As many as 70% of young athletes quit organized sports because of intense pressure. In this Psychiatric Times article, Rashmi Parmar, MD, discusses why it’s important to help youths strike a healthy balance.

Kamila Valieva is a 15-year-old Olympic figure skater who competed for the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) in the 2022 Olympic Winter Games, held in Beijing. During the team event, Valieva became the first woman ever to land a quadruple jump on Olympic ice. Days later, reports of a failed drug test came to light.

She tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned substance according to the rules of the World Anti- Doping Agency. Trimetazidine, a drug used for treating angina, is believed to improve an athlete’s endurance. There was talk of banning Valieva from skating in the individual competition and stripping the ROC of the gold medal they won in the team event, which Valieva helped them earn.

On February 14, the Court of Arbitration for Sport determined that Valieva would be allowed to continue to skate, despite the failed drug test. Among the reasons for such: disqualifying her would cause Valieva “irreparable harm.” However, in allowing her to skate, perhaps the court caused just that: irreparable harm. The controversial clearing brought the youth to the center of attention—not for her ability, but out of anger at the injustice to other Olympian athletes. It also failed to address an important issue: What is the impact of the pressures being placed on these youth?

Suicide: breaking the stigma

Discussing suicide with young athletes is crucial, now more than ever.

Harry Miller, a former offensive lineman on Ohio State University’s football team, recently announced his retirement after struggles with suicidal ideation. In a 2-page letter posted on Twitter, Miller admitted he “would rather be dead than a coward,” referring to his fear of seeking help due to the potential reaction. He credits his retirement decision to the guidance from his coach, Ohio State head coach Ryan Day, arguably among the most important people in his life as an athlete.

This could have helped Katie Meyer, the star goalkeeper and captain of Stanford University’s women’s soccer team, who died from suicide in March 2022. Following her death, her mother said: “There’s so much pressure I think on athletes…especially at that high level balancing academics and a highly competitive environment. And there is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be number 1.”

Positive effects on psyche

Sports have been known for their positive impact on child and adolescent mental health. Young athletes do better academically. Sports provide exercise, a way to meet friends, and a place to learn skills like perseverance, teamwork, and problem-solving. These positive experiences can enhance their lives in important ways.

Results of another study indicated that boys who play sports during their early childhood are less likely to experience emotional stress, including depression and anxiety, later in life compared with boys who did not participate in sports.

Injuries, performance enhancers

Injuries are often a catalyst for anxiety, depression, and substance abuse among athletes. Many athletes may also show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder following a traumatic injury. When a young athlete’s identity and sense of self-worth is closely tied up in their sport, injury can leave them feeling lost and alone.

Concussion and traumatic brain injuries can be particularly challenging for student-athletes, as there is no defined timeline for recovery and return to play. Further, concussion management necessitates cognitive and physical rest, which can be hard for an athlete who is used to much activity.

Performance-enhancing drugs, unproven supplements, and extreme dieting can lead to severe mental health consequences, yet these strategies—often offered by trusted adults—are a reality for many athletes.

Is winning everything?

Performance failure is significantly associated with depression: If an athlete does not win or at least do extraordinarily well in their competition, they feel increasingly depressed.

Simone Biles, considered the greatest gymnast of all time and winner of four Olympic gold medals, recently spoke out about deeming mental health more valuable than competing, after she withdrew from the US women’s gymnastics team final in the Summer Olympic Games held in Tokyo in 2021.

Rashmi Parmar, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, applauds Biles’ strength. “She definitely paved the way for future aspiring young athletes to advocate for their emotional well-being in face of stressful situations,” Parmar shared. “In general, there is a huge taboo among younger athletes about seeking help for their mental health, followed by low awareness and denial of the ‘need to seek help.’ Many embrace the ‘perfect’ or ‘superhuman’ identity as a normal part of their lives.”

Read the full Psychiatric Times article with sources.

Rashmi Parmar, M.D.

Newark, CA

Dr. Parmar is a double board-certified psychiatrist in Adult and Child Psychiatry. She earned her medical degree at Terna Medical College & Hospital in Mumbai, India. Thereafter, she completed general psychiatry training at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center program, TX, followed by the Child & Adolescent Psychiatry fellowship training at Hofstra Northwell Health program, NY. Her training has equipped ... Read Full Bio »

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