By: Lucas Ziems

Ever heard of the phrase “Practice makes perfect?” It turns out this one, seemingly simple phrase, which is meant to motivate us to work hard and improve our skills, is also a great example of the culture that perpetuates many of the mental health issues we are seeing in our present-day young athletes. If you are like most of us who grew up playing sports as kids or teenagers, you probably have first-hand experience into this culture, and chances are you still feel the effects of those experiences in one way or another.

Now, before we get too far into this, please know that my goal is not to portray competitive sports as this terrible evil or that everything about sports is bad. On the contrary, there are several proven benefits to young people playing sports that cannot be overstated. It is a great way to improve, confidence, motivation, teamwork, and overall physical health, while also promoting one’s sense of belonging, self-esteem, and ability to self-sooth.

However, the very nature of competitive sports, which demands constant improvement, self-evaluation, and comparing yourself to others has been perpetuated to the point where it is causing lasting effects on our young people, effects which tend to fester and eventually emerge as mental health issues later in life.

To begin and to help demonstrate our point, let’s examine that phrase “practice makes perfect” a little more. If you pick up just about any psychology or mental health journal that talks about stress or ask just about any mental health specialist about stress, there’s a good chance you may hear them talk about “perfectionism.” Perfectionism is this idea that everything we do must be (in our eyes) perfect, and it is something that our society generally pushes onto us for several different reasons (many of which are economic in nature). It is a state of being that we think will separate us from the crowd and help us stand out by being recognized by others as “The Best” at something.

In the world of competitive sports, “perfect” is not so much a state of being as it is a state of NOT being. To say it another way, perfect is the one thing that many athletes strive to achieve, even though it is impossible to become, because perfect, in its purist definition (being without flaws) is quite literally an imaginary concept.

Imagine being at work and your boss gives you a goal to achieve. So you put in all the work and make all the sacrifices necessary to achieve that goal, but then as soon as you start to get close, your boss comes back and tells you that not only has the goal been raised, but now there is an additional goal they want you to achieve that is just as important as the first. Now you must work even harder and sacrifice even more to achieve both goals at the same time. Then imagine again that you are getting close to achieving those two goals, but your boss returns and raises the goal yet again and also adds a third goal they want you to achieve. Then imagine this cycle continuing on and on until you have used up all your energy and sacrificed everything else in your life so that you are left with nothing but your unachieved goals without the ability or the energy to accomplish any of them. This is how perfectionism works, constantly pushing yourself to achieve a goal that only becomes more unattainable the farther along you go.

Instead of encouraging kids to achieve a goal that is unachievable by telling them “practice makes perfect,” try setting a more realistic expectation with “practice makes PERMANENT.” After all, the whole point of practice is to strengthen neural pathways in the brain so that you can easily recall information and improve muscle memory so that you are able to appropriately react to situations without thinking about it. You practice so that you can permanently imbed these skills into your mind and body. This is a much more realistic expectation to comprehend, which encourages constant growth rather than a desire to achieve one single stagnant goal.

In sports and exercise, there is a concept known as “the plateau effect.” This is a phenomenon that occurs when you have been training for so long that you begin to see a sharp decline in your progress, and the efforts you have been putting forth to improve now have to be doubled or even tripled in order to see that progress return. Clever trainers and coaches are able to find techniques to work around these plateaus. These techniques usually involve working one-on-one with an athlete and making adjustments in work-out plans, diet, rest times, etc.

However, for the average young athlete who does not have access to these top professionals to help them through these plateaus, they often result in feelings of frustration from no longer seeing growth, disappointment from not being able to achieve their goals, guilt from thinking they somehow failed, and eventually burnout from putting forth so much energy and dealing with so much stress without seeing the desired results.

Now, at this point you may be thinking, “So what?! I experienced stressful things when I was a kid. I just ignored it or stopped doing the thing that was causing me stress. Why don’t these athletes just do that?” The answer is that for most of these kids, walking away from their sport(s) is simply not an option.

Either due to social pressures from parental figures or peers who would ridicule them for “being a quitter,” or due to their own personal desires to succeed, which often override their critical thinking skills to avoid stress (just ask any parent of a teenager), many young athletes would rather deal with the ACTUAL chronic stress that comes with competing in a sport they don’t like than the IMPLIED or ANTICIPATED stress that comes with abandoning it.

To further complicate this issue, in many instances parents are encouraging their children to play sports that they played when they were young. So now, the parent has an increased investment in their child’s continued participation of that sport as well. This is due to the perception many parents have that their child is somehow an extension of themselves. If the child succeeds at something, the parent views it as their own success as well. Conversely, if the child fails, the parent shares in that failure too. This can quickly become problematic if the parent views abandoning a sport as a failure.

When it becomes obvious that a child is no longer enjoying a sport and it is causing them more stress than what they are developmentally capable of handling, many parents will still encourage their child to continue the sport anyway. If the child pushes back and tries to make a case for wanting to quit, parents often react with guilt trips or shaming tactics to pressure the child into sticking it out. See if any of these sound familiar:

  • You can’t quit! Only losers quit!
  • Come on, I didn’t quit when I was your age!
  • Suck it up, don’t be a sissy!
  • Quitters never win you know!

