Youth: Why the Mental Health of Young Soccer Players is No Joke
Jul 3, 2021
Soccer organizations need to do more to support young soccer players’ mental health.
There has been a recent wave of athletes in numerous sports opening up about their mental health struggles: Naomi Osaka, Kyrie Irving, Simone Biles and even Christian Pulisic. There is a huge importance to focus on the emotional well-being of young soccer players, who are under mounting pressure to perform and deliver.
Even though mental health in soccer (and sport) is no longer the taboo it once was, it’s still overlooked and sometimes ignored. This post will take a look at the reasons why coaches, parents and players themselves need to prioritize their mental health.
Reasons Why Young Soccer Players Experience Mental Health Issues
Make no mistake about it - professional players aren’t the only ones with a lot of weight on their shoulders. Even the youngest soccer “stars”, those with many years of development ahead of them can face many burdens in this sport.
There is a blinding desire for players to succeed and it can take its toll on them in many ways, some of which are unexpected. Additionally, playing soccer at the youth level is way more intensive than it used to be - it’s not child’s play anymore.
Why Young Soccer Players Struggle With Mental Health
- Body image - The need to stay fit can negatively affect some players. If they don’t see themselves as having an ideal body type for the sport, they could feel inadequate and go to extremes in terms of their diet and training regimen.
These are just some of the more common reasons why mental health is an issue in youth soccer. But there are many other causes. Bullying in all its forms can take place, whether it's a player being bullied or berated by opponents, teammates or even coaches. Some kids already struggle with mental health disorders off the pitch, for various reasons, and playing soccer to provide an outlet only makes things worse. And then there are external events beyond anyone’s control that can affect players. Case in point: the covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdowns.
Not being able to play for months has taken a major toll on many young players. For example, a survey conducted in Ontario found that 1 in 5 kids who played soccer in the province acknowledged feeling depressed since the beginning of the pandemic.
Of course, many of those kids could have been feeling down for other reasons (ie. not able to see friends, getting sick). But for a dedicated young player, a lack of activity can certainly have negative effects on their psyche.
When we don’t take the mental health of players seriously, what happens is that they lose their joy for the game. They start to burnout, mentally and physically as well, which takes a toll on their physical performances.
Arguments and fights happen between their teammates, coaches and relatives even. And these repercussions aren’t confined to the pitch. Feelings of low self-worth and exhaustion can linger for years and affect how young players perceive themselves in other aspects of life. These feelings can trigger or contribute to depression or anxiety down the road.
Examples of Mental Health Issues in Soccer
For further understanding of the mental health crisis in soccer, it’s important to hear what young players themselves have to say. Take, for example, the experience of Christian Pulisic, Chelsea’s 22-year-old midfielding phenom. You might think being a UEFA Champions League winner and being transferred to Chelsea for $73 million would leave him feeling on top of the world. In an interview he described his experiences living abroad amidst covid-19 lockdowns:
"This has been a tough time for a lot of people, me included. For me, the most important thing is having a good support system and people around me that I can always rely on and have a chat to. Personally, living alone in Europe has been tough at times. Having someone always there to talk to is extremely important for me, it’s what’s carried me through this time."
Pulisic didn’t go into much detail as to what he’s battling. We have to be cautious not to suggest what he faces mentally and emotionally. Nevertheless, it’s clear being away from his family, under the constant gaze of the public eye and having to prove himself in the midst of a pandemic can take a toll on you.
Even on an amateur level, having to constantly travel and prove one’s abilities among other things is a challenge. That’s why we need to have a framework that helps youth soccer players reach their potential without feeling so much pressure.
How to Address Mental Health Concerns
The best way to support young players’ mental health is for everyone involved to see the game with a healthy perspective. Therapy and sports psychology are great resources for athletes, but it’s more effective to foster a culture of mental wellness before therapists are even necessary. There are a few ways to do this.
- Focus on effort, not results - The best athletes in the world have bad days. What keeps them going is knowing that they put their best foot forward. Likewise, we should praise our young players for doing the hard work they put in. Results should be celebrated, not prioritized. Naturally, results will follow when the effort is consistently applied.
- Focus on health and wellbeing - We need to spend more time giving attention to the volume and intensity of play we subject our athletes to. We need to speak to them directly (in addition to analyzing them) so that we know when they’re being pushed beyond their limit. By doing so, we can give them just the right amount of training and playing time.
- Recognizing success looks different - This note is more for young athletes themselves. Many young soccer players have an all or nothing mentality when it comes to success in the sport. Either they make it to the EPL, La Liga or MLS or they do nothing at all. But this isn’t realistic thinking. There are other “leagues” and opportunities for talented players to aspire to.
- Recognize the grass is greener - While young athletes may desire the success and accomplishments of professionals, they need to remember that it takes tremendous sacrifice to get there. And many professional players deal with numerous challenges that make being a pro soccer player a difficult job. As the cliche goes: all that’s glitter is not gold.
Mental Health in Soccer: It’s Not a Game
Mental health in soccer (and all sports) is something players, coaches and parents have to take seriously. The beautiful game is so many things to young people - an outlet, a passion, an opportunity, and for a lucky few, it will be a career. However, it should never be a burden. The only way to ensure that it never becomes a burden is by remembering that young players are human, with real emotions and limitations.