*This is a sponsored post in collaboration with NATA.org to help bring awareness to athlete mental health issues.*
It’s okay to not be okay.
That is the ending line, the ending point, from the video recently posted by Cari Wood, ATC, athletic trainer at Redmond High School.
Entitled, Your Life Matters, the video, created to let students know that they’re not alone and it’s okay to seek help and support when they are struggling, was produced in honor of Hunter Holmes, a student Woods encountered regularly in her capacity as an ATC at Redmond.
In 2017, Hunter unexpectedly took his own life, and it was that unforeseen tragedy that ignited Woods’ desire to create something to help other young students struggling with mental health issues and other emotional/psychological pressures that could push them towards harming themselves. The encouraging video would quickly rack up millions of views on Facebook thanks to its powerful message.
I watched the video on a packed train ride home from New York, and tried not to outwardly sob.
It was hard enough to conceal the tears as they streamed down my face.
As a mother to a teenager who is constantly responding, “I’m good,” to my inquiries about everything from his need for a haircut to his mental health, it was jarring to hear about Hunter’s family who had little inclination that their son had reached this level of instability and desperation.
No parent ever wants to find themselves in this situation, and yet I feel like there is a pretty big case of the “not uses” going on about this topic.
It won’t happen to us because my kid gets good grades.
It won’t happen to us because my kid is well liked.
It won’t happen to us because my son is an athlete.
It won’t happen to us because I talk to my kid, and I know his friends, and I monitor his social media activity, and I spend a lot of time with him, and he seems fine most of the time.
It won’t happen to us… until it does.
Hunter Holmes was captain of his soccer team. He had good grades. He had friends. His father described him as, “goofy and fun loving.”
And, while his parents did have concerns that he may have been suffering from post-concussive depression, they didn’t believe that they’d be burying him before he graduated from high school.
The realness of this story is one that too many families are facing, including families of athletes.
Why We Believe Sports are Good for Our Kids
Countless studies have demonstrated that participation in youth sports can have multiple benefits for children.
The National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) reports that playing sports is the leading indicator of future health, noting that student athletes are less likely to experience obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and stroke.
But, it’s not just your kid’s body that benefits. The CDC advocates for sports participation for adolescents because of the psychological benefits as well, noting that, “In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, the social support and acceptance that being part of a team can provide contribute to the success of sport in reducing the risk of suicide.”
Kids who participate in frequent vigorous activity are less likely to suffer from feelings of hopelessness and suicidal tendencies, and having strong social ties, like those also derived from being a part of a team, help as well.
There are a multitude of things I hope my sons gain from their participation in sports –healthy lifestyle, ability to make quick decisions, social attachments, reliability, and selflessness, to name a few –but I also know that they are susceptible to mental health struggles and some of those can be directly tied to their participation in these same activities.
Mental Health and Youth Athletes
Being involved in sports does not insulate kids from struggling with mental health conditions.
Early specialization, high expectations, pressure to perform, fear of failure, desire to win –all of these weigh heavily on the mind of student athletes. As kids begin to get involved in sports more aggressively at younger ages, the impact on mental health has begun to be even greater for some.
And, with all of these added pressures, the need for mental health support as part of the health and wellness of student athletes seems apparent.
I spend a lot of time discussing sports related goals with my kids.
They, like so many others, dream about playing in the NFL or the NBA (the MLS dreams have come and gone) and, as they’ve gotten older, we’ve begun to have real discussions about what it takes to make that happen, and the unlikelihood that they will achieve it.
Just based on the stats.
I’m not out here shattering dreams, but I’m also not in the business of living in a fantasy land.
My Dudes know that hard work and luck are just as important as talent for their success, and that even with all of those things in their corner, they still just might end up working in human resources at an insurance agency like so many others who’ve shared this dream.
They need to be mentally prepared for that reality should it occur.
Plus, I will be the first to tell them that, as much as I love watching them play sports, it’s more important to me that they are happy, healthy, kind, and educated. If those things can be achieved while also hitting jump shots and throwing touchdowns, then by all means, let’s get it!
