April 08, 2022
Therapist outlines mental toll on young athletes and how to help

FORT WORTH, Texas — When an injury sidelines an athlete, the repercussions can often extend beyond the physical.

Young boy with soccer ball

Parents should be on alert if their child suddenly becomes more isolated, is no longer able to manage and regulate their emotions or starts to exhibit a lack of motivation.

“I personally believe you can’t walk away unscathed from a physical injury without having some form of a mental impairment in some capacity,” said Alexandra Podowski, LPC, an intensive outpatient program therapist at Texas Health Behavioral Health Center in Uptown Dallas and a former college soccer player.

“You’re going to get stuck in your head,” she explained. “You’re going to be worried about what comes next, how long the trajectory of recovery is going to be, how smooth it’s going to be, if there will be any complications.”

More than 3.5 million children under age 14 suffer sports injuries every year. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high school athletes account annually for an estimated 2 million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits and 30,000 hospitalizations.

Texas Health helps young athletes heal from the physical wounds through our Sports Medicine program and by offering services, including free behavioral health assessments, for those struggling with the mental and emotional toll that often accompanies such injuries.

“Society has long focused on the physical impact that injuries can have on athletes but, as we have seen in recent years across various sports, the mental toll can be just as devastating,” said Sandy Potter, LCSW, MSSW, MBA, vice president of Behavioral Health Services. “At Texas Health, we offer an array of mental health services for adolescents and adults because we know these struggles aren’t limited to professional athletes.”

At a minimum, Podowski said, sports injuries can provoke anxiety, fear, worry and panic about the future. At an extreme, she said, athletes can suffer performance anxiety or depression as they deal with the potential risk of no longer being able to compete at the same level or the fear of such an injury happening again.

And such mental impairments can impact a person’s recovery. Some rush back into their sport before they’ve healed, prolonging the effects of or worsening an injury. Others may return to the game more timid and tentative, which can increase their risk of future injury.

As spring sports begin, Podowski cautions parents of athletes to monitor their child’s mental well-being as well as their physical health, and recommends the following:

Talk to your child about what to expect when injured.

While more focus has been placed in recent years on talking about issues like concussion protocols, the mental health issues that can accompany such an injury – anxiety, sleeplessness, irritability and anger – are not often discussed, Podowski said.

“It’s like, ‘OK, you have a concussion. We’re going to manage the concussion; you’re going to take six weeks and then you can just jump right back in,’” Podowski said. “Some kids can just benefit from an open dialogue, being given permission to slow down and to talk about the recovery process and the fact that feelings are going to accompany that.”

Watch for signs your child is struggling.

Parents should be on alert if their child suddenly becomes more isolated, is no longer able to manage and regulate their emotions or starts to exhibit a lack of motivation.

If your once social child suddenly doesn’t want to attend team events, physical therapy or engage in activities that once brought them joy, Podowski said there’s likely a deeper-rooted issue at play.

”It might be burnout and a desire to no longer play, or it might be that they’re terrified they’re not going to be as good anymore.”

Be especially observant if your child is already coping with mental health issues.

“If there’s already a level of anxiety, a level of depression, even ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), it needs to be at the forefront of the conversation from the beginning, so that it doesn’t slip under the radar,” Podowski said. “We don’t want to get to a point where we’re watching our child go from sad to all of a sudden feeling depressed and hopeless.”

Seek outside help if issues worsen.

Consider seeking the help of a school counselor, sports therapist, sports psychologist or other behavioral health professional if issues escalate, and keep coaches in the loop of any concerns, Podowski said.

“If it’s starting to spiral into something that looks more like anxiety attacks, isolation or anger outbursts, then you’re going to want to take it a step further and get some additional help,” Podowski said.

You can obtain a free behavioral health assessment from Texas Health by following this link, or by calling 682-626-8719.

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About Texas Health Resources

Texas Health Resources is a faith-based, nonprofit health system that cares for more patients in North Texas than any other provider. With a service area that consists of 16 counties and more than 7 million people, the system is committed to providing quality, coordinated care through its Texas Health Physicians Group and 29 hospital locations under the banners of Texas Health Presbyterian, Texas Health Arlington Memorial, Texas Health Harris Methodist and Texas Health Huguley. Texas Health access points and services, ranging from acute-care hospitals and trauma centers to outpatient facilities and home health and preventive services, provide the full continuum of care for all stages of life. The system has more than 4,100 licensed hospital beds, 6,400 physicians with active staff privileges and more than 26,000 employees. For more information about Texas Health, call 1-877-THR-WELL, or visit www.TexasHealth.org.  

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