Ways to Help Your Teen Athlete Take Care of Their Mental Health

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As the parent of a high school baseball player, it has been quite a journey from Little League and travel ball to high school athletics where our son now competes in one of the nation’s most competitive leagues. The victories have been many, but there have also been quiet car rides home when the bat did not go his way. Winning and losing is a part of sports (and life), of course. So is helping him manage his emotions, set realistic goals, juggle the demands of sports and honors classes, and offering him the space to share his frustrations and manage his mental health.

The pressure on elite athletes is daunting. Today’s elite athletes have more opportunities available to them because of the introduction of Name Image And Likeness (NIL) deals that empower them to leverage their prowess and social media popularity into a lucrative income that requires that they balance the demands of schoolwork with the expectations of the brands that employ them. 

Is it too much too soon? 

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “An athlete whose identity is strongly tied to their sport is also at higher risk for developing mental health concerns, especially when experiencing injury.” The article goes on to say that athletes who demonstrate perfectionism, including a fear of failure, high external and internal pressures and expectations for performance, pose a greater risk of burning out and developing a mental health concern such as anxiety, depression, eating concerns and substance misuse. “These risks are even greater when an athlete specializes in one sport, engages in more frequent training, and as the level of competition increases.”

When you consider that in Division I college basketball, the total number of players drafted into the NBA annually is just 60, and for the NFL, only 259 elite athletes are drafted, it is easy to see why the pressure to perform and the failure to meet their sports goals can take a mental toll. 

Wendy and John Codwell, M.D. of Houston, Texas, are aware of the weight placed on young athletes. The couple has navigated three sons through high school and college football careers. Their oldest endured injuries and surgeries that have left him at a crossroads. “His heart is still in the game but he’s now exploring what his life might look like after football,” says Wendy. “We’re giving him the time and space to figure out his future.”  

The Codwell’s middle son, a scholar/athlete at a Division I program, became disillusioned by the physical and mental toll of college football after his freshman year. “He came to us and was clear that his goal was not the NFL,” recalls Wendy. “We had to respect his decision and step back.” He’s now thriving in a Business program. “We’re proud he has found life after football,” his mother says. 

Despite the obstacles of his brothers, their youngest son plans to also play college football and chart his own path. With that, John encourages them to envision life beyond the sport. “My husband has always stressed to the boys that this phase of their lives will end and they must have a plan B.”

Something that makes the road easier for any athlete, especially teens, is having mindfulness practices. High school basketball player E.J. Vernon, Jr. is laser focused on his plan A—playing college basketball at his dream school, University of California, Los Angeles, and then heading to the NBA. The 6’6” junior and honor roll student currently has two Division I college offers on the table and works hard to stay ahead on school assignments. He rests between workouts to stay mentally focused. “In third grade, a teacher taught us about mindfulness, breathing, and body/mind connection,” says Vernon. “Now, when I feel stressed, I sit still for a while and sometimes visualize myself making a shot.”

Johannes Austin played basketball and baseball before falling in love with the game of lacrosse. Last year, he was selected captain of his high school team and helped lead it to a Division II CIF semi-final playoff. Balancing AP courses, daily practice, and a broken wrist injury impacted his schoolwork. “It was a low point,” Austin admits. “To destress, I listened to music, took calming breaths, and repeated positive affirmations to myself.” He also credits the book, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment as a source of inspiration. 

Martinez Sellers, known as Mental Health Marty on social media, understands the pressure to succeed in today’s hyper competitive sports environment. At his Ontario, California practice, he provides Individual, Couples, Family and Abuse/Neglect Wellness Coaching. “Being a young Black man is hard in this modern-day America. Many face the pressure of racism, culturalism, toxic male masculinity, and unreasonable expectations placed on them at home, school and on the field. With this stress and pressure in their lives, mental health becomes an afterthought. Parents often struggle with ways to support, encourage, and simply manage the emotional wellness of their Black children.” 

Below Sellers offers parents the tools to help their student athletes maintain good mental and physical wellness. 

Look for behavioral changes.

One of the primary indicators that something is going on with your child is sudden changes to behavior, daily patterns, and mood changes. “If he/she is suddenly on edge, despondent, or more quiet, it’s time for a check-in. Do it over dinner, or during downtime.”

Speak up.

It’s okay NOT to be okay!  Encourage your children to share how their day was. Be careful not to judge—just listen and support. They have daily pressure to perform on the field and in the classroom. Boys sometimes have challenges expressing their emotions. 

In many cases, they’re not taught to share their feelings because it is seen as a weakness instead of a strength. Encourage them to share what they’re going through. Parents don’t always have the answers. Often, simply listening is enough. If in doubt, ask your child how they would like you to support them. 

Encourage them to take a time out.

Let your child know that it’s okay to take time to slow down and breathe. Like your body, your mind also needs rest. Take a mental health day to unwind and let the stress of the day go.  Self-care is mental health care. Don’t feel bad when you need to take a “time out.”  

Huddle and regroup.

After you’ve had time to breathe, form a family huddle and regroup together to refocus, restrengthen, and reclaim your overall wellness as a family. 

Play ball! 

Get back in the wellness game wiser, better, and stronger!  As parents, we are in the stands cheering our kids on in the game of life.

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