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Psychology & Sports: When is the pressure too much?

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Player and coachClose to 30 million kids currently participate in athletics, and the benefits of sports participation are plentiful. Studies show that athletes who have had positive experiences in sports report higher self-esteem, positive body image, decreased unwanted pregnancy, decreased use of drugs and alcohol, physical competencies, gender flexibility, opportunities for social developmental, mental toughness and resilience (Richman and Shaffer, 2000).

However, children’s involvement in sports can also pose difficulties, particularly because training schedules are becoming more demanding and competition is more serious. According to information provided by the Center for Kids First, children are reporting that they are enjoying their sports participation less. In addition, attrition rates for sports participation are rising — 70% of youth athletes quit before the age of 15. Many children stop playing their sport because too much pressure is placed on them by their parents and coaches. Some kids even report poor treatment by their coaches, like being yelled at, insulted or pressured to play with an injury.

Sports participation may also affect children’s mental and emotional health. A recent study by Maniar, Chamberlain and Moore (2005) suggests that student-athletes are more at-risk for mental health difficulties than non-athletes, such as alcohol abuse, social anxiety and depressive symptoms. Athletes also suffer from clinical depression at similar rates as non-athletes. It is possible that the new culture of athletics, which emphasizes toughness, fighting through pain, and not showing weakness, is responsible for negatively impacting children’s mental health.

Clearly, children’s involvement in sports activities impacts their lives and the lives of their families. How can parents help their children have positive athletic experiences? How can parents manage the role that sports play in the their family’s lives?

There are a few potential questions that parents and other caregivers can ask to help assess the impact sports are having on children’s well-being:

  • Are children suffering from a grueling schedule or high demands from coaches that affect the way they feel about themselves? While it may seem that this just part of “playing the game,” these are potential problems that are important to discuss with children.
  • Are the children physically healthy? This is also an essential consideration. While sports participation can increase physical fitness, middle school and high school athletes can be prone to injury before their young bodies reach full maturity.
  • If they have been injured, are the children ready to play again? Having to sit on the sidelines and watch your teammates play without you is difficult enough, but dealing with the pressure to come back from the injury can also be overwhelming for children. Many athletes feel they should just play through the pain — athletes are supposed to be tough, right? — and if they don’t play they may worry that they’ll lose their place on the team. It is important for kids to know that adequate rest and recuperation will be better for them in the long run.
  • Does the child have a specific goals for playing? Do he/she hope to someday become a professional athlete? Is he/she working toward a college scholarship? Or is he/she simply trying to have a good time, get a good workout, and spend time with friends? There’s no harm in supporting your child’s dream or aspiration, as long as it doesn’t interfere with his or her functioning or self-confident. Part of developing healthy self-esteem is working toward a goal, regardless of outcome.

As a parent, the best thing you can do is communicate openly with your child about his/her experiences. Is he/she feeling badly about a recent performance? Is he/she nervous about upcoming competitions? Does he/she seem tired or ambivalent about participating in the sport? These conversations are perfect opportunities for parents to discuss with their children how to balance all their commitments, as well as how to handle stress and nervousness in a way that’s productive rather than inhibitive. And if you do notice that your child is struggling, helps is always available.


This article comes from a Clinical Science Insight white paper by Family Institute affiliate Mary Cooley, MSMFT, LMFT. Visit our website to learn more about Mary and our affiliate staff.

The Family Institute’s child and adolescent services help these groups maximize their potential and overcome and cope with their challenges. We counsel parents and families to strengthen their cores and foster nurturing environments. Visit our website to learn more about how we can help.


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