Back to school means lots of changes for kids, teens, and families, with homework, busy schedules, and after-school activities like sports. Studies show that participating in organized sports can have positive mental health benefits for teens. This can include higher academic achievement as well as increased confidence, self-esteem, and social skills.
However, the pressure to excel in competitive athletics can be intense. It can create anxiety and negative feelings, resulting in self-doubt and poor performance on the field and in the classroom. It can even lead to depression and substance use.
Quieting the Mind Chatter
At the core of teen anxiety is a combination of external pressure from parents, teachers, coaches, and peers, as well as self-created pressure, according to Mitch Greene, Ph.D., licensed clinical and sport psychologist. Often, teens become preoccupied with their game performance, trying to fit in, or getting college scholarships to reimburse parents for the time and money invested in them. Dr. Greene calls this anxiety “mind chatter” ― negative thoughts and self-doubt that cloud the brain and make it hard to think clearly.
“When a teen’s mind chatter takes over, fears often become exaggerated,” Dr. Greene says. “Sports can already carry a lot of weight with identity entangled in performance. When a student-athlete’s mind chatter becomes the predominant voice they hear, that weight can increase and create even more anxious, negative feelings. My goal is to help teens realize that there is more to the game than how they play and what the results tell them, by walking them through the process of mastering their mindset.”
Putting Sports into Perspective
It can be challenging to support teens who have sports-related anxiety. There are often many factors contributing to their feelings. Dr. Greene suggests the following techniques to encourage teens to open up:
- Less talking, more listening. Make time to listen to your teen’s thoughts about sports. Giving them an opportunity to share freely can help alleviate their anxiety.
- Creating a “no sports” conversation zone. Set a time in the day when your teen knows sports will not be discussed. For a teen who is struggling with sports-related anxiety, knowing there is more to life than sports can benefit their mental well-being.
- Easing up on prioritizing sports. Sometimes teens just want to be teens. While playing sports has benefits, it’s also time-consuming. Make sure your teen has time to participate in academic, creative, or social opportunities.
- Emphasizing the benefits of playing and the “small wins.” Talk about the feel-good rewards of physical activity, teamwork, and having fun, regardless of winning or losing.
- Supporting their decisions. Sometimes continuing in a sport may be physically or mentally unhealthy. If your teen decides to take a break from the sport or change course altogether, offer support by reminding them that their identity is more than their sport.
While playing sports offers many benefits, it can also come with intense pressure. If your teen athlete is feeling stressed on or off the field, one of the best ways to help them overcome sports anxiety is to let them share their feelings.
For more information about mental health, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.