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Young girl looking sad on the soccer field

Building Mental Wellness, Boosting Sports Performance

By Dr. Joel Brenner, sports medicine physician and the medical director of CHKD’s sports medicine program | Dr. Brenner has done research on the subject of sports specialization, most recently on its psychological aspects.

Playing sports has a long list of health benefits for young people, not just for their bodies, but for their minds.

Being on a sports team gets youngsters outside and exercising, which is good for emotional health. Sports activities can teach youngsters how to socialize and work as a team, deal with adversity, and learn leadership skills. All are important to good mental health.

But as a sports medicine physician and medical director of CHKD’s sports medicine program, I am disappointed by this statistic: An estimated 70 percent of kids drop out of sports by the age of 13.

Why is that? I’ve published some research in the Journal of Athletic Training that examines the psychological aspects of youth sports.

As long as a child continues to enjoy the sport and is participating at a level that’s appropriate developmentally, youth sports can be associated with improving mental health.

In today’s sporting youth circles, more children are specializing in a single sport earlier. Sometimes players feel undue pressure to perform. Parents, coaches, and athletic trainers need to keep an eye out for signs of distress, pressure, or anxiety in the young athlete. Sometimes, increased training means less time for studies and relaxing with friends and family.

More intense workouts not only heighten risk of injury, but of anxiety, especially if the athlete feels pressure to perform at a high level, all the time.

Some youngsters may skimp on sleep in order to train. Excessive training can lead to muscle tension and pain that interferes with good sleep. The stress of competition can also have a negative impact in certain youth. Competitions can get more intense and frequent. Coaches, teammates, family, and friends may place more pressure on youngsters to perform. Negative performance evaluations can deflate their spirit and lead to depression and anxiety.

If they get too anxious about the sport, they can experience burnout and drop out of sports altogether.

There are things that can help keep an athlete from feeling that way. At CHKD, we work with youngsters to develop breathing exercises and mindfulness practices like meditation, which can help during stressful situations and before sporting events.

Athletes can improve their sleep by turning off screens and electronic devices before bed, taking a hot bath, keeping a regular sleep schedule, and avoiding exercise before bed.

Another important thing they can do is make time for other activities, and not focus solely on sports. Young athletes need to have enough time away from the specific sport each week and throughout the year. Very few people make it to the professional level. Make sure expectations and goals are realistic. Keep the priority on having fun and learning life-long physical activity skills. 

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About Joel Brenner, MD

About Joel  Brenner, MD Dr. Joel Brenner is a leading specialist in overuse injuries and concussions, as well as medical director of CHKD's Sports Medicine Program. He is a past chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness.