In recent years, athletes have come forward to talk about the importance of mental health, along with the impact of sports and competition. Lots of young athletes can relate. A sport can all too easily switch from a source of joy to a source of stress.

How can you make sure your child gets all the benefits of their sport while managing all the pressures?

Connecticut Children's pediatric psychologist Kelly Maynes, PsyD, shares tips.

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Ask your athlete: What is their “why”?

Kids need social engagement, physical activity, and reasons to feel proud of themselves. Sports, at their best, can check all three of these boxes. But things can go awry if your child becomes too focused on perfection and winning, and loses touch with why a sport once brought them joy.

Encourage your child to step back and think about if that’s the case for them.

  • Ask: Why did they get into sports in the first place? Maybe it was to be part of a team, get exercise, or learn some new skills.
  • Whatever the reason, does it still feel true? If not, it’s time to think about if they can rediscover the positive aspects of their sport.
    If they’ve lost their “why,” is there a way to get it back?

Sometimes, an athlete can find new ways to reconnect with their favorite parts of a sport.

For example:

  • Did they get into their sport to develop relationships? Maybe they can take on a mentor role or coaching for younger kids.
  • To develop new skills? Try focusing on personal bests, rather than winning.
  • To manage stress? Mix some other stress-reducing activities into the weekly routine, liking a solo run that isn’t timed or analyzed.

It’s also OK to step away from something that no longer brings joy. If your child’s sport has become a source of stress, maybe it’s time for them to take a break and try some different extracurricular activities.

Work on managing losses and poor performance. 

We can’t always perform at our best. And even when we do, in many sports there can only be one winner.

Help your athlete recognize that these are important parts of competition too – with opportunities to build resilience and learn how to manage life’s ups and downs.

  • Allow and accept negative emotions. Acknowledge that it’s okay to be sad, frustrated, disappointed, etc.
  • Ask your athlete: When they look back on this challenge, what’s going to make them proud of their response? They worked really hard and didn’t get the outcome they wanted. How can they still be proud of themselves and show good sportsmanship?

Focus on a healthy relationship with the team and coaches.

The best teams provide athletes with a sense of belonging and motivation. Others, depending on the team and the coach, can become a source of unhealthy pressure.

Check in regularly with your child to make sure they’re in a positive environment.

  • How is their coach? Do they feel safe around them? Do they feel supported?
  • Do they feel comfortable with their teammates? Do they feel included? Do they have fun together?

TIP: When your athlete is connected with their team, it can be a powerful “why,” and an alternative to striving for individual perfection. Instead of fixating on their own performance, encourage them to focus on achieving goals as a team.

Watch for pressure to change body shape or size.

Lots of sports have subtle or not-so-subtle expectations for body shape or size. Be mindful of those influences, and help your child recognize unhealthy ideals or behaviors.

You can enlist your child’s coach for help with this or talk to experts like Connecticut Children's pediatric nutritionists and pediatric sports medicine specialists.

Check on your child’s mental health.

Here are tips for starting the conversation.

Remind your child that asking for help is a sign of strength. If they have a physical injury, they need help to recover. If they’re struggling mentally or emotionally, they need help too.

Like so much in life, a healthy relationship with sports is about finding a balance.

You want your child to be involved with something, but not so preoccupied that it affects their mental health. That can be a tough road to navigate. Don’t hesitate to ask for support from your child’s coach, counselor or doctor. We’re here to help.

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