Sports Performance | Nutrition | Women's Health | Gymnastics
Mental Health of Young Female Athletes: Common Issues and Treatments
Chief Operating Officer // Partner // Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, MSPT // EW Motion Therapy
While being a kid is hard, being a competitive young female athlete can be even more challenging. On top of regular schoolwork, many young athletes train for 25-30 hours per week; whether they realize it or not, this can dramatically affect their mental health. So what can these kids do to stay healthy and competitive? And how can their parents support them through it all?
A young impressionable child coupled with immense pressure to be perfect can be a recipe for burnout and anxiety if not handled well by parents and the athlete themselves. But with the right support system, these young athletes can thrive in their sport and maintain a healthy lifestyle. We work with many young clients at EW Motion Therapy, and have for years. From gymnasts to cross-country runners, we help them (and their parents) develop a plan to keep them healthy, feeling good, and performing well. Even if you decide not to work with us, we still want to discuss some mental problems young athletes might face.
This article discusses common mental health problems among young female athletes, how these issues can affect their performance, and what they and their parents can do to help. With this information, they can return to their gym, track, field, or court and continue to thrive.
What mental health problems can young female athletes experience?
For young female athletes, especially gymnasts, dancers, and cheerleaders, there are a few different mental health issues that could manifest throughout their careers. This can obviously vary between athletes, and this description is most likely not comprehensive, but we will discuss three of the most common problems young girls face.
It is easy for gymnasts, dancers, and cheerleaders to experience increased anxiety. In a competition setting, a single athlete is often on the floor by herself, without other teammates to rely on. This can lead to increased pressure and feeling like they are being judged more intensely. A competitive environment could easily cause anxiety, especially in young girls. Unfortunately, performance anxiety in gymnastics, dance, or cheerleading puts the athlete at increased risk of injury - the margin of error in both sports is minimal. Athletes must overcome their fear to land every trick and excel, which is not for the faint of heart.
Perfectionism/type A personality
In many settings, perfectionism can be crippling and hinder you more than it could help. However, in gymnastics, dance, and cheerleading, perfection is often a set bar. The skills performed are so exact and require such precision that it is easy for anyone to become hyperfocused on form. Additionally, judges at a competition will deduct points for minor things, so if one girl makes one tiny mistake, it could mean the difference between first and second place for the whole team. No one wants to be the weak link - kids are competitive even outside a gym setting. But many young female athletes fail to realize that their bodies have limits, which can lead to injuries if they do not know when to stop and rest.
With the time they spend in the gym, it is easy for many young girls to carry their perfectionism and lack of patience into other parts of their lives, like schoolwork and relationships, which can harm their overall mental health.
If a young girl commits to a gymnastics team or a cheerleading squad, she has to be “in it to win it.” This mindset often requires intense weekly training, usually between 25-40 hours for competitive, high-level teams. Between this training schedule and school, many young girls are exhausted by the end of the day, and it can be difficult to incorporate other activities into this schedule. Many young athletes must miss events like football games and school dances to go to a competition, and it is easy for their teammates to become their only friend group. Even within this group, it is easy for an athlete to get in their head, and they can block out support from others without realizing it. Outside their gym, their social life can suffer, which can be detrimental to their mental health and wellbeing.
What can young female athletes do to improve their mental health?
Young female athletes must take care of themselves outside of practice to maintain their mental health and keep from burning out. The easiest way to do this is by finding healthy outlets for stress. It can be challenging to incorporate something else into a busy schedule, but something as simple as going on walks outside or reading can be a great way to reduce stress.
Getting involved in other social groups outside the team can also help build social skills and other relationships. A church youth group or an after-school club could be a great place to start. Seeking professional mental health advice is never a bad idea, and a skilled therapist in your area can help any young girl work through her feelings and be the best version of herself.
What can parents do to help?
Now you know more about mental health issues young female athletes can face and some ways to ensure they can relieve stress in healthy ways. The best thing parents can do for their kids is to be there for them and have their best interest at heart - physical health problems and injuries can incur mental health problems while competing, and kids need their parents to be supportive. Rest in between practices and a robust support system can help active, competitive girls go farther than they ever thought possible.
Young girls are hard enough on themselves, but when they are involved in a demanding sport outside of their typical responsibilities, giving them the tools they need to rest and continue to perform well is vital. By relieving stress and finding fulfilling activities outside of the gym, kids can get the rest they need and continue to grow strong and healthy. We emphasize this with our young clients at EW Motion Therapy and try to provide resources for both kids and parents to live a healthy lifestyle. If you or your child is interested in working with us, answer the questions in our Program Match Tool to see which program best fits your needs.