Breaking Barriers: Addressing Mental Health Challenges in Youth Athletics

In youth athletics, the focus often remains fixed on physical prowess and skill development, with less attention paid to the mental well-being of the athletes. However, the stakes are high, and the pressures they face can be overwhelming. From performance anxiety to burnout, the challenges of competitive sports can take a toll on their mental health. Recognizing the signs of mental health issues early is key to providing support and intervention.

Five things to look for in a young athlete that may indicate mental health issues or distress:

  1. Changes in behavior: Keep an eye out for sudden shifts in mood, such as increased irritability, withdrawal from social activities or uncharacteristic outbursts.
  2. Decreased performance: If a typically dedicated athlete starts to show a decline in performance or enthusiasm for the sport, it could be a sign of underlying mental health struggles affecting their motivation and focus.
  3. Physical complaints: Chronic complaints of headaches, stomachaches or other physical symptoms without apparent medical cause may signal psychological distress, as the body often manifests stress in physical ways.
  4. Changes in sleep patterns: Pay attention to any disruptions in sleep, whether it’s difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking during the night or excessive sleeping. Sleep disturbances are closely linked to mental health issues.
  5. Risk-taking behavior: Engaging in reckless or impulsive behavior, such as substance abuse or dangerous stunts, can sometimes be a manifestation of underlying emotional turmoil or a coping mechanism for dealing with stress.

Did you know?

  • Approximately 70% of young athletes report experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety related to their sport.1 
  • 35% of young athletes suffer from symptoms of depression at some point during their athletic careers.2 
  • Research indicates that overtraining syndrome, a condition characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, affects approximately 10-20% of youth athletes.3 

Remember, it’s essential to consult a healthcare professional if you suspect your child or any family member may be suffering from a mental health disorder. They can provide personalized guidance and treatment options, including more information on the latest precision medicine tools like the genetically-guided Neuropharmagen test, which allows your child’s healthcare provider to identify medications that are more likely to work well with their body. Faster results and fewer side effects can help get your child on the path to wellness more quickly.

By nurturing both their physical abilities and emotional resilience, we can cultivate a generation of athletes who thrive not only on the court but also in life.

  1. Rice, S.M., Purcell, R., De Silva, S., Mawren, D., McGorry, P.D., & Parker, A.G. (2016). The Mental Health of Elite Athletes: A Narrative Systematic Review. Sports Medicine, 46(9), 1333–1353.) ↩︎
  2. Gulliver, A., Griffiths, K.M., & Christensen, H. (2012). Barriers and Facilitators to Mental Health Help-Seeking for Young Elite Athletes: A Qualitative Study. BMC Psychiatry, 12(1), 157.) ↩︎
  3. Bergeron, M.F., Mountjoy, M., Armstrong, N., Chia, M., Côté, J., Emery, C.A., … & van Mechelen, W. (2015). International Olympic Committee Consensus Statement on Youth Athletic Development. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 49(13), 843–851.) ↩︎