Mental Health and It’s Control over the Youth Athlete

Mental health article

Soccer, just as all other sports, is equally a physical sport as it is a mental sport. Players can be in the best shape or have the most precise ball control but if they aren’t mentally checked in, their game will be off. This is true at all ages and levels of the game. 

Luckily a shift is occurring in youth sports where clubs, families and players are starting to focus more on their overall mental well-being instead of just ‘pushing through’. We are really starting to dig into the importance of building tools and teaching young athletes to recognize what is going on in their brain instead of just ignoring it or thinking something is ‘wrong’.

Ryan Defibaugh, MS, LCPC, NCC owns MBS Performance Counseling in Maryland. MBS Performance Counseling specializes in performance and anxiety counseling in youth athletes from 10 to 25 years of age. I was lucky to attend a few of his sessions during the convention which focused on building confidence, recognizing anxiety in athletes and motivating young athletes. Please feel free to check out his website for information and/or resources ( 

I want to present some of the information below to hopefully help parents and players understand some of the pressures and to better understand how mental health can play a role in their performance. I am not an expert but am sharing information that I feel could benefit our young, especially female/female identifying athletes. 

For background, anxiety is defined as our response to a perceived threat. A feeling of worry, nervousness or unease typically leading to avoidance behaviors and often some physical symptoms. Our brain is also still hardwired for survival – it hates the unknown and tries to predict any and all outcomes that would lead to survival. Our body is preparing ourselves for battle – and these feelings can show up in many ways (for example: headache, blurred vision, stomach upset, heavy breathing, etc.). 

Our young athletes have increased levels of anxiety due to many societal pressures of ‘defined success’. One of the problems with this is that athletes start to become afraid to try new things because of the fear of failing at the new skill and that it will affect their view on the team and within the eyes of the coach/parental figure.  Far too often (especially when the athletes are younger) the emphasis is on winning rather than growth or the journey. There comes a time and a place where winning becomes a necessary evil but too early of a focus here can hinder player growth and confidence, causing higher levels of anxiety. 

Here are some things that players can ‘sit with’ and coaches/parental figures can consider as discussion points to help our young athletes:

  • Remind them that winning does not make you better and losing does not make you worse. We should treat ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ similarly: results are fleeting but what lessons can we learn from each moment?
  • “You are never as good as you think you are when you win and you are never as bad as you think you are when you lose” (quote from a former Penn State coach). Set goals for yourself in each situation. Did you achieve those goals or what can you do to try to achieve them next time. Did you try something new?
  • Is what you are feeling based on facts or based on opinions? Whose opinions? Why do they matter to you?
  • Are you training yourself mentally and physically or just physically? What tools can you mentally work on to improve yourself/your game? Do you notice a difference in the way you play depending on the mindset you start the practice or game with? How do you speak to yourself (or your child) after the game or practice? 
  • Most importantly: can we focus on the process over the results! And with setbacks, what motivation can we find to overcome or move past them? Focus on the controllables (which include your level of effort, your focus, your skills, your nutrition, etc.).

When young athletes begin to look at the game differently, the ‘success’ naturally follows. Truthfully, what defines success for them? No one can win every game but how can the athlete come out feeling like a winner regardless? What lessons can they take with them?


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