How Can Parents Create Change in a Toxic Youth Sports Culture?

The toxicity of youth sports culture has been gaining attention for more than a decade, but the suicides of college athletes Lauren Bernett (softball, James Madison University) and Katie Meyer (soccer, Stanford University) drew renewed attention to the vulnerability of athletes’ mental health.

Key takeaways:
  • arrow-right
    Youth sports provide opportunity to develop skills and self-confidence.
  • arrow-right
    Coaches and parents model life and social skills to young athletes.
  • arrow-right
    Student athletes need support to balance the dual demands of team and school.
  • arrow-right
    Injury and recovery may unravel an athlete’s sense of self-worth.
  • arrow-right
    Parents can take a leadership role in promoting a positive youth sports climate.
  • arrow-right
    Volunteer on the team before providing suggestions for improving youth sports culture.

These student athletes had achieved their goals and yet, in spite of their successes, they were not getting the support they needed. “These tragedies are complicated,” observes Susanne Navas, a certified Triathlon Coach and Life Coach, “and it’s all too easy to look back and think, what could have been done differently?”

Added to the known risk factors for suicide among athletes, such as age (15-24 years), injury, success, and skill, we must also consider the impact of social isolation for 2 years. Many athletes were not able to play their chosen sport, and they did not feel connected at school because classes were conducted virtually.

This season, and in the near future, coaches may face a challenging mix of social immaturity and disparities in sport-specific skills due to time away from both the classroom and practice field. While many coaches excel at encouraging skill development for their sport, they may not be equipped to deal with behavioral and emotional issues. Many parents and coaches are hitting the pause button to consider how to best serve young athletes as the sports schedule resumes in full this year.

Problems with the youth sports culture predate the pandemic

It is important for the adults in youth sports to encourage and praise athletes for the behaviors they demonstrate and not just their athletic skill.

Players who demonstrate mature judgment by deciding not to play through injury should be supported, rather than told to “suck it up” or being made to feel that they are letting their team down. Players who never cut corners during practice contribute to overall team cohesion and morale through their solid work ethic, even if they are not the most skilled players. Parents and coaches should recognize and reward these acts as much as they celebrate a great play or win.

With the right coaching and parent support, young athletes often do demonstrate true sportsmanship, as was evidenced in a viral video from the 2022 Little League World Series when a player who was hit in the head comforted the pitcher who was distressed by throwing the errant ball.

What can parents do to improve the climate of youth sports?

As the parent of an athlete, make sure most of your attention is not on sports, but on building your relationship. With that emphasis, you cannot go wrong. If your child opens up about a difficulty on the team or a frustration with their performance, that is your cue to engage. Allow the child to lead the conversation by asking open-ended questions. “Is there a skill you think would be helpful to build?” or “what does your coach think?” are two openers.

The coaching staff generally sets the culture of the team, but you can help by fostering a positive and supportive climate among the parents. Are a few yelling at the referees and taking the coach to task right after the game? Is a small group of spectators bad-mouthing the opposing team? Keep an eye on the bench during the games, too. Does the coach often exude warmth and encouragement even in moments of stress, or do you hear yelling and swearing at the kids? You may notice that the team unravels when the coaches lose their collective cool.

Many teams have a code of conduct for parents, players, and coaches, which is intended to foster good sportsmanship. If your team does not have one, look for a sample code of conduct online and discuss the idea with the appropriate person.

What if a student athlete is spiraling into a mental health crisis?

Navas has experience working with athletes in treatment centers for addiction and eating disorders. “Many of them are driven by an underlying feeling of worthlessness — which can fuel their drive, leading to great success — while also being a dangerous Achilles’ heel.” This notion of tying up an athlete’s entire identity in sports performance is referred to as “athlete identity foreclosure.” Navas says parents can help “diversify the mental health portfolio” by teaching student athletes that their sport is an important part of them, but there is much more to being human. “In today’s social media world, where self-worth is tied to Likes and Follows and comparison is irresistible, this is particularly important.”

Navas often works with young adults who have suffered a setback due to an injury or mental health issue and are unable to participate in their sport. This can be a crisis for the individual, especially if their identity is tied to their sport. “As parents, it’s important that we try to be intentional about seeing our kids as more than what they do — which is especially hard if they truly are gifted at their chosen activity, and we are putting a lot of resources into it. But if we don’t, our child will have a hard time if they get injured, they don’t make the team, or they burn out. We see this happen to elite and professional athletes, but I see it every day with high school and college athletes who are forced to take a break from their sport or outright give it up. They feel they’ve lost their purpose, their value, their community. It’s important to plant the seeds of resiliency from a young age, by helping our kids explore other ways they find meaning and connection, and above all, nurturing our relationship with our teens outside of their sport.”

Parents and coaches can work together to create an environment that promotes good physical and mental health, the chance for a child to learn respect for self and others, and the value of hard work, determination, and resilience. Even after a loss, most kids bounce back within 15 minutes of the game. If your child is still upset after leaving the locker room, it may be worth taking stock and looking for ways to rebalance. Before offering suggestions to improve the climate, parents may consider volunteering in support of the team. Parents can be a force for good both on the way to and from practice, as well as on the sidelines.

Acknowledgement

The author is grateful for the insights provided by Susanne Navas, a certified Yoga Instructor, Triathlon Coach, Life Coach, Recovery Coach and founder of The Reboot Coach.