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How to Recognize Depression and Anxiety in Young Athletes and How to Help

  • October 26, 2023
  • Anxiety, Children and Youth, Depression, Patients and Families

Youth sports can be an incredibly rewarding experience for kids, teaching them valuable life skills such as teamwork, resilience, and hard work. However, youth athletes also can struggle with anxiety and depression. As a parent, knowing the signs of these conditions can help you support your child's well-being. In this blog, we'll explore how to recognize depression and anxiety in young athletes and offer guidance on how to best help your child.

  1. Changes in Behavior
    One of the earliest signs of depression or anxiety in young athletes is a noticeable change in behavior. Keep an eye out for any significant shifts in your child's mood, such as increased irritability, withdrawal from teammates, friends, and family, or loss of interest in activities, such as a sport they once enjoyed. If your typically outgoing child suddenly becomes more reserved, it might be worth having a conversation.
  2. Decreased Performance
    Athletes who are struggling with depression or anxiety may experience a decline in their sports performance. This could be due to decreased motivation, difficulty concentrating, a general sense of apathy, or worsened sleep. If your child's performance takes an unexpected dip, it might be an indicator of an underlying issue.
    Girls on a volleyball team
  3. General Physical Complaints
    Sometimes, young athletes may express general physical symptoms that are linked to their mental health. Frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or unexplained physical pain can be manifestations of anxiety or depression. Pay attention to these complaints and take them seriously.
  4. Academic Struggles
    It's important to recognize that an athlete's mental health can have a significant impact on their academic performance. If your child is experiencing depression or anxiety, they may struggle with concentration, leading to a drop in grades or difficulty completing homework assignments.
  5. Social Isolation
    Depression and anxiety can cause young athletes to withdraw from their social circles. If your child is avoiding social activities, spending less time with friends, or no longer participating in team gatherings, this could be a sign of emotional distress.
  6. Changes in Eating Habits
    Pay attention to any significant changes in your child's eating habits. This could involve a noticeable increase or decrease in appetite or changes in weight. Eating disorders, which typically involve intentional dietary restriction in order to control weight, bingeing, and/or purging, can be linked to both depression and anxiety in athletes and should be addressed promptly.
boys playing soccer

What You Can Do

  1. Communicate with Your Child
    Initiate open and non-judgmental conversations with your young athlete. Many athletes may be reluctant to share what they are going through because they are often told to “suck it up.” Encourage them to share their feelings, concerns, and experiences.
  2. Support Your Child
    Let them know that you are there to support and listen to them. Foster a home environment where your athlete feels safe discussing their concerns.
  3. Encourage Balance
    Help your athlete find a balance between their sports commitments and their well-being. Encourage them to take breaks, relax, and pursue other interests.
  4. Seek Out Mental Health Resources
    If you notice several of these signs and suspect that your child may be struggling with depression or anxiety, consider seeking help from a mental health professional (possibly someone who specializes in working with young athletes if sport plays a large role in your child’s life). Early intervention will lead to the best outcomes for your child.

As parents, your support and understanding are crucial for young athletes dealing with depression and anxiety. By being attentive to changes in behavior, maintaining open communication, and seeking professional help when needed, you can help your child navigate the challenges of sports and mental health, ensuring they have a positive and fulfilling athletic experience. Remember, your child's mental health is just as important as other aspects of their physical health, and addressing any issues promptly can lead to happier and healthier young athletes.

Greigory Dimailig
4th year medical student
University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health

Reviewed by Claudia L. Reardon, M.D.
Professor, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

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