Whether at the professional or intramural level, there are so many benefits to being an athlete. Participating in a sport teaches communication skills, how to overcome adversity—and regular exercise has so many incredible health effects on the mind and body.
But that’s not to say athletes don’t have their own set of challenges. Pressures to perform, physical injuries and intense schedules can take a toll on anyone’s mental health, which is where a sport psychologist comes in.
“It’s helpful that a sport psychologist knows the culture of athletics and the typical stressors that athletes face,” says Seth Swary, Ph.D., a sport psychology clinician at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine. “We’re familiar with the influence the world of athletics can have on someone and how it can affect their well-being.
“Athletes have a whole team around them to help them perform — athletic trainers, nutritionists, etc.— so why shouldn’t they have an expert who is dedicated to supporting their mental health? A sport psychologist acts as a strength-training coach for the mind.”
Mental Health Challenges That Athletes Face & How Sport Psychology Can Help
Athletes often have a built-in support system: teammates and coaches who know what they’re going through and trainers and physicians who can help manage aches and injuries. But still, it’s not always easy. Some of the difficulties that athletes face include:
- Increased attention on body image. Especially if you play a sport that requires revealing outfits — or a sport with increased focus on weight — it might be difficult to maintain a healthy body image. For some, this can lead to an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
- The pressure to perform. “If you’re an athlete at the college or professional level and play badly during a game, you get roasted on Twitter,” says Dr. Swary. “But even if you’re not in the public eye, there is pressure to perform — from coaches, teammates, family members.”
- Navigating demanding schedules. “I work with many college athletes and their schedules are packed — practicing at least two hours a day, team meetings, traveling to and from games — and then they’re trying to keep up with school,” says Dr. Swary. “It can be stressful.”
- Debilitating physical injuries. The physical demand of sports can also bring about its own set of challenges — especially when injuries occur. “You’re not only dealing with surgery and rehabilitation, but you’re also out of the game for a while,” says Dr. Swary.
- Making career transitions. “I’ve worked with many athletes who are transitioning from one level of athletics to another (for example, middle school to high school, high school to college, college to professional) along with athletes who are transitioning out of their career,” says Dr. Swary. “They wonder how they can leave this sport they’ve been doing their whole lives — some since they were 3 or 4 years old. It can be a huge part of their identity and a tough transition to make. Even more so if it’s an injury that abruptly derails their career. We can provide them with ways to make a smooth, healthy transition.”
That said, nothing “bad” has to happen to benefit from sport psychology. As Dr. Swary says, you don’t see a personal trainer because you’re not strong, you see a personal trainer because you could benefit from being stronger. It’s the same with sport psychology — and it can help improve your performance.
“We have specific skills we work on for performance optimization,” says Dr. Swary. “How do we talk to ourselves? How do we respond in certain situations? How do we stay in the moment when we’re distracted?
“A high school athlete may have had a rough day at school; then they have to refocus and find energy at the end of the day for their game. It can be helpful for any athlete at any time.”
Reviewed by Seth Swary, Ph.D., a sport psychology clinician at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine.
To learn more about the sport psychology program at Henry Ford or to request an appointment, visit henryford.com/sportpsychology.
Playing sports is a great way for children of all ages to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It also builds confidence and teaches them valuable life lessons, like working as a team and the value of hard work. While it may be every sports fanatic’s dream to have their kid make it big time in the arena or on the diamond, sometimes pushing young athletes to be the best at a young age can lead to serious injuries that will take them out of the game altogether.
"Sports help with physical and psychological well-being," says Matthew Santa Barbara, M.D., a sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. "However, year-round participation in a single sport at a young age can lead to overuse injuries and mental burnout."
Nowadays, many kids will start playing one sport at a young age and continue to play that same sport year-round for years. This can be harmful to your child because his or her soft tissue and bone structures aren't fully developed. Furthermore, the pressures of year-round participation and focus on excelling, rather than enjoyment, can negatively affect a young athlete's mental health.
Basketball causes the most injuries among high schoolers, causing many visits to the emergency room each year for stressed and torn ankle ligaments. In baseball, the Tommy John surgery, a procedure to reconstruct torn ligaments in the elbow after overuse, has also been increasingly used to treat young athletes still in high school.
How To Prevent Sports Injuries
Preparing your children appropriately before a sports season begins and supporting them during the season is important. Dr. Santa Barbara offers four key pieces of advice to help your youth athletes avoid injury.
1. Don’t limit your child to one sport. Playing a variety of sports in different seasons is a great way to work different parts of the body. When your child gets older, they can make the transition to playing a single sport they are good at and enjoy.
2. Warm up. Make sure your child is properly warming up before they play any sport. Dynamic warmups--incorporating exercises that involve moving the body such as lunges, high knees and arm circles – are preferable to stretching alone.
3. Strengthen core muscles. Building up core strength takes pressure off joints in the arms and legs. It gives young athletes more momentum and can help improve their performance.
4. Abide by rest rules. Many schools and sports leagues have rules in place to limit how many teams kids are on or how often they play. Follow these to ensure your child is allowing time for their joints and muscles to recover from physical activity.
Children participating in a sport should never push through pain, and injuries should be promptly evaluated by a sports medicine physician. Physical injuries are often more obvious, while mental health issues due to sports participation can be more subtle. Symptoms such as fatigue and declining performance can be signs of burnout. In these situations, rest is also important.
"Sports should be fun for kids," says Dr. Santa Barbara. "Avoiding single-sports specialization at a young age keeps the focus on enjoyment while reducing the physical and psychological risks of year-round participation."
To find a sports medicine provider at Henry Ford Health, visit henryford.com/sportsmedicine or call 313-651-1969.
Matthew Santa Barbara, M.D., is a non-operative sports medicine physician at Henry Ford Health. He sees patients at the Henry Ford Center for Athletic Medicine in Detroit, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital, Henry Ford Medical Center - Columbus, Henry Ford Medical Center - Bloomfield Township and Henry Ford Medical Center - Fairlane.