Depression. It is only one word but the word creates hundreds of thoughts and images. It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of a young athlete being depressed seemed so unlikely that it was never thought about.
Linda Flanagan wrote a very interesting article in The Atlantic on April 17, 2019 and it really opened my eyes to the issue of depression in young athletes. I wanted to give you my thoughts and impressions after reading this powerful article.
Mental health challenges are not limited to young athletes, obviously, but reading that nearly half of all young Americans struggle with mental illness before the age of 18 was a game changer. Within that larger group 12% have experienced a bout with depression. For many of the young athletes we deal with, their participation in sports is in fact contributing to the problem rather than helping with it.
I always assumed that the skills an athlete learned by being an athlete (time management, fitness, dedication, goal setting) were all positive. In fact, those same skills can create more pressure and be key contributors to depression and anxiety.
A 2015 study by the National Athletic Trainers Association found, “Many student athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than non-student athlete adolescents”. Clearly parents and coaches are in the best position to see and solve these issues they are also in a position to make it worse.
What are some of the contributing factors?
Specialization. Playing only one sport creates a more intense environment of training and playing. it also creates an all or nothing type of atmosphere where the normal setbacks athletes experience become more threatening.
Intensive parenting. Parents are driving the idea that more practice is the key to high level performance. This professionalization of sports has created overtraining and exhaustion (physical and mental) in the athlete. This often leads to sleep loss which is a key contributor to anxiety and depression.
Injuries. Overtraining leads to wear and tear. Wear and tear leads to injuries. Wear and tear leads to mental fatigue. When an injury sidelines a player for any period of time it can lead to issues with self worth because so much of who they believe they are is tied to their athletic performance.
Pressure to perform. Kids are smart enough to know that winning is better than losing. Playing is better than sitting. When parents create an environment where they are piling on with their own expectations for the players performance we have a pressure cooker that is crushing to many kids. And the parental pressure isn’t always intended: talking about money spent, other things missed, sacrifices made, are all things that the athlete is already aware of. Reminding them of it often forces kids to keep playing long after they enjoy it and also to play with injuries to keep from disappointing their parents.
Coaches. Many coaches (including me) grew up in the world of hard coaches make successful athletes and successful people. We now know that this model isn’t clearly as great as we used to think. When coaches lose sight of their athletes mental health, they are clearly in a position to make things worse.
Depression is a real problem. As coaches and parents we need to be more aware and willing to look for signs that problems might exist. We also need to look at the role we play in creating an environment that contributes to the problems many young athletes are experiencing.
Don’t bury your head in the sand and hope that everything is OK. Statistics tell us that every coach in America has a player or two that is dealing with depression. Don’t wish you had done something!
About the Author: Tory Acheson brings a wealth of knowledge to the Fastpitch Prep staff. He has coached at all levels of the game, including the last 25 years at the college level at the University of Wisconsin – Parkside, Tennessee Tech and Kennesaw State. He began his coaching career at the high school level spending 9 years Whitnall High School in Greenfield, Wis. and is now working as a professional softball instructor.