August 29, 2022

For student athletes, mental wellness is a game changer

A sports medicine physician and mental health therapist discuss the mind-body connection — and how to ensure a safe sports season.

Student athletes are returning to the field after enduring yet another year filled with COVID-19 waves, heightened stress, and a record number of national school shootings. Many students report increased exhaustion, anxiety, and depression, according to a recent study from the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

For athletes, it’s common to focus exclusively on physical health, but in today’s climate it’s vital to prioritize mental wellness too.

“An athlete struggling with depression, anxiety, or everyday stress may have poor concentration and low energy, which can affect performance on the field and possibly result in injury,” said William Moore, MD, a sports medicine physician at the Kaiser Permanente Fremont Medical Center, who works with athletes in high school and college.

Negative mental health symptoms can have serious consequences off the field, too.

“Athletes in a poor mental state are at higher risk for burnout and disengaging with their sport. They’re also more susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse,” said Heather Duong, PhD, a mental health therapist at the Kaiser Permanente San Leandro Medical Center, who treats young athletes.

Both clinicians offered insights for athletes, parents, and coaches to ensure a safe sports season.

It’s OK to not be OK

Historically, athletes have been taught to “tough it out” and not express fear or anxiety. To help normalize talking about mental health, Duong tells her patients to openly discuss what’s going on inside.

“When my patients talk about their struggles, it empowers them,” Duong said.

Recognizing how you feel and expressing that to a coach, friend, or parent is the first step.

Athletes in a poor mental state are at higher risk for burnout and disengaging with their sport. They’re also more susceptible to alcohol and drug abuse.

Build a self-care toolbox

Duong encourages her patients to develop self-management skills to better handle challenges, whether in academics, sports, or their social lives.

“Having a mental health toolbox to pull from whenever you encounter a stressor is hugely powerful,” Duong said. “This includes coping mechanisms like deep breathing exercises, visualization, meditation, and, for those who need it, therapy or medication.”

Digital tools like the Calm and myStrength apps (available at no cost to Kaiser Permanente members 13 and older) are also useful.

A mental health toolbox should be coupled with a well-balanced routine that includes getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, and limiting screen time.

It’s not all about winning

Focusing on the journey and not the result is another key learning.

“As parents and coaches, we need to teach young people that it’s not all about winning,” said Dr. Moore, who has coached youth baseball and basketball. “It’s about focusing on finding the best version of ourselves through sports.”

Dr. Moore urges athletes not to be hard on themselves when they aren’t performing as well as they’d like.

“Sports help young people grow and learn about teamwork, self-sacrifice, discipline, and overcoming adversity,” he said. “All those messages come despite winning or losing games.”

Find guidance on sports safety during the pandemic in the COVID-19 Return to Sports Playbook.