It is often said that sport has the power to change lives. Yet, we often assume that only means positive changes even though we have seen plenty of examples of sport negatively influencing a young athlete. Despite the benefits of sports participation, there are also many pressures that young athletes face and we must ensure we focus on sport as a place to play, develop, and thrive as individuals before all else. At the USC-MHS, we believe that championships are often far less important than friendships. We recognize that the people we interact with in sport have the potential to provide us with far more positive experiences and memories than any trophy would. It is for this reason that sport has the power to make a difference in helping athletes to thrive — the people within sport have this power, not the ball or glove.
Recognize Signs and Symptoms
This is why the U.S. Center for Mental Health & Sport has been formed. We believe that if we train people in the sport environment to be able to recognize even basic signs or symptoms of declining mental health, like depression or suicidal thoughts in young people, we can use sport to support their recovery and ultimately put young athletes back on a positive path of mental health.
Mental Health By the Numbers
As many as 1 in 5 young people will experience a mental health crisis each year and globally, depression is one of the leading causes of illness among youth. This means that, based on averages, a soccer team of 18 players has 3 athletes in the locker room that will experience a mental health crisis in that year, or a swim team of 30 has 6 athletes going through a mental health crisis. Despite its prevalence, athletes facing mental health crises may not know where to turn.
Risk Factors in Sport
Risk factors in sport that could set off or exacerbate those challenges could be injury, being cut from a team, increased pressure from parents or coaches, overtraining, or the stress of financial burdens on parents being passed onto the young athlete. Each of these instances alone could be overwhelming for a young athlete, yet a number of these factors combined are entirely possible in the ultra-competitive world of youth sport in America.
Mental Health Awareness Training
If parents, coaches and peers are trained, not as experts, but in a similar way to First Aid and CPR, to identify symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression, this might allow youth sport to be an environment where kids feel safe talking about their mental health and seeking help.
In the coming months, The U.S. Center for Mental Health and Sport will be providing content around how coaches can recognize some of these challenges in their athletes, how parents can provide sport experiences that enhance mental health, how teammates and peers can support someone going through a depressed time in their life, or how administrators can foster leagues or programs that encourage mental health conversations. Equally important, we will also provide pathways for support so that athletes, coaches or parents who otherwise may not know where to turn can progress.
In a similar way that coaches can train athletes to be physically healthy, with a little bit of information they can also put youth on a pathway to be mentally healthy. The USC-MHS looks forward to being able to navigate this journey with you.
Dr. Skye Arthur-Banning is an Associate Professor at Clemson University and a Co-Founder of The United States Center for Mental Health and Sport. He has written or edited 3 books about youth sport and has published over 40 peer reviewed papers on amateur and youth sport experiences. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the United States Association of Blind Athletes and is the Head of Officiating for the International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football.