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Competitive sports & life lessons
In this post I’ll share some solid strategies to help our student-athletes manage stress, so they can avoid burnout and keep their mental wellness healthy and strong.
As volleyball parents, we know a little something about student-athlete stress. But we also know the value of competitive sports. Athletics teaches our kids important life lessons about teamwork and resilience. It encourages goal setting, instills work ethic, builds self-esteem, and helps funnel their natural energy into an active, healthy lifestyle. But what happens when the fun-loving, competitive spirit is overcome by anxiety? Are our student-athletes equipped to manage stress in healthy ways?
According to the National Institute for Mental Health, an estimated 32% of all adolescents in the U.S. have some form of anxiety. For the student-athlete who is overwhelmed (in school, with friends, or just living the “athlete life” pretty much all year-round) it’s important to learn ways to help recognize, manage, and reduce stress.
But first, if you’re new to my blog, WELCOME to Student Athlete Connections! The SAC blog is filled with resources to help you navigate your way through recruiting journey, which in itself can cause a LOT of stress! I hope you stay a while – and find something helpful!
Here are some of the most popular posts (bookmark & save for later)!
- NCAA Eligibility: What You Need to Know So You Don’t End Up on the Bench
- Calling College Coaches: What To Do Before Picking Up the Phone
- How to Create a Volleyball Highlight Video that Coaches Want to Watch
- Recruiting Visits: What You Need to Know About the New NCAA Rules
- Am I Being Recruited? How to Gauge Where You Stand as a Volleyball Recruit
Ok, so let’s get back to our topic and dive right in!
Stress and anxiety
When we talk about stress and anxiety it’s important to recognize that although we all face stress from time to time, we don’t all necessarily develop anxiety because of it. Webster’s defines being anxious as “feeling or showing uncomfortable feelings of uncertainty.” Umm.. that could definitely describe most athletes – or pretty much all teenagers, for that matter!
But how do we know where the sweet spot is between just feeling anxious and a more concerning state of real anxiety?
And with our kiddos getting ready to leave the nest soon, how can we best prepare our children well for life as a college student-athlete, and all the stress that THAT will bring?
Good stress, bad stress
Stress is not all bad. Believe it or not, it can actually be good for us.
If you’ve ever trained for a race, learned a skill, or started a new workout program, you know that pushing your body and mind past your comfort zone is a skill that can take months (or even years) to master. It’s tough, and a little uncomfortable, but not completely unbearable. For the most part, knowing that our training gets us closer to our goal helps our internal motivation and we press on.
This is “good” stress.
For your student-athlete, the slight stress they feel before a game might be “good” stress. Showing up for a tryout is an example of “good” stress. Competing for a spot on a roster? Getting reasonably good grades? Also “good” stress.
The good stress that our kids go through – the kind that pushes them to be more alert, to focus on their goals, get stronger, build confidence, and ultimately achieve the outcome they want – is healthy.
When there are too many stressors at once, or the stress becomes too long-lasting, that’s when our good stress can cross over into overwhelm.
That’s the “bad” stress that we don’t want.
The key is recognizing when the overwhelm feels like it’s creeping in, and managing it in healthy ways so we never feel like we’re out of control.
If we teach our athletes ways to proactively manage stress – as high schoolers and eventually equipping them in college and beyond – we can help them avoid a whole host of other health concerns, like digestive issues, sleep problems, and even stroke and heart disease.
Finding the sweet spot
It goes without saying that chronic stress affects a student-athletes’ performance. This is true not only on the court, but in the classroom, with their friends, and in their interactions with family, too. If you have a stressed-out teenager at home, you already know they aren’t real pleasant to be around at times (can I get an Amen?)!
For an athlete, the optimal place to be is just enough stress to play at the top of their game, but not too much that it overcomes their thoughts and emotions or interferes with a healthy, normal life.
