Youth sports and mental healthcare

By Brittany Lewis Aurora Advocate Health News

As this past summer has shown, more top professional athletes are putting a spotlight on mental health.

“I think it’s important to emphasize part of what we’ve learned here from Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka and others, which is that believe it or not, there’s something even more important here than winning. Those things might be health and safety and happiness,” said Dr. Gabrielle Roberts, pediatric psychologist at Advocate Children’s Hospital, about athletes who have put their mental health first in recent months.

Roberts said it’s important that younger athletes understand athletes are human and need the same self-care as everyone else.

“It’s important to check in with yourself, have an understanding of how you’re being impacted by your commitment to your sport, to make sure you’re happy, that you’re leading a well-rounded life and that you’re not overly stressed or overwhelmed,” she said.

She said this a good opportunity to talk to children about their purpose in sports, what they are gaining from it, and to emphasize there is more to playing sports than winning.

Her tips for helping children with their mental health in sports include:

  • Check-in often — Ask about what is going well and if there are any struggles. Make sure that they are enjoying the sport overall (understanding that not every day will be enjoyable).
  • Step in when needed — Keep an eye on children and offer support when they seem to be struggling. This may mean working through feelings, providing encouragement, tweaking schedules, or even cutting back on an activity when necessary.
  • Emphasize effort over outcome — Praise children for hard work and emphasize that there are many reasons for participating in sports beyond just winning, including fun, health, teamwork, and personal development. Don’t worry, they will get the message that winning is a priority loud and clear from every other angle!
  • Help manage stress — Help your child develop skills for stress management and for negotiating challenges.
  • Promote wellness — Help your child to find a balance of healthy habits, including good sleep, a healthy diet, time for fun and socialization, and limits on screen time.

“It’s important that we check in with our children, find out how they’re doing, what they like about their sport, what’s not going well for them, what struggles they might be having and if they enjoying themselves big picture,” said Roberts.