When children first join their sport, they are encouraged to have fun and to just do the best they can. They are learning new skills, creating new friendships and developing a competitive edge. Somewhere along the way, usually by pre-teens, sport turns serious and kids are picked for teams based on skill level, the politics of sport come into play and the athlete is now spending countless hours training physically to develop into a scholarship recipient or perhaps a professional.
By high school, these athletes are eating, breathing and sleeping sport. This is what creates a one of a kind competitor right? The unrelenting commitment to the sport and the focus and determination to “be something”. These qualities certainly do help, however when an athlete’s self-identity is engulfed in the sport, there arises an issue. If you asked yourself, or your athlete to identify themselves, they would most likely respond in the following way: “I am a _____ player”, “I am a national champion”, or “I am a forward (position name)”. Sport plays a huge part when it comes to identity of the athlete. If you asked the athlete who they are outside of sport, would they know how to answer? Odds are there would be an “I don’t know” response or long pause. This is what should concern parents, athletes, coaches and family members. An athlete should have a strong indication of who they are in and out of sport. Having too much emphasis on the sport identity can cause anxiety and even depression at some point in the athlete’s career because they are collecting judgment on their personal character through their sport persona. Most often when this athlete is faced with injury, retirement, career choice, position changes, team changes and life transitions, they will have a very difficult time adjusting and ultimately feel a loss of self, triggering a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Therefore, when they no longer are playing their sport or they are transitioning into new life experiences, they have lost who they are, and the result closely resembles the cycle of grief.
When an athlete becomes totally immersed in their sport, it is very common for their own self-worth to become dependent on their performance outcomes. It is inevitable that a poor performance or injury will occur during one’s sport career. There will most likely be many performances that could have been better, however it only takes one to cause an athlete to start having negative thoughts, self-doubt, and negative self-talk. Many things can lead to a negative idea of self, including criticism. Athletes are constantly dealing with criticism, whether it is from coaches, parents, or themselves. Criticism without a positive reinforcement can leave a long lasting negative impression on an athlete. Repetitive negative experiences can lead an
athlete to become anxious about making mistakes during their performance. Depression can also become a concern when an athlete feels they have failed too many times or are not living up to expectations. It has also been researched that depression can lead to an increase in injury. This is possible caused by distraction and a decrease in focus on the skill at hand during a performance. This is why it is important for an athlete to have a self-identity apart from sport and to also have encouragement and support from peers and mentors. Effective communication between an athlete and a coach or an athlete and a parent is an important key that helps an athlete move on past a poor performance or mistake. Letting the athlete know what they did wrong, how to correct it, and then giving positive feedback will allow the athlete to try again and not take their mistakes personally.
There are some key signs of depression and anxiety to watch for:
•Low or sad moods, often with crying episodes. • Irritability or anger. • Feeling worthless, helpless and hopeless. • Eating and sleeping disturbance (reflected in an increase or decrease). • A decrease in energy and activity levels with feelings of fatigue or tiredness. • Decreases in concentration, interest and motivation. • Social withdrawal or avoidance. • Negative thinking. • Thoughts of death or suicide. • In severe cases, intent to commit suicide with a specific plan, followed by one or more suicide attempts.
• Excessive worry, fear or dread; • Sleep disturbances, especially difficulty falling asleep; • Changes in appetite, including either an increased need to eat when anxious or difficulty eating due to anxiety; • Feelings ranging from a general uneasiness to complete immobilization; • Pounding heart, sweating, shaking or trembling; • Impaired concentration; • A feeling of being out of control; • Fear that one is dying or going crazy; or • A disruption of everyday life
As always, getting professional help from a licensed therapist and a sport psychology consultant is ideal for someone who is having these serious symptoms of anxiety and/or depression and issues with their performance. Helping athletes find a healthy balance between sport and self-awareness, effective communication styles, greater self-confidence and positive self-talk are all beneficial strategies to help athletes avoid becoming depressed or anxious. Positive encouragement and a reduction of criticism from supporters like coaches and family members is also an important part of helping a youth athlete who may be struggling.