The Pressure Placed on High School Athletes

1. Who puts the most pressure on young athletes?

Primarily, parents are the ones who put the most pressure on their children for a variety of reasons, from high expectations to the possibility of receiving potential scholarships. Typically, kids want to impress their parents and make them proud, and student-athletes often feel pressured to graduate high school and head off to college on an athletic scholarship or to play collegiate sports. Kids want their parents to respect them, they want to be successful, and they know that it all can be taken away from them in a second. On top of the everyday pressures of being in high school (cliques, bullies, homework, etc.), young athletes are experiencing stress at home and in their extra curriculars, and it can be overwhelming for them -- especially since their minds are still impressionable and growing.

In addition to parental figures, teachers can often put an enormous sense of pressure of the athletes as well. This is due to snap judgments that can be easily made about student athletes. Teachers (and peers) may assume that “just because you are an athlete you have it easy in your other classes”, according to this article from The Odyssey written by Edward Muñiz.

Lastly but importantly, coaches put a lot of pressure on their athletes. Coaches can be the most brutal and are the ones who are regularly present to analyze and criticize your every movement. According to this article, “coaches do a real good job at making speeches,” meaning that they know how to come across as ‘motivational’ or well-intended when in actuality they might not actually care about an athlete’s feelings or hardships when it comes down to it. Granted, this is by no means a blanket statement, and it is a coach’s job to push athletes -- to a certain extent -- but this pressure, though required at times, is an important portion of a student-athlete’s life experience and compiles amongst the pressure they are feeling from all angles of life.

2. Potential Physical Injuries

When it comes to playing sports, there is always a risk that an athlete could get seriously injured. Yeah, the injury could be as “small” as a sprained ankle or it could be as dire as a concussion, an ACL tear, a broken leg, etc. Depending on the level of the injury, it could impact the rest of a young person’s life. “If the injury is serious enough you could possibly never play that sport nor do any other type of physical activity again.”

3. Balancing Life

When you’re young and in high school, life is chaotic. There’s prom, dating, friends, graduation, personal relationships, classes, extracurricular activities, figuring out who you are, and of course, jobs. How does an athlete balance all of this and maintain their sanity? What should be prioritized over the other and how is a young athlete supposed to know? For a student-athlete, practices and games takes up a large amount of their time. How do they make time for their friends and how do they make it to practice if they have a shift at work? “A lot of athletic programs require either morning workouts/practice and/or evening workouts/practice. So a high school athlete could get to their school around 6:00-6:30 AM and not leave that place until 6:30-7:00 PM.”

Due to all of this, it’s easy and inevitable for a student-athlete to become exhausted both mentally and physically. They may not have enough time to get a full night’s sleep and adjust their sleeping schedule. They will likely get overwhelmed with thoughts as they try to succeed in every aspect of life. Additionally, sports can often interfere with school and an athlete’s time. Firstly, if a student has a test on a game day, wish them luck because that’s a lot for anyone to handle. Secondly, their summers are packed with practices and workouts. It’s easy for students to get distracted by sports during class and the two (sports and classes) often coincide with each other, causing issues. Yes, this is the life of a student-athlete, and they probably love it -- but that does not mean that they don’t get overwhelmed (as any adult would) while going about their lives and putting their full effort into everything they do.

4. Young Athletes and Their Mental Health

Due to all of this pressure, hours upon hours of practice, a blatant lack of sleep, overtraining, additional stress, potential injuries, not performing to the best of their ability, dealing with rude or unfair coaches, etc., a young athlete’s mental health often deteriorates. According to an article from The Atlantic written by Linda Flanagan, a young athlete named Isabella tore her ACL during a lacrosse game. As a result, she was sidelined for the next eight months. She felt lost and alone watching her friends improve as she had no choice but to sit out. She missed out on opportunities to bond with her teammates as she had to go to physical therapy every day.

“Without lacrosse, Isabella felt restless and out of sorts. She started eating more and soon developed an eating disorder.” Isabella played lacrosse her entire life and suddenly it was gone, and she didn’t know what to do or who she was without it.

Despite the many benefits of playing sports (and there are many, don’t get me wrong!), “Nearly half of American youths struggle with a mental illness before turning 18, while 12 percent have experienced a bout of depression.” Sports are often the main factor when it comes to young people developing depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety have increased in young athletes within the last 10-15 years. Additionally, “Many student-athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than non-student-athlete adolescents.” It doesn’t help that many high school athletic departments conduct similar training processes and difficulty levels that college athletics do. This is known as sports professionalism and oftentimes a young athlete plays only one sport, playing it after one season and even playing on multiple teams simultaneously. Furthermore, parents continuously pressures their kid(s) despite knowing all of this. 

5. What can be done?

It’s important for coaches, parents, and everyone else involved to be educated as much as possible on the underlying mental health issues caused by excessive pressure in sports, as well as how to identify the mental health issues and get the student athlete proper care before it gets worse. Allowing young athletes to have access to a therapist would make a world of difference. The mental health of these athletes needs to be prioritized and ultimately taken seriously. Coaches should not only be familiarized with the game plays; they should educate themselves on the dangers of mental health and how to spot these issues among their players.

According to an article from The Atlantic, “Jolee Paden [a high school cross-country coach], took an eight-hour class on addressing players’ mental helped her unpack the stereotypes surrounding mental illness and develop a vocabulary for addressing the problems she sees. Paden now feels confident that she’ll know what to do if one of her players starts to struggle.”

Additionally, parents need to consider other avenues for a career path if their child seems uninterested or burned out from the sport they are playing. If young athletes are aware that there is more out there and that it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t work out, the constant pressure would ease off. Coaches and parents should comfort their children and assure them that there are always other options and career paths they can take. Encourage a balanced, well-rounded and healthy lifestyle. Make sure your child/athlete knows various relaxation/breathing techniques. Most of all, be aware of changes in moods, injuries, and be empathetic/understanding.