Practicing with her club track team three days each week, training with a private coach on the other four days and balancing a challenging academic workload led to a stressful school year for Alexandria high school senior Alexis McCormick. This week, she is hoping that her training will pay off as she competes in the National Junior Olympics.
“We’re living in such a hyper competitive environment and there is so much pressure on kids to succeed. All of the kids are so stressed,” said Alexis’s mother Samantha McCormick. “It would be stressful under any condition, but last year there was the added layer of distance learning. I think that when athletes like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles speak out it causes parents to take a look at their own children.”
Creating a balance between emotional wellbeing and meeting expectations for academic and athletic success can be challenging. Local mental health professionals explain some of the reasons behind the mental health issues that are connected to athletes and what parents can do.
“It’s extremely difficult to cultivate a healthy sense of self in body and mind given the pressures of societal expectations and social media,” said Herndon psychologist Janet Owens. “Peers are lauding athletic accomplishments on social media.”
A need to succeed that is driven in part by parental pressure can lead to emotional fatigue and low self esteem, says Bethesda therapist, Katherine Harden. “It’s how much passion a child has themselves that makes a difference in mental health issues,” she said.“When a parent pushes a child to focus on a sport they don’t love, whatever it is, the mental health issues begin to seep in. This is because the underlying thoughts are, ‘I don’t have a voice’ or even ‘I won’t be loved if I don’t perform in this job I don’t even like.’ That’s an awful lot to ask a child of any age to carry, especially if they have a perfectionistic coach driving the same sentiments. It’s too much for anyone.”
Specializing in one sport puts a child at risk for anxiety and depression suggests Jerome Short, PhD, professor of psychology at George Mason University. “Specialization leads to more of one's identity and self-worth coming from successful performance in a single sport,” he said. “Perceived threats and worries increase if we are not accomplishing our goals and having fun playing sports. We may feel helpless and hopeless about improving our performance.”
Support from loved ones can mitigate some of the mental health issues that are associated with the pressure to be high-achieving. “Parents can help prevent their children from experiencing anxiety and depression by providing support and unconditionally valuing their children regardless of athletic performance,” said Short. “It helps to have other sources of achievement outside of sports, or to participate in multiple sports.”
As a high school student, Jason Gamble, PhD was a nationally ranked track and field runner. Today he is a child psychologist who specializes in anxiety and depression. “As athletes we only knew of one thing, the training to reach the goal. What happens when an adverse event happens such as injury, loss, or other significant bumps in the road?” he asks. “One thing to consider is teaching your child resilience skills, foundations of gratitude and how to stay focused on a growth mindset versus spiraling downward because of a setback.”