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Healthy Living >>> Teen Health Articles & News

Sports and Teens: How To Reduce Some of the Stress

By: Donald E. Greydanus, MD

If you are like many parents, you are probably very interested in having your children and teenagers become active in sports. The hope is that sports activity will be a beneficial experience for both you and your children. As a pediatrician, I am often asked a number of questions about adolescents, sports and stress. “Will my teenager experience stress as a result of sports play?” “How can I reduce some of the potential emotional problems involved in sports?” This article explores some of the factors that may lead to a negative reaction by your teenagers as they take part in various sports.

Stress and Sports
Stress is a natural part of sports participation, as stress is natural in many aspects of life.

Stress can be a good learning experience
Experiencing stress in sports can be a good learning experience for teenagers. Sports participation can teach your athlete how to handle competition, defeat, and even performance anxiety. It can teach your teenager about physical fitness, how to develop social skills and friendships, and the importance of team-play in sports and in life. The stress of trying out and not being accepted on a team can be a positive learning experience if handled well, or a very negative one if handled badly. Parents and clinicians can be very helpful to teenagers by acknowledging this fact and discussing such issues with them.

Stress can also lead to problems
Negative consequences of overwhelming stress are many, including chronic fatigue (‘athletic burnout syndrome’), depression and rapid loss of previously learned skills. ‘Burnout’ can also result from over-training, encouraged by overzealous parents, coaches, or the teenagers themselves. Children and teenagers should enjoy their sports participation and not be forced by parents or coaches to specialize in one sport too early, in the hopes of producing a famous professional superstar. Teenagers who excel at one sport may feel sad or anxious during its off-season. Encouraging other, perhaps noncompetitive sports and social activities during this time may help teenagers who are temporarily on break from their sport.

Helping to relieve sports-related stress
There are a number of techniques that can be helpful in preventing or reducing sports-induced stress. Relaxation training, meditation, hypnosis, breath control, yoga, prayer, and biofeedback are all techniques that help to relieve stress. I recommend that athletes who are under excessive sports-induced stress work with sports medicine clinicians or psychologists who can teach them some of these methods. You can talk to your health care professional to get more information or a referral, if needed.

Developing positive sports goals
Parents should avoid joining the current milieu of ‘victory at any cost’, which is noted in many organized sports programs, including high school competition. I recommend that parents and school personnel encourage adolescents to set positive goals in their sports activities. Learning the joy of physical activity and acquiring a sense of competence are two such positive goals. Our teenagers should not be placed under overwhelming pressure to win. You should not push your children beyond their abilities nor teach your children that self-esteem comes only from winning. Some young people I have treated feel that they are loved and valued only if they do well in sports. Just go to a sports event at any junior high or high school and you can see parents yelling at their children, coaches, umpires and fellow parents, in a vain attempt to teach love only through victory. Parents must be aware of this attitude and guard against it.

Psychosocial Development
We should remember that children, young teenagers and older teenagers are at different stages of development, and their level of development may influence their sports performance.

Young teenagers
Young teenagers (ages 11-14) may not be able to see into the future very well and they may only be able to manage the ‘here and now’ issues; if your child is like this, he is called a concrete thinker. Also, young teenagers often raise many concerns about various aches and pains that are sometimes (though not always) related to sports activities. Some young teenagers worry that these normal aches and pains are associated with a more grave condition. This transient stage of worry is called the hypochondriacal stage of early adolescence.

Now with all these factors combined, you may have a young athlete who has various aches or pains and is afraid the discomfort will never end. Young athletes who suffer from a minor injury may really struggle with being out of the game for a short period of time, and a short period of time may feel like forever to them. I find that a month may seem like forever to some young, concrete-thinking teenagers. You, and your child’s coach, should understand this dilemma and should not be surprised if your young teenager is temporarily irritable.

Older teenagers
Many older teenagers (ages 15-19) develop more reasoning skills as their minds mature. These so-called abstract thinkers need more logical explanations in response to questions, whether about sports, school or other aspects of their lives. Parents and coaches should be patient with these increasingly demanding minds, and provide them with explanations.

If you have an adolescent who is experiencing rapid deterioration of his athletic performance, he may be overwhelmed by common adolescent concerns of current times, such as family conflicts, mood swings, drug abuse, or depression. Keeping in mind the normal psychosocial development of teenagers can be helpful for you as you watch your children mature, in athletics and in all aspects of their lives. Do not, however, be afraid to get an evaluation from your primary care clinician or other health care professional who is knowledgeable about the effects of sports, if you suspect problems are developing.

Precocious Development
The precocious teenage athlete who starts physical development before his or her other peers (the early developer) may be called a ‘superstar’ and may become the object of considerable attention and praise from parents, other family members, coaches, and fellow students. This can be seen even in pre-junior high school sports.

