Pediatric HealthSource: How Youth Sports Can Impact Mental Health

Pressure to do well can cause children to experience anxiety and depression. Here are tips to help kids cope with competitive stress.

Parker Huston, Ph.D.
Parents should help their children understand there's more to sports than wins and losses.

Q: How can I help my child be competitive in sports while also being supportive of their mental health?

A: Participation in youth sports provides many benefits that aren’t directly related to better physical health: It builds character, increases confidence, helps with social skills and the concept of teamwork, and can even improve self-image and mental health. Even with all those advantages, when kids become more competitive and feel the pressure to perform, mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression tend to appear.

The habits children develop early in life can transfer into a healthy competitive spirit as they get older. Helping them focus on self-improvement rather than self-criticism, teamwork rather than individual glory, and sportsmanship rather than hyper-competitiveness will create a mindset which allows them to flourish. Have lots of conversations with your child to check in and make sure they have a plan to handle competitive stress. Teach them emotional empowerment skills to manage all the different emotions they will experience, in sports and life.

Because so many youth sports are played strictly for wins and losses, it can make a huge difference in your child’s self-esteem when you praise them for specific skills. Compliments like, “Great kicking today” or “You really showed a sense of teamwork” can teach them that there is much more to sports than winning and losing. Praise their leadership qualities or ability to pick up a teammate after a poor performance.

Finally, make sure to encourage your young athlete to have other hobbies and activities. Disconnecting from competition to do things that use other physical and mental skills can give them the break they need to round out their sense of self-worth.

Always consult your child’s pediatrician concerning your child’s health and well-being.

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Parker Huston, Ph.D., is clinical director of On Our Sleeves and a pediatric psychologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

Parker Huston, Ph.D.

Tips for Parents

Words matter. Parents can help their kids stay positive by:

  • Avoiding undue pressure. Although our intention might be encouragement, phrases such as, “Everyone’s counting on you!” or “It’s all on your shoulders!” can place extra stress on children.
  • Encouraging their best. Emphasizing to your child that trying their best in that moment is ideal. Use phrases like, “Give it everything you’ve got” and “We believe in you; just try your best.”
  • Repeating the motivation. Cue words can be repeated like a mantra: Remember “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”? Help your child come up with a short phrase that will motivate them to give it their all and encourage them when they fail. Some examples:

          --Leave it all on the field.

          --I can do this.

          --We’re in this together.

          --Win together, lose together, stay together.