Managing Mental Health for Youth Sports

Around 45 million young people aged 6 to 18 engage in some form of organized sport in the U.S. Sports participation can foster a safe, positive and inclusive environment for youth. However, it can also have negative effects on the mental health and well-being of young athletes.

Popular youth sports, such as basketball, baseball and softball, are typically structured into leagues and as a child’s age progresses so does the level of skill and competition. This can create increased pressure that some young people are not mature enough to handle. As their brains are still developing, youth can struggle to cope with an injury, poor individual performance or team defeat and these challenges can knock their self-confidence and potentially cause emotional issues.

Some young people try to hide any psychological problems in order to fit in and be ‘the same’ as their peers. It is important that schools, sports clubs, coaches and parents break the stigma and encourage youth athletes to talk about their mental health. Below is a summary of the negative effects of youth sports, and what can be done to mitigate and manage them to improve the mental health of young people.

Potentially Problematic Mental Health Outcomes of Competitive Youth Sports and Where to Get Help

Early Sport Specialization

While some youth manage to achieve a good sport-life balance, others struggle to juggle the demands of training, competition, schoolwork and other daily activities. A study into How Organized Youth Sport May Be Harming Individual Players suggests this could be due to youth sport programs encouraging athletes to specialize in one particular sport at a young age. Some experts believe that such intense training in a single sport should be delayed until late adolescence, for physiological and psychological reasons. This is backed up by another study which examined the relationship between the amount of sport practice per week and well-being. It found that after 14 hours of youth sport participation, well-being began to decline. Overtraining can put young athletes under intolerable pressure which can cause a loss of motivation, drop in performance and lack of enjoyment. This can take its toll on their mental health, resulting in stress, anxiety and burnout. Some young people feel unable to continue and drop out of the sport altogether. There is evidence to suggest that athletes who specialize early in their sport are more likely to experience burnout than those who play a variety of sports before specializing later on in adolescence.

Toxic Sports Coaches

A good sports coach provides constructive feedback, so that young athletes can learn and improve, balanced with encouragement and support to help them build confidence and resilience. However, a toxic sports coach can negatively impact the mental health of youth with criticism that is relentless and gratuitous. This type of emotional abuse can include shouting, mocking, name-calling, isolating, intimidating and threatening. Such behavior can make the victim feel ashamed, scared and anxious, often blaming themselves. When young athletes are bullied by their coach it can seriously impact their self-esteem, motivation, focus and enjoyment of the sport they once enjoyed. According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, youth who have been bullied are more likely to develop mental health problems and those with mental health problems are more likely to be bullied. Bullying can also cause young people to develop unhealthy coping strategies such as self-isolation or self-harm. Research has found that one-third of verbally abused children suffer from significant levels of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other studies have found that bullying is linked to anxiety, depression and, in extreme cases, suicide ideation and attempts.

Risk of Behavioral Addictions

The pressures on young athletes to look and perform at their best can push them to the point of injury and harm. Some youth – particularly teenage girls – can become obsessed with their body shape and image. This desire to control all aspects of their appearance, performance and health can lead to eating disorders and exercise addiction. These unhealthy patterns of behavior reflect negatively on a young person’s physical and mental health. As well as dealing with dehydration, malnutrition, exhaustion and injury, they can struggle with anxiety and self-esteem issues. Youth athletes often blame their behavior on perceived pressure from coaches, teammates, or parents.

Psychological Impact of Sporting Injuries

Over two million young people in the U.S. are injured each year through sport. Sporting injuries are tough for anyone to deal with, but they can be particularly challenging for youth who are often not emotionally equipped to deal with such knock backs. As well as the physical pain and disability, they can struggle with significant psychological issues on the road to recovery. Injury is often accompanied by mood swings, low self-esteem, anger, frustration, lack of motivation, sleep disturbance, anxiety and depression. Additionally, sports participation is often an important social activity and stress reliever for children and teens, and the temporary loss of these outlets following injury can also have negative effects on their mental health.

Negative Effects of Youth Sports on Parental Mental Health

It is not just young people who experience the negative effect of sport participation. Youth sport can also put huge pressure on parents’ time, finances and emotional well-being. This can be attributed to a number of factors from co-ordinating and paying for their child’s intensive training program and demanding sports schedule, to seeing their child upset or frustrated about non-selection, poor performance, bullying or injury. These relentless demands can be physically and mentally exhausting and lead to high levels of stress and even burnout. According to research, parents are subjected to greater stress as their child’s stages of sport development increases.

There is clearly a challenge in balancing the positive and negative effects of sport on youth mental health. However, with supportive coaches, parents and peers, young people can maximize the benefits and minimize the risks to get the most from their sporting experiences.

Where to Get Online Mental Health Care for Your Child

If your child is suffering from mental health issues as a result of their sports participation, or for any other reason, we can provide professional support.

At Kindbridge, we understand how distressing it is to see your child suffer. Our fully-licensed counselors are experienced at helping children and teens overcome psychological challenges so they can lead happy and healthy lives. 

We offer high-quality online therapy tailored to your child’s needs in the comfort of your home. And, if their mental health condition is affecting the whole family, we can also provide family therapy sessions.

Get started today – call +1 (877) 426-4258 or email [email protected] for a free and confidential chat with our care co-ordinator.


Call +1 (877) 426-4258