Now, does this mean these parents are “bad parents?” Not necessarily. Most parents only want what is best for their kids, so most of the time parents think they are doing good by encouraging their kids to figure out how to cope with stress and not give up on something just because it gets a little difficult. In many instances, a little parental pressure can be a good thing, like when you’re encouraging your child to try something new or teaching them about consequences. But the part that many parents struggle with is knowing what kinds of stress kids are developmentally capable of dealing with and understanding the detrimental effects that chronic stress can have on one’s overall mental health.

Over the past few decades, professionals have reported a steady increase in mental health issues in our society with anxiety being one of the most notable of those issues. According to both mental and physical health specialists, more and more young adults are being diagnosed with anxiety related conditions or report dealing with anxiety-like symptoms.

Even though the research conducted to determine the cause for this phenomenon is limited, signs have pointed to chronic stress during childhood as one possible cause, and since competitive sports are one of the most widely used and most commonly encouraged extracurricular activities that cause kids stress, and given all of the information we have discussed thus far, it’s not a stretch to say that competitive sports are, in some way, playing a substantial role in the increased levels of anxiety we are seeing in today’s young population.

So… now that we’ve got all the doom and gloom out of the way and sufficiently identified our problem, let’s get to the good stuff, what can we do to address these problems?

    1. Talk to a health care provider, they are there for a reason. As previously stated, health care professionals, both physical and mental, are seeing these increased cases of anxiety occur and are diligently documenting the effects along with the skills and resources necessary to treat them. As a result, policies are being created to help support schools, hospitals, mental health facilities, and other agencies to help meet these increasing needs. If you are a parent who thinks your child is suffering from an anxiety related issue, or if you are a young person struggling with anxiety, it is important to speak up and let someone know. Schedule an appointment with a family doctor or other professional to start addressing the issues early. The sooner we can identify the problem and begin treatment, the better off we’ll be.

 

    1. Busier isn’t always better. We seem to have it in our heads that if our kids are not doing some kind of structured activity like sports, we are failing as parents. Kids, especially preteens, need to have more time in unstructured play. Things such as going outside, playing in the backyard, making up games with their friends, acting silly, playing dress-up, and using toys in unconventional ways are great for helping kids alleviate stress, improve imagination, and increase their sense of control and confidence that they will need as they get older. As a parent, it is important to encourage these kinds of activities. Host sleepovers at your house, give them opportunities to be out in nature, allow them to be bored occasionally, and give kids a break from the constant structure and routine.

 

    1. Don’t just TALK to your kids, try LISTENING too. To most people this one sounds like basic common sense, but after working as a school counselor in a middle school for several years, I still get surprised at the number of parents who have no clue what’s going on in their own child’s world, not because their child doesn’t want to talk about it, but because the parents never bothered to listen to what the child has to say. Remember to check in with your kids from time to time and see what their feeling, especially if you know they have recently started a new activity or faced a challenging situation.

 

    1. We call them “Games” because they are supposed to be fun. Our society in general is very competitive, and although competition is not inherently bad, we must remember to keep a healthy perspective by balancing it with fun. In the case of kids in sports, I would argue that the scales should be slightly tipped in the favor of fun in order to see the most benefit. It is no secret that our brains function better when we are relaxed and enjoying ourselves, and just because we are engaged in competition doesn’t mean we can’t have fun at the same time. If you have a kid who plays sports, try to find different ways of making it fun for them such as:
      1. Learn about the sport so you can talk with them about it
      2. Go to practices and events to cheer them on
      3. Avoid criticizing their performance (that’s the coach’s job)
      4. Praise them for their successes, no matter how small
      5. Support them through their failures (remember, this is where they learn the most)

 

  1. Don’t freak! Kids are supposed to change. If I had a dime for every time I heard a parent say, “My kid just isn’t the same as they use to be,” I could probably retire by now. Change is the name of the game when it comes to kids. Their bodily chemicals are shifting, their brain structure is constantly forming new pathways, and their capacity to think more than 10 minutes ahead is about as good as their ability to calmly communicate with others. If a kid who has played a sport for several years comes to you and decides they are no longer interested and want to quit, don’t panic! Just take some time to sit and talk with them about their decision. If they are determined they no longer want to participate, instead of shaming or guilt tripping them, simply accept their answer and move on, even if you think it’s a decision they may end up regretting later. Sometimes it’s better to let kids learn their own lessons.

Bottom line, competitive sports are stressful by nature. A little bit of stress is ok, and sports have the potential to teach and support a variety of skills and personality traits. However, in the case of kids and young adults, too much stress can be very damaging to the psyche and lead to a variety of issues in their adult lives. As a parent of a child who participates in competitive sports, it is important to keep lines of communication open, check in with them regularly, make sports fun, give them some down-time, and keep an open mind if they lose interest and want to stop participating. Doing these things may not completely solve the problem, but they are a good place to start.