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How to Help Teen Athletes Balance Sports and Stress Management

Teens today are under a lot of pressure. They’re trying to succeed in school, figure out their futures, navigate relationships with their families and friends and understand the changes happening in their bodies. All while learning to drive, trying to get enough sleep and managing their social media presence. 

Teen athletes can face even more pressure. They’re working to improve their performance and playing as part of a team. They may feel they need to perform at a certain level to boost their odds of college scholarships. 

They put pressure on themselves to succeed. Coaches, parents, teammates and scouts can add to that pressure. They can be afraid of failing, worried about hurting themselves or they may be overwhelmed by the demands of training and competing. 

“Teen athletes may worry about losing a game, losing their identity as an athlete after school or making it to the next level,” said Sierra Dimberg, PhD, a sports psychologist with Banner Sports Medicine Scottsdale.

Teen athletes need to take care of their mental well-being. That way, they can focus on the field or court and perform at their best. They can cope with stress and setbacks, bounce back from challenges and stay positive. And they can enjoy their sport and build a love for exercise that can last a lifetime. 

Here’s what parents should know and how they can help.

How physical health and mental well-being are connected

Good mental health supports good physical health and vice versa. “It is important to think of your body and mind as interconnected and remember that it’s important to take care of all aspects of health equally,” Dr. Dimberg said.

Stress is a key factor in both types of health. Stress can make you feel anxious or depressed and can make it hard to sleep and concentrate. When you’re stressed, you might feel less motivated. 

Stress can also weaken your immune system, making you more likely to get sick. It can make your muscles tense and more likely to get injured.

How teen athletes can manage stress

Stress management is a key part of mental well-being for teen athletes. Some options you can encourage your teen to try are:

  • Taking time for activities they enjoy: That could listen to music or watch a movie. 
  • Deep breathing exercises to relax the body and mind: Sit or lie down in a comfortable position. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose, feeling your stomach rise. Breathe out slowly through your mouth, feeling your stomach fall. Repeat for five to ten minutes. 
  • Visualizing positive or relaxing scenes: Sit in a quiet place and imagine yourself at a beach, forest or any place that makes you feel calm and safe. Focus on using all five senses. Visualize the scene for five to 10 minutes. 
  • Time management, which can make them feel more in control: Help them plan their schedule and block out time for school, sports, personal activities and relaxation. 

Healthy lifestyle choices can help

Taking care of your body helps you cope with stress, manage your emotions and think clearly. 

“Without proper sleep, nutrition and hydration, teens cannot easily access or use skills they’ve learned to help their overall well-being. We all have to take care of our basic needs first,” Dr. Dimberg said. 

A healthy diet gives your brain and body the nutrients they need to work at their best. Choose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats and limit processed foods and sugary drinks.

Teen athletes need adequate sleep so they can physically and mentally recover from their days. Without enough sleep, they can be irritable, have trouble concentrating and be at higher risk for depression and anxiety. “I cannot emphasize sleep enough!” said Dr. Dimberg.

Encourage your teen to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, limit screen time before bed and follow a relaxing bedtime routine. Be sure their bedroom is quiet, dark and cool. 

Create a nurturing space

Helping your teen athlete feel supported and valued helps them thrive. Here are a few things you can do:

  • Create a safe space for them to talk: It can help your teen’s mental well-being if they can share their thoughts, feelings and needs with others. You can let your teen know that you are there for them, you care about their well-being and they can talk to you about anything and you will listen without judgment. Let them know you are there when they are ready to talk.
  • Be positive and encouraging: Focus on effort and progress rather than results. Celebrate their successes and help them learn from their mistakes without dwelling on them or beating themselves up. 
  • Teach them to focus on effort, not perfection: Perfectionism can cause stress and anxiety and lead to burnout. Encourage them to have a growth mindset.
  • Help them set realistic goals that keep them motivated and build confidence: They can break large goals into smaller ones, create a timeline and celebrate success.
  • Be patient and understanding: Remember that they are learning new skills and figuring out who they are. 
  • Encourage them to talk to friends, coaches or teammates they trust: Some teens feel more comfortable talking to someone other than a parent. 
  • Take care of yourself, too: “You can't create a nurturing environment for your teen without also taking care of your own needs and health,” said Dr. Dimberg.

Warning signs your teen athlete could be struggling

If your teen seems stressed or overwhelmed, help them connect with resources or a therapist, counselor or other mental health provider. And be sure to let them know it’s OK to reach out for help. Remind them that young athletes such as Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka and Michael Phelps have publicly shared their struggles with mental health. 

“Talking about mental health does not mean you are weak. It takes a strong person to recognize they need help and to seek it,” Dr. Dimberg said. You can reach out for help, too. Experts can guide you on how to help your teen.

Your teen may show these signs of mental or emotional strain:

  • Changes in mood or behavior. They may become irritable, withdrawn or sad. They may eat or sleep more or less than usual.
  • Difficulty concentrating in school or sports.
  • Forgetfulness.
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy, including sports. 
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches or fatigue. 
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide. 

“There might be subtle changes in the teen’s mood or reaction to things,” Dr. Dimberg said. “Their appearance might change, as well as their interactions with others. For example, do they appear more tired, sad or quick to respond when they previously were energetic, happy and calm?” 

If you notice any of these signs in your teen athlete, talk to them. “Parents and coaches need to validate when a teen athlete is feeling stressed or feeling mental strain,” said Dr. Dimberg.

If they are struggling with mental health issues or thinking of self-harm or suicide, connect with professional help right away. They can call or text 988, the suicide hotline, for 24/7 help. 

“Talking or asking about suicide does not put the idea into someone’s head. Knowing how to support a teen with these thoughts can help reduce the stigma and get them the proper care and treatment,” Dimberg said.

The bottom line

Teen athletes are under a lot of pressure – in their lives and with sports. As a parent, you can help support your teen’s well-being and overall health so they can thrive. 

To learn more about what you can do to build resilience and strong mental health in your teen, talk to your family doctor or find a Banner behavioral health provider near you.

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