For us it’s about maintaining a healthy balance among the other things –school, family, health, etc –that are just as (or more) important than their shot percentages and passing yards.
Helping Youth Athletes Maintain Mental Health
Ensuring the health and safety of my kids has always been very important to me.
When it comes to sports, part of how I do that is by looking for the best matches when it comes to trainers, coaches, and team experiences for my athletes.
And that doesn’t always mean we look for the team with the best record.
I want my kids to play with a team and a coach that values child development and safety over performance and winning.
That’s not to say that we don’t like to win, we do, very much. But, we don’t like to get our wins by sacrificing the elements of sports that children benefit most from, and we won’t jeopardize their safety, physical or otherwise, in order to bring home a trophy.
Sports environments that put safety first while working to create positive competitive experiences and well-rounded athletes are most appealing to me –places where parents, coaches, trainers, athletes, and even medical professionals collaborate and communicate to ensure each child’s needs are adequately met, both on and off the field.
And, I want my kids to still be encouraged to work hard, grow, and even win. All of that can be achieved while still ensuring that they maintain mental, physical, and emotional health.
The question is how?
7 Things Parents Can Do to Support the Mental Health of Youth Athletes
Focus on fun.
If your kid isn’t enjoying a sport or a team or a situation and you can’t seem to change it, it’s probably not a good fit.
Think about a time you had a job that you hated going to every day. It zapped your morale, ruined your ambition, and depleted your production and performance. You child doesn’t need to play a sport to support themselves or their family, and you don’t want your child to lose their love of the game, so if they aren’t having fun or you notice their mental health suffering due to participation in a certain sport or program, don’t hesitate to seek out a new situation for them.
Talk to them.
And listen too.
Kids don’t like lectures, I mean honestly, who does.
But, conversations aren’t so bad, and you learn so much about the things your kid is thinking about, seeing, and feeling when you have them.
Educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of concussions and other injuries.
Because your children won’t always self-report their symptoms, it is important that you are familiar with and able to recognize the signs of a concussion and other injuries they may suffer that aren’t always readily apparent.
You can learn more about concussions by joining this chat on October 11, 2018 at 1pm EST. We will be providing parents with a wealth of information about the signs, symptoms, and effects of concussions on children.
Support programs that respect reasonable return to play protocols.
Kids should be allowed to rehab without judgement or penalty in order to ensure proper recovery. Student athletes are more likely to suffer mental health issues if they are playing while injured and experiencing pain. It also limits their performance, causing additional stress and anxiety that could be damaging to their mental health.
Plus, young bodies are still growing and developing. Not allowing for proper healing could have implications for them for years to come, and no team is worth a lifelong ailment that could’ve been prevented with the simple addition of proper diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation.
Emphasize the importance of happy, healthy athletes over win records.
Mental health can be negatively impacted by the stress the need to win places on young athletes.
Remember, these are children, they’re not professionals, no one’s job or life is on the line, and the ultimate goal is to provide a positive, healthy, safe experience for every athlete.
Wins are just icing. Very tasty icing, but icing all the same. You can have your cake either way.
Encourage positive parental involvement.
Not complaining about play time, or position assignments. Positive, two-way communication about concerns that have to do with player well being and other things that will ultimately benefit your child’s experience and mental health.
Let them know it’s okay to not be okay.
And encourage your child to seek mental health care and support as needed.
Removing the stigma from needing this type of assistance will go a long way in helping young people to self-report when they are struggling. Your child should feel as comfortable talking to you about seeking mental health care as they do when it come to seeking medical care for a sore throat or an injured ankle.
Wednesday, October 10th at 2pm Eastern, join me and NATA’s At Your Own Risk for an informative and enlightening Facebook Live chat about athletes and mental health in honor of World Mental Health Day. Feel free to share with coaches, trainers, teachers, and other parents who may benefit. (Click the images to join the chats.)
We will also be chatting Thursday, October 12th about what parents need to know about concussions.