There is a sweet spot between “normal” (tolerable) stress…
Just enough stress helps me play well… I’m competitive and I know that how I do in this game/practice matters…
Too much (chronic) stress…
I feel overwhelmed with this crazy schedule and the expectations everyone has of me…
I can’t focus in class or on the court…
This isn’t even fun anymore… I should just give up.
The juggling act of student-athlete stress
A study was done asking Division I freshmen athletes in their first semester of college to identify stressors in their life. When comparing athletes to non-athletes, the athletes reported more stress than the non-athletes in a number of areas.
For more than 40% of male athletes and over half of the female athletes, factors related to “time” were the most serious causes of stress. Most of the subjects in the study felt that there was simply not enough time to do all the things that excelling in academics and athletics required – especially if they wanted to to their best in both areas (Humphrey et al., 2000).
Top student-athlete stress sources
After the student-athlete stress study, they compiled a list of the most common top stress-inducing conditions. Although the athletes in the study were already playing in college, this list can definitely also apply to high school student-athletes, too. In fact, many of our kids are/will be juggling all of these at once!
- Time management: practice; class; eat; weights; homework; eat; sleep; “voluntary” conditioning (especially in the off season); socializing (if there’s time); repeat
- Academic expectations: keeping up their GPA/eligibility; preparing for tests; doing class assignments; missing classes because of travel; meeting with teachers; making up missed assignments
- Athletic performance: pressure to earn/keep their position; pressure to perform well; preventing/treating physical injuries
- Playing time: earning it; keeping it; always knowing your competition
- Social relationships: navigating the relationships with teammates, coaches, friends, roommates, and family
- Poor health habits: not enough sleep; poor diet; fatigue from physically over-training the body (and possible injuries/rehab)
- Parents: not wanting to let them down after the’ve done so much to help get them to where they are (whether they say this one out loud or not)
Preparing them to launch
If you’ve already launched one or more of your kids off to college, you know how hard it can be as a parent. We just want to know that our kids are OK, both physically and emotionally.
We try our best to prepare them, so they can manage personal chores like laundry, basic cooking (hopefully eating somethingn green once in a while), and making their bed. =) We teach them about money, in hopes that they spend well, save a little, and stay out of debt. All important life stuff, as they transition into the world of “adulting”!
But many parents don’t think that much about preparing them for mental health issues. To a certain extent, we just do our best while we have them, and pray that they are well-prepared for what’s in store. In most cases, that’s enough.
If your student-athlete is like many of the ones in the stress study, however, they could probably use more. When the stress hits (and it will), do they really know to seek (healthy) strategies for coping with it all?
With all of those stressors, it’s good to know that one of the most valuable benefits of becoming a student-athlete in college is that there is an instant support group in place right from day one.
As a college athlete, you’re part of a team. You have a built-in network. Your coaches, trainers, academic advisors, and teammates all have a collective goal around the team’s (and your) success. This is so valuable!
Encourage your young student-athlete to take advantage of this!
Having a plan
Being on a team definitely has its value, but besides having their team to lean on, our student-athletes need a personal plan, too.
Equipping our student-athletes with a personal plan to tap into, is a healthy way to manage stress in their lives, can help teach give them an internal compass when it comes to finding balance along the way. Finding that “sweet spot” involves helping them regain the feeling of being in control when things get hectic, long after school and volleyball are over.
The STRETCH PLAN to manage stress as a student-athlete
No question, there are many factors that play into any one student-athlete’s stress tolerance. What one athlete considers “normal” stress may be an overwhelming season for another. For yet another, it can lead to anxiety, depression, or even dangerous behavior.
I’ve created what I call The STRETCH Plan for managing student-athlete stress. The acronym S.T.R.E.T.C.H. is significant because just like stretching the body helps prepare muscles for a workout to avoid injury and have the best performance, the behaviors in the STRETCH Plan will help our athletes to be prepared so they are armed and ready when that inevitable stress strikes!
