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Sport and Competition

An Olympian's Advice to Coaches and Parents of Young Athletes

3 proactive mental health strategies that go the distance.

Key points

  • Seventy percent of kids drop out of their sport by age 13.
  • Parents and coaches are pushing athletes too young.
  • Let's get back to having fun and put "play" back in sports.

Supporting high-performance athletes should begin when they are young, and their concepts of self, belonging, and competition are forming. Unfortunately, most parents and coaches prioritize the game itself, focusing more on physical training and winning while neglecting to develop young minds. They often wait until significant challenges like anxiety, burnout, anger, and depression arise before bringing in a sports psychologist or therapist—even then with a short-term, "fix this kid" attitude.

The statistics are concerning. USA Today (2024) suggests that 70% of kids drop out of their sport by 13, and even younger kids are losing interest under intense pressure to perform. At what cost are we willing to push our kids so we can brag about them? Coaches find themselves caught in the middle, facing pressure from schools or clubs to please fee-paying parents, often unable to speak truthfully about an athlete's lack of dedication for fear of repercussions.

A sizable gap exists between expectations and reality in youth sports, and it's not getting any smaller. It doesn't have to be this way, but the longer we avoid addressing it honestly and collaboratively, the greater the problem will become. Here are three ways to start changing the game to support young athletes better:

1. Let's get back to having fun. As Colleen Hacker, a sports psychologist to multiple gold medal athletes, reminds us, "We don't work sports, we play sports." Encouraging kids to participate in multiple sports can take the pressure off, avoid overuse injuries, and help broaden their identity and experiences beyond a single activity. Dan Walsh, a two-time Olympic rower, division 1 coach, and High School National Champion Coach, exemplifies this path. He started as a wrestler before injuries ultimately led him to find his Olympic dream in rowing instead. For most kids, making it to an elite level may have less to do with talent in one sport and more with being that one-in-a-million athlete with unwavering dedication—something few possess, even among adults. Rather than treating sports as an all-consuming business, let's move away from the bravado and get back to the joyful lessons they can teach, like teamwork, commitment, and resilience.

2. Listen to understand rather than to be understood. This is a guiding principle that applies to all adults involved, parents and coaches alike. The biggest complaint kids have is that parents talk too much. Listening is a muscle that requires practice, but a coachable athlete is a good listener. We can model this by beginning with the intention of understanding a child's motivations. Ask about their dreams; don't tell them yours. Listening also builds trust, the foundation of a healthy relationship.

3. Be patient. Late bloomers often do better. Walsh notes that “being an Olympian is incredibly special—just one percent of one percent of the population. It requires talent, an insurmountable amount of work, the ability to transmute vulnerability to resilience, and make the most out of each opportunity.”

We often assume that the first step is to immerse yourself and your child in the sport. Perhaps it’s best to exercise caution in the speed at which this happens, as the high school experience can cause more harm than good. According to research cited in Forbes, the US youth sports market is expected to reach $41.2 billion by 2023, feeding a machine that can instill fear, erode trust, and create unrealistic expectations if athletes try other activities. Keeping developing athletes in a single sport, we are giving them overuse injuries, mental health issues, and eventually letdowns when most don't get athletic college admissions.

Even if an athlete makes it to the collegiate level, Athletes’ Weekly found between 30% and 43% don't return for their sophomore year. We are putting immense pressure on children to make sports their entire lives when the chances of becoming a college athlete are low. For those talented enough to go pro or become Olympians, depression often arrives when the sport is no longer their life—its depth directly correlated to whether they were loved unconditionally, win or lose.

There is a solution, one that reprioritizes mental health and helps young athletes maintain balanced, joyful lives in and out of sports. But that's a later discussion. For now, let's start by listening, encouraging exploration, and making sure our kids know their value extends far beyond the playing field.

Walsh is a father, division 1 coach, and two-time Olympian. He won a bronze medal in the men's eight at the 2008 Summer Olympics.


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