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The recent attention paid to Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles’ mental health highlighted the strain that professional sports can exact on athletes. But if you think youth sports are only friendly competition, you’re wrong.
“I work with eight- and nine-year-olds who are vomiting before swimming because they’re nervous,” says Doug Jowdy, a sport psychologist in Boulder and Denver and author of The Gold Medal Mind: Becoming A Psychologically Skilled Athlete. “They’re worried about losing, they’re worried about swimming slow, they’re worried about what the coaches are going to think, they’re worried about what their teammates are going to think, they’re worried about what the other team is going to think.”
The more you learn about youth competition, the easier it is to understand why children feel such heavy burdens. “I work with an 11-year-old who, at state, the other parents were booing this person to lose,” Jowdy says.
At the same time, the benefits of youth sports have been well documented, from developing motor skills and social skills to, well, just having a good time.
So how do you make sure your children reap the rewards without falling victim to mental health pitfalls? To find out, we spoke with three Denver-area sport psychologists.
You Are Your Child’s Protector—Not Their Manager
Standing between your child and all the sadistic rival fans, win-at-all-costs coaches, and social media trolls is one person: you. As a parent or caregiver, your goal is to play point guard, protecting your kid from harmful elements. Sometimes that means ensuring that sports never consume their lives at the expense of everything else.
From as early as two-years-old, establishing emotional intimacy, through something as simple as routine family dinners, shows that “relationships, family, home, community, and friends are the definition of success,” Jowdy says.
Also essential is establishing a foundation of fun. “When kids are young, before they are six, it is all about simply having fun and moving their body,” says Dr. Lisa Lollar, a sport psychologist in Denver. “And they look at you. So, are you having fun with your sport? Are you active? Do you enjoy it? Is it social?”
And no matter how much you might dream of raising the next Tiger Woods, it’s important to introduce your kid to a variety of sports and not to specialize them until they are at least 12. “Tracking,” as it’s called, can lead to injuries and poor mental health.
As your child gets older and the games become more competitive, strive to focus less on winning and more on development. “If they’re less focused on individual performance, you’re going to create a healthier identity and sustained engagement,” says Dr. Steve Portenga, founder of Denver-based iPerformance Consultants. That doesn’t mean handing out participation trophies, Portenga adds. “It’s a blue ribbon for when you’re engaged in practice and you’re working hard physically and mentally.”
Should you ever wonder whether you’ve wandered into pageant-parent status, Lollar recommends asking yourself these questions: Are you overly concerned about the outcome of the game and your child’s performance? Do you spend a lot of time talking with the coach about game plans, lineups, and how they’re conducting practice? Are you making derogatory comments about your child, the refs, or other players?
The only role you should be playing is that of cheerleader. “If a child or an adolescent feels supported and loved, no matter their ability or performance,” Lollar says, “you’re going to be doing OK.”
Recognize Signs of Burnout
Along with a foundation of fun, it’s important to build a foundation of communication early in your child’s sporting life. “We want to ask them something simple in terms of, Did you have fun? How did things go today? What did you learn today? before, Did you win?” Portenga says.
Of course, they eventually become teenagers who’d rather be tortured than share their feelings with their parents. That’s when it becomes paramount for caregivers to intuit their wards’ well-being from their behavior. Are they more fatigued than usual, do they want to skip practice, or are they complaining of injuries that might not actually exist? These, as well as increased time spent alone in training and away from their friends, might be signs that your young athlete needs an intervention, according to Lollar.
Remember: No matter how elite your athlete might be, they need a break from their sport.
If you do recognize some of these behaviors, there are techniques you can employ to help ease the pressure. Lollar recommends yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and biofeedback training to learn how to control the nervous system—because these moments of pressure can be instructive for the future, even if their paths don’t lead to college or professional athletics.
“It’s a part of emotional control,” Portenga says. “How do you handle yourself when you’re frustrated with something? [Say,] when you’re traveling or someone cuts you off? … If you can learn how to do that with performance pressure, that can translate into dealing with a host of other [intense] emotional settings.”
Just because your son or daughter feels stress, doesn’t mean they need to quit the sport they loved only weeks before.
“If you think of how we define ‘grit’ and ‘persistence,’ we don’t use those words when things are easy,” Portenga says. “Inevitably, most athletes hit some point where they start to question, Is it worth it? And that’s where as a parent you have to ask, What do you want to achieve? How valuable is it to you?”
In other words, knowing when you push and when to relent is a difficult balance. Then again, no one ever said parenting was easy.