The Showcase Magazine - Articles

Mental Health Needs of Athletes

By Michael D. Zito, Ph.D.

The need for mental health care exists for all athletes at all levels, including professional, Olympic, collegiate, high school and youth levels. Fortunately, some high-profile professionals and Olympic athletes have brought this to the forefront. I recently participated in a podcast and a panel discussion on the mental health needs of athletes. The panel discussion was at a high school that had two recent athlete suicides. This sparked a stronger need to educate the public and staff about the mental health needs of athletes.

One of the most important things that athletes should consider is their own athletic identity. Meaning, am I a soccer player or a person who plays soccer? The difference here is if I am only a soccer player and that is 100% of my identity, I will put undue pressure on myself to perform in a way that could be detrimental. If injured and or participation in the sport stops, then I've lost my whole identity. It is healthier to see yourself as a person who plays soccer and has other identities such as brother/daughter, friend, cousin, student, etc. This will reduce the unnecessary pressure an athlete puts on oneself.

Parents can be a source of support as well as unnecessary added pressure. They support their athletes with training experience and participation on high-level teams. One of the problems that I've seen though, over the years, is parents trying to live vicariously through their athletes to compensate for the shoulda, woulda, coulda’s of their athletic shortcomings. Often these issues come out in the car ride home after an event. In a recent panel discussion, I role-played a tense car ride home. I portrayed a parent who hyper-criticized and belittled their athlete and almost all of the fifty athletes present personally identified with this situation and confirmed that it was a negative emotional experience for them. When parents agree to the 24-hour rule, which means there is no discussion about a game or practice for 24 hours after the end of the event, their athletes are less stressed and keep better game/event focus.

Suggestions for Parents:

  • Help your athlete see themselves as a person who plays X sport which allows for a diverse identity.
  • Be careful not to live vicariously through your child’s athletic experiences.
  • Keep sports fun because when it stops being fun, their sports participation ends.
  • Inspire your child to play; don’t pressure them to play.
  • Keep in mind only about 5% of high school athletes go on to play in college, therefore most athletes need to learn life skills through sport.
  • Help your child see sport as a way to develop life skills.
  • Abide by the 24-hour rule.
  • If your child seems distressed, anxious, depressed and/or does not seem to be themselves, seek mental health care.

Michael D. Zito, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (#3599) with offices in Warren and Morristown. He practices clinical and sport psychology with children through adults and can be reached at Dr. Zito welcomes your questions and ideas for future articles.