The Mental Health of Youth Baseball Players
Supporting psychological well-being in young athletes
Chad Asplund, MD, MPH
Executive Director, US Council for Athletes’ Health
Youth baseball is often the first organized sport that children start to play. Many of the lessons learned from youth baseball will help shape the thought processes regarding organized sports or sports in general for many young people. Organized sports, such as youth baseball, can be such a positive tool to learn things like how to be coached, how to compete, sportsmanship, and how to win or lose. However, there can also be a negative side to organized sports. Too much focus on winning, over-scheduling, and poor parent/fan behavior can create a toxic environment.
Youth sports are no longer the neighborhood pickup games of American lore. In recent years children as young as 6 and 7 are increasingly enrolling in high-level sports programs with professional coaches and year-round competition schedules. By age 13, up to 70% of children have dropped out of organized sports.
Evidence suggests that as young people compete more intensely in sports, gains in mental wellness may be replaced by mental health challenges particular to competitive athletics. Pre-pandemic, up to 20% of college athletes experienced major depression. For young athletes competing at national and international levels, anxiety and depression were 20% to 45% — higher in some cases than those in the age-matched control groups.
Parents are supposed to be the ones teaching good sportsmanship and how to behave, but more often than ever, umpires, coaches, and kids are dealing with tantrums from parents. This bad behavior by parents has led to a shortage of umpires and referees across many organized sports. Experts also say the amount parents invest, not just emotionally from the stands but also financially, adds to the pressure kids are feeling. Further, their actions often lead to a toxic environment in youth sports, when instead, they should be supportive and encouraging.
It is very important that coaches and parents are able to recognize the signs of decreasing mental health in young athletes. These signs include reduced interest in sport or other activities, sleep irregularities, irritability, change in appetite, and poor performance in sports or school. The recent position statement on mental health issues in athletes by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine notes that the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy was stressed as an effective treatment for anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and other mental health conditions in the youth athlete population.
Supporting psychological well-being in our young athletes feels especially urgent as we emerge from a pandemic that has probably affected everyone’s mental health in some way. Sports medicine experts are just beginning to seriously study the mental health problems that arise in youth sports, but it’s increasingly evident that constant competition, year-round training, and parental bad behavior can all contribute to worsening mental health in young athletes.
Dr. Chad Asplund is the executive director of USCAH, as well as a sports medicine physician and Professor of Family Medicine and Orthopedics at the Medical College of Georgia. Chad currently serves as the medical director for USA Basketball, and a team physician for USA Hockey, USA Triathlon, and Georgia Southern University. If you have any questions for Dr. Asplund, you can reach him at [email protected]
As a trusted partner with USA Baseball, we are pleased to offer a free online course, "Mental Health in Sport”. To access the free course, please visit www.athleticshealthspace.com and select “Create New Account with Program Code”. Enter your account information and the Program Code: PARENT. Follow the on-screen instructions after you create your account.
The U.S. Council for Athletes' Health (USCAH) was founded upon the need for trusted, independent athletic health care partners with the experience and expertise to advise and consult with organizations regarding their healthcare delivery system. This is why USCAH is committed to providing independent and unbiased medical expertise to organizations and individuals dedicated to the optimal health and safety for the athletes they serve. You can find out more about USCAH at www.uscah.com or by reaching out to [email protected]