psychologist.
In years past, emotional processes and the mental health of athletes was chalked up to a tough day or passed off as being in a slump. Today, there are examples of collegiate and professional athletes who openly admit to struggling with mental illnesses that range from depression and anxiety to bipolar or dissociative identity disorder (previously known as multiple personality disorder). Not only is there more awareness, but high profile athletes have discussed their decision to get professional counseling or therapy to handle the stresses that come with playing a sport at an elite level.
Not only are clinical diagnoses and professional counseling available, there are common criteria to look for in any individual who may be struggling with anxiety or depression or some other form of mental illness. It is important that parents know what to look for and what they can do if the suspect their athlete needs counseling or professional help.
Parents Can and Should Help
“Some families think if they [child] are distraught that they don’t want to draw attention to it, they think ignoring it is better. It’s not. Sometimes you have to call a spade a spade,” Dr. Jennifer Bellingrodt
The mental health field uses several criteria, present or not, to indicate symptoms and conditions that serve as a basis for diagnosis. If there is a family history of mental illness, the following list of criteria should not be passed off as garden variety stress or sadness. You are around your child the most, you are the first line of defense and the best gauge of changes in behavior or temperament. Here are some of the things you could look for if you suspect your child is struggling:
Sleep – Anxiety, depression and stress can have a drastic effect on an individual’s sleep. Look for new changes in your athlete’s sleep patterns, like insomnia (inability to sleep) or hypersomnia (sleeping all the time). There may be an event that triggered it (relationship change, team status change, etc.) or an ongoing stressor (home environment, bullying, grades, illness, etc.). It may seem impossible to track the sleeping patterns of your teenage athlete, but you are looking for new changes or drastic changes. If they are out of state or away at university, this might be something you can’t track in your home, but could see if you have a face time conversation with them or monitor social media accounts, for example.
Mood/Interest – Mood is affected by many things and teenagers can be moody. Beyond the normal hormonal or developmental moodiness, look for other ways to assess mood. A big one is losing interest in their sport, making excuses as to why they don’t want to go, having a harder time getting the motivated to get to practice, etc. If they have lost interest and not replaced the activity with something else they do love, that might be something to look into.
Nutrition – Nutrition plays a big role in the life of a student athlete. It is not only the best way to say to get all the vitamins and minerals our bodies need to recover, it also sets the backdrop for our emotional well-being. Our bodies were not meant to thrive off limited or poor quality foods. Outside of a growth spurt, have the nutritional habits of your athlete changed? This is not an area to hover or pry, but noticing patterns of not eating or over-eating could mean they are struggling with something. It is a sensitive subject for most teenagers, but if patterns change, it’s important to address it rather than ignore it.
Isolating – Depression and anxiety can make a very capable student athlete feel like they have done something wrong or they are the only ones struggling. This might lead to isolating (i.e., spending most of their time alone). If you notice a change in friends or lack of social interaction beyond the normal teenager “wanting space” for an evening and it goes on for several days or weeks, something isn’t right.
Self-Care/Coping Skills for Athletes
“You first have to learn that taking care of yourself is not synonymous with being selfish. Rather, it is self-preserving. If you don’t take care of you, no one’s going to do it for you,” Dr. Jennifer Bellingrodt.
High level athletes are used to putting the needs of their team, coaches or parents before their own needs and have gotten a payoff for doing so – success. They are not used to taking a day off to do something that fills them up, mostly because the sport has served that purpose for a long time.
However, when it seems like your athlete needs more than just a day off or a meal at their favorite restaurant we can use this as an opportunity to teach them self-care. Incidentally, self- care is an important coping skill that will transfer to all aspects of life and relationship. Every person is different, but here are some ideas:
Journal – In a day and age where our kids share every detail of their lives on social media, encourage them to take a step back. Pen and paper still work and journaling has proven to be an effective way to relieve stress. Help them establish boundaries for social media, saving the real stuff for real people.
Find a Mentor – Encourage your athlete to confide in a safe adult or coach. They may not always want to confide in you. Helping them find a counselor, mentor or spiritual advisor is a form of self-care and a great life skill.
Volunteer – It isn’t always this simple, but sometimes getting outside of ourselves and investing in others can help us from being consumed with our own process. Find a few friends and suggest a day of service.
Problem Solving – Our kids might not want us to fix their problems, sometimes we need to facilitate their own problem solving process by collaborating rather than fixing. Teaching our kids to problem solve is a way of teaching them self-care. It also empowers them to find answers within.
Expressing Needs – Self-care is only possible when we know what we need. Grabbing a burger with a friend when we need a half hour to ourselves to journal will miss the mark. Teaching your child to look for what they need at any given time is crucial for self-care.
Resources – Turn your child onto resources. If you are not the person they turn to, help them find a resource that can help. Maybe provide the number for on campus counseling or the name of a family friend or relative that may have struggled with the same thing they are struggling with. In most cases, we want to direct them to people, not information. Healing happens in relationship.
Social Media Fast – Just because our children share everything, that doesn’t mean it is all true. We need to educate our kids on the realities of social media and help them set limits to take care of themselves. In addition, if they are struggling or hurting, it is better to seek the help of a parent or safe adult or friend instead of searching for answers on snap chat.
Parents are the first line of defense for their children. A great deal of importance is placed on making sure they are physically able to do the things their sport requires, it’s time to put the same amount of importance in making sure they are emotionally able to do the things their sport (and life) requires. Psychology of sports is not just about performance and increasing skill, it’s about being able to handle the emotional load that comes with it and transfer those skill into life beyond sports.