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How Youth Sports Leaders Can Support the Mental Health of Athletes

By Melissa Wickes
May 24, 2023
3 min

Playing a team sport contributes to many positive experiences for children, like social acceptance, decreased body dissatisfaction, fewer depressive symptoms, people to rely on, improved peer interaction, and improved social skills.

However, research has indicated that anywhere from 15.6% to 21% of college athletes experience depression, with female athletes experiencing slightly higher rates of symptoms. For young athletes competing at national and international levels, anxiety and depression rates were anywhere between 20 to 45% pre-pandemic.

As sports medicine experts seriously study the mental health problems that arise in youth sports, it’s increasingly evident that constant competition, year-round training, and injuries can all contribute to anxiety and depression in athletes.

Without ignoring the many positive impacts youth sports have on the mental health of young people, it’s more important now than ever that youth sports leaders utilize tools and strategies to support the whole athlete—their mental wellbeing on top of their physical wellbeing. 

Ways Youth Sports Coaches Can Support Player Mental Health

Cultivate a Safe Space for Communication

Creating an environment where players feel comfortable discussing what they’re going through with you is crucial in supporting young athletes. Positively reinforce athletes for being open and honest with you about their feelings to encourage this open line of communication. “Thank you for telling me this and trusting me, let’s find you the help you need,” the IOC suggests. 

Destigmatize Mental Health

When a child feels like they may be the only person dealing with anxiety, feelings of depression, OCD, an eating disorder, or another mental health crisis, it can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and make them less likely to seek help. By leading open conversations about mental health—about yours and your athletes’ as appropriate—and conducting check-ins regularly, you can help players feel more comfortable coming forward about these kinds of issues.

Ensure Training is Developmentally Appropriate

Over training or pushing athletes past what they’re capable of at their age can cause low motivation, increased depression, anger, and even eating disorders. Ensure that athletes have ample time for recovery between sessions.

Implement Strategies to Help Prevent Eating Disorders

Only healthy athletes can perform at their highest level, and the disturbing truth is an estimated 49.5% of adolescents were assessed to have a mental health disorder, according to diagnostic interview data from National Comorbidity Survey Adolescent Supplement. Some ways you can prevent eating disorders according to Carley Horan, a registered dietitian and former Division 1 lacrosse player, on your team include:

  • Teaching athletes to train for performance, not weight loss
  • Reminding athletes they cannot succeed without fuel
  • Coach the human being first—they are much more than just an athlete
  • Create a safe space for communication
  • Know the red flags of eating disorders
  • Use external resources

For more information about preventing eating disorders in young athletes, click here. 

Implement Strategies to Help Prevent Bullying

Many young kids—especially in grades 6-12—are feeling bullied in youth sports. Incidents happen at practice, games, and according to SafeSport for Coaches, more than half of reported incidents occur in the locker room. Bullying on a team sport affects not only the target, but also the team morale as a whole. Some ways youth sports leaders can retaliate to bullying on your team include:

  • Get involved immediately.
  • Explain why their actions are wrong.
  • Withdraw privileges.
  • Report it to other involved parties.
  •  Refer the player to a professional.

You can never have too many tools and resources for supporting the mental health of the players on your teams. To learn more about how you can support the “whole athlete,” join us for NextUp 2023: the Youth Sports Management Conference—on October 25th and 26th in NYC.