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Keeping the Game Fun: A Sports Psychologist Weighs on Mental Health For Young Athletes
We all remember being young children and participating in our first sport. The excitement of going to practice, scoring your first goal in a game, and making new friends. It was 100% about having fun and getting some exercise. For some, this is how it stayed: they continued participating in sports purely for recreational purposes. For others, it went in a different direction.
It was probably brought to both you and your parent’s attention that you were exceptionally gifted at your specific sport, and there was potential for you to become “one of the best.” Suddenly, your schedule is jam-packed; on top of your regular practice and game schedule now, you also have additional development programs to attend to get to the next level. So instead of going out there and trying your best, there is not only internal pressure being put on you by your parents, coaches, and teammates to perform. There are also external pressures, such as social media. There is a micro-focus on your performance and constant commentary. Anyone who fancies themselves a sports expert has an opinion they won’t hesitate to voice. Not to mention trying to manage a now hectic sports schedule, you still have to account for other priorities in your life, such as maintaining good grades and having a social life. That sounds like a lot for a young person.
A recent study at The University of Toronto found that 31.7% of young athletes were reporting symptoms of depression, 18.1% percent reported moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety, and 8.6% were reporting signs of eating disorders. More often, we are starting to see athletes having to step away from their sport; Four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles dropped out of the Individual all-around event in 2021 due to mental health issues. NHL Hockey Goalie Carey Price stepped away from hockey on October 7th, 2021, to seek treatment for his mental health and substance abuse. He has yet to return to the game. All the factors and statistics mentioned can start to affect the athlete’s overall performance. Which begs the question: how do you ensure pressures and expectations don’t affect the performance of an athlete, as well as their well-being? SOS Safety Magazine sat down with John Stevenson, a registered Sports Psychologist who gave us insight into strategies for young athletes and their parents.
Inquire about seeing a sports psychologist-
What is a sports psychologist? A sports psychologist is a psychologist who specializes in helping athletes and teams to improve their overall performance and build the proper mental strategies, such as how to stay composed under pressure, how to make a meaningful pre-game routine and other meaningful cognitive skills that they can use for different areas of their life.
A sports psychologist can provide specific support and insight to athletes as, more often than not, they have been athletes themselves and know what it is like to deal with internal and external pressures.
Train your mind-
A recurring point in our conversation with Stevenson is the importance of training your mind. For example, if you have spent numerous hours in the gym and are in pristine shape for your sport but can’t mentally recover from a play that didn’t go right. You aren’t going to be performing at your best. Being physically and mentally strong can set apart an average athlete from some of the best.
Consistency & Adaptability-
Another point Stevenson brought up was the importance of having consistent and adaptable routines. An example would be having a fantastic pre-game routine; however, much like any routine, it won’t work unless you consistently stick to it. Additionally, Stevenson recommends that athletes not become too fixated on their pre-game rituals. Becoming fixated on a routine determining the outcome of your performance and having a fixation on that isn’t healthy.
Stevenson’s key advice that athletes should remember when participating in their sport is to have fun. He shared the story of when now NHL goalie Carter Hart had a poor performance in the John Reed hockey tournament because he put too much pressure on himself to perform well in front of Western Hockey League scouts. So, when Hart’s next tournament, the Alberta Cup, came around, Stevenson told Hart to go to the tournament and have fun and enjoy it. Hart went on to not only have fun but also ended up playing very well.Athletes, parents, and coaches need to remember why they started and stayed in a sport. It’s simple. Because you love it, it brings you a sense of happiness and fun. When the games and seasons are over, the most important thing is that you tried your absolute best and enjoyed yourself.
Written By: Paige Gordon