Student athletes are returning to the field after enduring yet another year filled with COVID-19 waves, heightened stress, and a record number of national school shootings. According to a recent study from the National Collegiate Athletic Association, student athletes reported increased exhaustion, anxiety, and depression.
For many athletes, it’s common to focus exclusively on physical health, but in today’s climate, it’s vital to prioritize mental wellness. A Kaiser Permanente sports medicine physician and a mental health therapist discuss the importance of mental wellness in young athletes and how to ensure a safe sports season.
Mind, body connection
The mental health struggles of a young athlete will affect their sports performance.
“An athlete struggling with depression, anxiety, or everyday stress may have poor concentration and low energy, which can affect their performance on the field and possibly result in injury,” said William Moore, MD, a sports medicine physician who works with athletes in high school and college.
Heather Duong, PhD, a Kaiser Permanente San Leandro mental health therapist who treats young athletes, said negative mental health symptoms can have serious consequences off the field.
“Athletes in a poor mental state are at higher risk for burnout, disengaging with their sport, and are more susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse,” Duong said.
It’s okay to not be okay
Historically, athletes have been taught to “tough it out” and not express fear or anxiety. To help normalize talking about mental health, Duong tells her patients to openly discuss what’s going on inside.
“When my patients talk about their struggles, it empowers them,” Duong said.
Recognizing how you feel and expressing that to a coach, friend, or parent is the first step.
Have a self-care toolbox
Duong equips her patients with self-management skills to better handle challenges, whether from academics, sports, or their social life.
“Having a mental health toolbox to pull from whenever you encounter a stressor is hugely powerful,” Duong said. “This includes coping mechanisms like deep breathing exercises, visualization, meditation, and, for those who need it, therapy or medication.”
That toolbox should also be coupled with a well-balanced routine of sleep, screen time, and nutrition.
It’s not about winning
When working with coaches, Dr. Moore encourages them to teach the importance of the journey, not the result.
“As parents and coaches, we need to teach young people that it’s not all about winning,” Dr. Moore said. “It’s about focusing on finding the best version of ourselves through sports.”
Dr. Moore, who has also coached little league baseball and Christian Youth Organization basketball, discourages negative talk around losing, or athletes being hard on themselves because they aren’t performing as well as they’d like. “Sports help young people grow and learn about teamwork, self-sacrifice, discipline, and overcoming adversity. All those messages come despite winning or losing games.”
Find a support system
Ensuring student athletes know how to get help if they need it is crucial to their growth. Whether it’s a conversation with a sports medicine physician or using digital resources such as Kaiser Permanente’s COVID-19 Return to Sports Playbook or the wellness app Calm, start developing a support system.
“Our patients can speak with our sports medicine providers about how they are feeling emotionally, get the right resources for their unique struggles, and get educated on how to take care of their total health,” Dr. Moore said.
Learn more about the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Sports Medicine program.