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Beyond the Gate

Woodward athletics

Participation in sports offers many benefits for high school athletes such as enhancing physical fitness, social interaction, and character development. However, beneath the surface of athleticism, there lies a complex interplay of mental health challenges that young athletes frequently encounter. The unique pressures of competitive sports, compounded by academic demands and social expectations, can significantly impact the mental well-being of high school athletes (1). 

Understanding and Dealing with the Pressure

High school athletes have to juggle rigorous training schedules, academic responsibilities, and social commitments. The pressure to perform well in all these areas can be overwhelming, leading to stress, anxiety, and even depression. Additionally, many high school athletes face the intense pressure of trying to make a college team. This aspiration can add another layer of stress as athletes must consistently demonstrate their talent to recruiters. The expectation to excel not only from coaches and teammates but also from family and peers can create a significant burden on these young individuals (1). To navigate these challenges, Eric Su, one of Woodward’s elite swimmers, shares his perspective: “I focus on maintaining a healthy balance that includes effective time management, setting realistic goals, and staying organized.” Su’s approach not only helps him perform well in competitions but also contributes to his overall well-being. To manage his mental well-being, Walker Meacham, a starting striker of Woodward’s soccer team, often journals and prays. “Praying allows for my mind and body to relax, and by journaling and reflecting on the day, I feel refreshed after recollecting my thoughts. These help take my mind off of the upcoming competition.”

Signs of Struggle

Recognizing the signs of mental health struggles in high school athletes is crucial. Changes in behavior, mood swings, loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed, decline in academic performance, sleep disturbances, weight loss, and fatigue can all indicate underlying mental health issues (2). It is essential for coaches, parents, and teammates to be vigilant and supportive, offering help and understanding when needed. Head Coach of Woodward’s tennis team, George Westlund, adds his effective measures of helping his athletes with their mental states: “When we start to see the negative emerge, we try our best to address it with our athletes as soon as possible, in an attempt to bring some grounding, centering, and focus to mental awareness. We try to create a space where athletes can feel comfortable and safe in sharing successes and struggles either in a group setting or individually. The idea is to convey that no one is alone, and we are here to help.” 

Breaking the Stigma

One of the biggest hurdles to addressing mental health in high school athletes is the stigma that surrounds it. Many athletes fear being perceived as weak if they admit to struggling mentally (1). It is crucial to break down this stigma by promoting open conversations about mental health and by emphasizing that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Fortunately, in the more recent years, many elite athletes, including Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Naomi Osaka, have openly talked about their struggles with mental health and encouraged seeking help. While these athletes have openly shared their stories after achieving a certain stature, high-school athletes may not be in a similar position to do so. This is where the support from their community comes into play.

“When an athlete is in a positive mental wellness state,” shares David Widener, one of Woodward’s Athletic Directors, “decisions on the court or field are clearer, providing better, productive results for the athlete and the team.” To develop these mental skills in athletes, “many coaches integrate mental training further into their program with individual meetings with players, reading assignments or videos, team bonding exercises and other programs specifically geared to help athletes develop their mental mindset in a positive way.” 

Call to Action

It is well known that prevention is better than cure. Focusing on strategies to improve mental wellness may help decrease the burden of mental illness in high-school athletes. It is important for the athletes and the school sports community to educate themselves about the importance of mental health. While athletes should adopt measures to improve their mental wellness on an individual level, the schools and sports organizations should also host mental wellness initiatives to foster a supportive culture for young athletes.

Key Messages:

  1. Prioritize mental wellness alongside physical fitness in a youth sports environment.
  2. Cultivate open communication regarding mental well-being within the high school sports community.
  3. Equip the high school sports community and parents of young athletes with resources for early intervention and support if needed.
  4. Foster resilience and coping skills to promote long term mental wellness in youth athletes.
Mental wellness in athletics infographic


  1. Daley M (2023). Mental Health in Youth Athletes. Clin Sports Med 43 (2024) 107–126
  2. Difiori JP (2014). Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: A position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Br J Sports Med 2014;48(4):287–8.

Written by Ritesh Sachdeva '25 with guidance and thanks to Director of College Counseling Mr. Bryan Rutledge.

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