Here are seven simple strategies a student-athlete can use to help keep their stress in check. Share them with your student-athlete, so they are ready BEFORE things get to a point of overwhelm and anxiety (click here to download as a PDF).
STRETCH 7-Step Plan to Manage Stress for Student-Athletes
1. Speak positively. Maintaining a positive perspective boosts confidence. Athletes need this daily – sometimes after every point! Speak positively with yourself, especially when you don’t feel like it.
2. Tell a support system. Go hang out with a friend. Text or call someone. Talk to a counselor or coach. Just don’t let things stay bottled up.
3. Reorganize your schedule. If the to-do list is making the day too overwhelming, it’s time for some prioritizing of your time. Planning your schedule around practices and homework, but include time for personal self-care – eating and sleeping well, and even setting some self-imposed time boundaries on social media if needed.
4. Expect adversity. None of us are perfect. No one has a life where nothing ever goes wrong. At practice, continue working to hone your physical abilities and skills, but know that you will have days where your resilience will be tested.
5. Take things one step at a time. Put your energy into the next play (coaches say that all the time for a reason). Do the next thing well, instead of all the things with mediocrity. Know that it’s highly unlikely to do a multitude of things simultaneously with perfection. And be OK with that.
6. Chill. Learn what helps you decompress – and then to carve out some time to do it. It might be a hobby outside of volleyball, laughing with friends, listening to music, prayer time, reading, or riding your bike to the mall. Whatever works!
7. Have a growth mindset. Guess what? Failure is an experiment! Reframe a “failure” (which is usually associated with a punishment) into an “I tried that and it didn’t work, so now I’ll try this” mindset. Don’t be afraid to take life as you play your games – one point at a time.
Recognizing a stressed-out student-athlete
Many student-athletes have been raised in a sports culture of “just play through the pain”. Playing through a sore ankle in practice is one thing, but many student-athletes will hesitate to speak up when it comes to their mental health. This makes it harder to recognize when overwhelm is setting in.
They might feel like they should just “suck it up” because “everyone goes through this”. They also might fear embarrassment, or worse (in their eyes, anyway) – losing playing time, peer judgement, coach reprimands, or even being cut from the team.
But unlike a twisted ankle or torn ACL, many of the signs of chronic stress are invisible. Sadly, sometimes those closest to a person are the last to know that anything is even wrong.
In recent years, as public awareness and acceptance increases, the stigma around mental health for student-athletes is fading along with it. Still, there is a long way to go. Left unchecked, student-athletes can develop serious conditions as a result of not managing their chronic stress – anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and eating disorders, just to name a few. Some signs of depression that all of us should be mindful of include:
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Sudden weight lods
- Decrease in social activity
- Lack of energy
Being the support
Sometimes knowing a caring friend, family member, coach, or teammate is in their corner to listen and understand is enough to help a student-athlete feel they can manage their stress. If not – and especially if the athlete is showing some of the signs listed above – support services in the community or at the school should be offered as alternatives.
If it’s true depression, telling someone to just, “cheer up” isn’t going to be enough of a solution and a professional is definitely needed. If you know of someone who needs support, don’t hesitate. You might be saving a life!
Whether still in high school, or on their way to college, student-athlete stress is real. Unfortunately, the anxiety that sometimes comes along with that is, too. Hopefully, equipping your student-athlete with the 7 strategies in the STRETCH Plan will help them manage their stress in healthy, productive ways, so they can enjoy their experience and continue playing the sport they love.
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Articles and Studies:
Humphrey, J. H., Yow, D. A. & Bowden, W. W. (2000). Stress in college athletics: Causes, consequences, coping. Binghamton, NY: The Haworth Half-Court Press.Wilson, Gregory & Pritchard, Mary. (2005).
Comparing Sources of Stress in College Student Athletes and Non-Athletes. Athletic Insight: The Online Journal of Sport Psychology.
Managing Student-Athlete’s Mental Health Issues
Mind, Body, Sport
National Institute of Health Fact Sheet on Teen Depression
Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255