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Is My Young Athlete Mentally Well? When and How to Intervene

Mental wellness can be difficult for parents, coaches, and other guardians to cope with when it comes to young athletes. Is a bad grade on a test just because an athlete didn’t study, or is it a sign of something deeper? Is an athlete who’s been tired at practice all week a bit overextended, or are they struggling with insomnia and depression? Coaches and parents should be on the lookout for signs that an athlete’s mental health is suffering, and while they may not be equipped to help the athlete, guardians can help connect an athlete with the right professionals.

Here, TrueSport Expert Kevin Chapman, PhD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Kentucky Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, shares red flags to look for when it comes to an athlete’s mental well-being, and explains how to intervene when you do suspect that there is an issue.

What are some common mental wellness red flags?

Parents identifying these mental wellness problems with their athletes need to think about several different factors, says Chapman.

  1. Personal distressDepressed young man sitting on stairs.. “In other words, is the athlete bothered, and saying they’re bothered?” Chapman asks. “That’s the easiest one, where your athlete is telling you that they are in distress and need help.”
  2. Impairment in functioning. “Whether it be competition, school, friendships, or anything your athlete normally does at a certain level, any unexplained drop could signal that something may be wrong,” Chapman says.
  3. Physical changes. “Sleep disturbance is a big warning sign, since young athletes typically sleep well. You may notice your athlete is sleeping constantly, or that they’re struggling to fall asleep and suffering from insomnia—sleep changes in either direction are concerning. Eating is similar: Big swings in how much your athlete is eating can be a warning sign.”
  4. Increase in worry. “If you notice your athlete acting more anxious and worrying more than usual, that can be a red flag,” says Chapman. Some worry is normal—if finals are coming up, for instance–but if the worry seems more generalized, that’s cause for concern.
  5. Change in aggression and other external behaviors. “If your athlete is suddenly acting more aggressive, crying, yelling, or generally acting out, that can be a sign as well,” says Chapman.

However, these signs and potential symptoms rely on you knowing your athlete’s baseline. Some athletes are naturally more prone to dramatic tears and short bursts of anxiety that go away when finals week is over. Some athletes naturally sleep 11 hours each night, while others are bouncing out of bed after six hours. Pay attention to your athlete before there’s an issue, so that you’ll be able to notice when changes happen.