As the mom of three kids who have been involved in multiple sports over the years ranging from hockey to soccer to basketball to dance to baseball to rugby to running to swimming (and I’m sure I’ve missed some), I’ve witnessed a huge range of emotions on and off the field.
My kids have been: happy, exhausted, elated, angry, excited, deflated, proud, embarrassed, and giddy. These are all normal and natural responses to participating in sports. And for the most part, the benefits to their mood when they’re active are vast. Studies have shown that moving relieves stress, improves memory, helps with sleep, and makes you just generally happy overall.
But sometimes athletes experience issues with their mental health. Recently, professional athletes such as Carey Price, Naomi Osaka, and DeMar DeRozan have gone public to speak about their battles with mental health issues.
And it’s important for us, as parents, to remember that not only professional athletes can face issues with their mental health. There are many kids who also struggle with issues related to their own involvement in sports.
Here are some things we can be aware of, and watch out for, in our children.
Potential causes of mental health issues for kids in sport
An expectation to win
Kids sometimes feel that there’s a massive expectation for them to win or deliver results. It might be that the child puts the pressure on themselves to win. Or maybe they feel that their coach or parents will be disappointed in them if they don’t win. Kids can feel overly anxious leading up to an event, or overly disappointed after it, if they don’t win.
For some children, an injury can result in distress at the thought of not being able to participate in their sport. Some kids fear that their injury will lead to something more serious, and some feel stressed when they return to play, worried that they might re-injure themselves or that they’ve fallen behind in their performance or development.
There are occasions when kids will feel overwhelmed trying to balance a heavy training schedule with school and a social life. As kids grow into their “tween” years in particular, the thought of spending four or five evenings at a training facility while their friends are hanging out can produce feelings of sadness and of missing out.
There comes a time for many kids when they decide that they’re simply not enjoying their sport anymore. Some may feel that they’re being pressured into continuing in the sport or that they’d be letting down their parents or coaches if they stopped playing.
Symptoms and signs to watch for
There may be signs that could indicate that the mental health benefits of being active are being replaced with mental health issues. Symptoms that you will want to watch for include:
A child experiencing mental health issues may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or may sleep more or less than usual.
Changes in mood and/or behaviour
Often a child who’s in distress can be very sad and/or irritable. There can be unexplained bouts of crying or periods of crankiness or outbursts.
Changes in eating habits
A child who is feeling depressed or anxious will often eat more than often as a way to self-comfort or will eat far less as they don’t feel up to it.
Stomachaches and/or headaches
It’s very common for sadness or anxiety to lead to upset stomachs or headaches.
How to help
Seeing your child suffering is so difficult! As a parent, it’s natural that we want to do all we can to help our kids work through their distress. Having tools to address their feelings is crucial.
Identify the issue(s) through conversation
Sometimes a child may not be able to pinpoint the source of their upset. Or perhaps they do know the issue but haven’t felt comfortable expressing it. It’s so important that your child be given an outlet to express their feelings.
Whether they choose to speak with you, their coach, a teacher, or anyone else they feel comfortable with, having someone they can talk to and who will listen to them is crucial. Through open and non-judgmental discussion, your child will help lead the conversation on how to find a resolution to their issues.
Writing or drawing
For some kids, writing or drawing their issues is a more comfortable way for them to express their emotions. As they work through the process, kids will often reflect on why they’re writing or drawing in the way they are.
It’s important that kids know that it’s perfectly natural to feel this way and that there are ways to deal with their feelings. Provide them with examples of athletes, such as DeMar DeRozan, who was dealing with upset and who came back as strong or stronger than ever.
The phrase “it’s okay to not be okay” is helpful in reassuring your child that many, many people experience the same issues. It won’t necessarily make them feel instantly better, but it does give them the knowledge that they’re not alone in their unhappiness. And reassure them that they are loved. Always.
If your child communicates the fact that they feel they’re spending too much time on their sport, let your child know that there are definitely options.
Discuss whether or not your child is actually still enjoying their sport. Discuss solutions—would they like to devote less time to their sport? Would they like to withdraw from their sport with the option of returning to it if they feel later that they just needed a break or are missing it?
If your child is worried that they might get re-injured, speak with them and their coach about ways of avoiding future injuries. Point out examples of athletes who have been injured and have gone on to recover and participate in their sport again.
Let your child know that you don’t expect them to be the perfect athlete or for them to always win. When the focus of participating in sports is centred on fun and skill development over winning, kids may feel less stressed.
Seek professional help
If your child is continuing to exhibit feelings of unhappiness or irritability, contact their pediatrician. They can offer referrals to specialists who can work with your child.
At the end of the day, please don’t beat yourself up or blame yourself for your child’s feelings. There can be many, many sources of their issues. I’m not a mental health expert, but I am a parent, and I know that being present and open is one of the greatest gift you can give your kids. This alone will provide them with the assurance that they are loved for who they are, not for what they achieve.
eMentalHealth.ca – Enter your town or city in Canada to find mental health services, help and support in your community
Offord Centre for Child Studies – This site offers especially good information about mental health issues as well as links to other sites for mental health support for your children.