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Mental Health in Youth Sports

Being healthy means more that just being physically fit and looking after your body. Studies suggest that an athlete can be fit yet still unhealthy. Too much training at a high intensity followed by poor food choices, emotional stress and inappropriate recovery may lead to a situation where from the outside an individual looks healthy but on the inside, he or she is barely holding it all together and is more unhealthy than it seems.

Broadly speaking, fitness can be explained as an ability to perform a set of physical exercises or tasks whilst health explains a person’s state of well-being – mental, social and physical working in harmony.

With this article, we would like to shine the light on the mental health aspect of youth sports. The benefits of involvement in sports is well known but in our opinion, there is a lack of discussion about the potentially negative aspects that can affect the kids.

The Potentially Negative Aspects of Youth Sports

Quite regularly the participation in organised youth sports brings along pressure, stress and anxiety. The consistent need to compete and win in all situations can lead to minimised appreciation for the activity of learning and getting better thus negatively affecting other aspects in life, for example, school life. Furthermore, the constant pressure from parents, coaches and other peers might cause a burnout which is characterised by physical and emotional exhaustion.

In various studies aimed at athletes between the ages of 16-21, close to 10% of respondents recognised signs of burnout in their relatively early careers. This means that 1 in 10 kids might be affected by it and we must pay more attention to this topic as burnout can be a cause for inability to enjoy the activity, dropout from the sports, lack of motivation and even depression.

How Can We Minimise Mental Health Issues in Youth Sports?

The International Society for Sports Psychology recognises that athletes’ long-term development and the learning of psychosocial skills should be the core focus for coaches, parents, and club administrators. Adding on to this, the young athlete should be the main figure around which the training programmes are designed and autonomy-supportive environments should be established.

To provide autonomy in sporting contest means:

  • providing choice for athletes
  • providing a rationale for tasks and limits
  • avoiding controlling behaviors such as criticisms, controlling statements and tangible rewards for interesting tasks
  • acknowledging the athlete’s feelings and perspectives
  • providing opportunity for athletes to show initiative and act independently
  • avoiding behaviors that promote athlete’s ego-involvement 

Key Takeaway

It is important to recognise that although football is our preferred choice of sport, the key goal is to educate, improve and prepare our athletes to become well rounded individuals and healthy members of our society.

Sources Used

Coatsworth, J. D., & Conroy, D. E. (2009). The effects of autonomy-supportive coaching, need satisfaction, and self-perceptions on initiative and identity in youth swimmers. Developmental psychology45(2), 320–328. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0014027

Maffetone, P.B., Laursen, P.B. Athletes: Fit but Unhealthy?. Sports Med – Open 2, 24 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-016-0048-x

Perera, N.K.P., Åkerlund, I. & Hägglund, M. Motivation for sports participation, injury prevention expectations, injury risk perceptions and health problems in youth floorball players. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc 27, 3722–3732 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00167-019-05501-7

Vella, S. A. (2019). Mental Health and Organized Youth Sport. Kinesiology Review 8, 3, 229-236, available from: < https://doi.org/10.1123/kr.2019-0025 10.1123/kr.2019-0025 10.1123/kr.2019-0025 10.1123/kr.2019-0025>

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