Putting eggs in more than one basket
If you have a child like this, please note that only one-fourth of these young ‘superstars’ will remain in this enviable category through high school and beyond, as other peers catch up and even surpass the early developer. The resulting frustration can be quite severe for you and your child. Your teenager may be accused of being a ‘loser’ or of being lazy because she is no longer more successful than her peers. A teenager in this position may find himself considerably disturbed by these circumstances. He may experience depression or anxiety, and may express a number of negative behaviors. I advise parents of these young stars to follow them carefully and provide them with alternative activities so that they can develop healthy, well-rounded lifestyles. Actually, all parents of athletes should ensure the normal development of their teenagers’ other abilities (e.g., music, art, scholarship).

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Delayed Puberty
Young people with delayed puberty (delayed physical development) are smaller than other teenagers their age, and in the sports arena they are often ignored by peers and sports coaches. When they compete against more physically advanced peers who are usually larger and stronger, the risk of injury to the less mature teenager dramatically increases. Parents should be sure that school officials match up their athletes properly to provide as low a risk of injury as possible. Those teenagers with delayed puberty should be assured that full puberty will eventually occur.

Patience, the golden rule
Maximal weight gain and muscle strength normally occurs several months after ‘the growth spurt’. A tall, thin, late-maturing boy may grow tall quickly but still not have the muscle strength and power of a shorter, more physically developed peer. Parents and coaches should avoid placing premature expectations on a teenager who may not be able to compete against more physically mature peers for several months or even years. If a developing teenager is pushed too fast, psychological and physical injury may result. Today’s pressure for victory may result in false charges of ‘sub-par’ performance - frustrating all involved with long-lasting consequences.

Adolescent Awkwardness
‘Adolescent awkwardness’ refers to a temporary time of motor incoordination in some teenage boys during their growth spurt. This temporary awkwardness is often seen in rapidly-growing boys. It can last approximately six months and affect important skills such as balance and general coordination. The growth in teenage boys, from trunk to legs, may influence this phenomenon. These teenagers should know that it is a normal growth phase and it will pass. Unrealistic performance should not be expected of these athletes.

Some parents who perceive their children as obese may ‘push’ their children into active sports play in the hope that it will help their children lose weight. Though sports activity may be useful in helping a teenager control and even lose weight, my advice is that severely overweight children often benefit more in the long run from nutrition counseling and exercise training. Obese children may be more or less developed than their peers, but if an obese teenager is less developed, he or she may be at risk of serious injury in collision sports. Adipose tissue (fat tissue) is not as strong as muscle tissue, and puts these children at greater risk of injury.

Chronic Illness and Disability
Teenagers with chronic illness or disability can still experience the joy of participating in some modified sports. Clinicians and school personnel can work together to see that this is possible and encouraged. Parents can work with their teenager’s clinician to craft a physical activity to suit the teenager’s level of ability. Chronic illness or physical disability should not deter teenagers from participating in realistic sports activity.

As parents of teenagers who play sports, we all fear that our children will be injured at some time in their sports careers. In fact, many are hurt and need thoughtful attention. A careful injury-management plan should be developed, and it is important not to minimize the extent of the injury. There is often a great temptation, on the part of a parent, a coach, or the athlete himself, to rush through recovery. Some teenagers find that their time away from a sport is actually a positive experience. Many do not.

Teenagers’ response to injury

The response of athletes to physical injury may involve five stages:
1. Disbelief with Denial and Isolation
2. Anger
3. Bargaining
4. Depression
5. Acceptance and Resignation with Hope

Initially, an athlete may not believe that she is injured and may try to continue playing her sport. An injured teenage athlete may isolate herself from family and friends and may become angry. She may then become depressed when she fully realizes that she will need to stop playing her sport during the recovery period. This realization may be overwhelming for a teenager. Understanding the ‘injury stage’ your teenage athlete is in can be helpful in responding to any injury-induced behavior. Various behavioral techniques, such as relaxation training or problem solving methods are helpful in combination with medical treatments and physical therapy. The teenager’s physician should be able to recommend medical professionals who can help.

Don’t succumb to the pressure
An injured teenager may not recover as quickly as he wishes and may push his parents or clinician to let him get back to the game before he’s fully recovered. You should avoid yielding to your teenager’s desire to return early to his sport. Certainly, parents should avoid putting pressure on a teenager to return to practice or competition early. Identifying realistic goals in the recovery process is important, and a teenager should get back to his sport at the appropriate time, after he has achieved the best possible recovery.

Sports offer teenagers a wealth of positive experiences. Sports participants can learn how to win gracefully and lose without losing hope. They can also learn how to put winning and losing in perspective. Many teenagers are not physically active - 50% of high school females and 25% of males are not involved in vigorous exercise. Participation in a sports regimen as a teenager may help teenagers continue regular physical activity into their adult lives.

There are, however, a number of factors that may interfere with a positive sports experience. Teenage level sports have, in recent times, become very highly organized and very competitive activities. In many cases we have lost the spontaneous, fun aspects of participating in a sport. Parents’ familiarity with adolescent psychological and physical development may help them regain their own perspective about the real benefits of sports activity for their teenage children.

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