How to Deal With the Pressures of Being a High School Athlete
By Lisa L. Lewis
Pursuing a sport—or more than one—can be incredibly rewarding, especially when you’re playing well and your team is winning. But it can also come with a lot of pressure.
If you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or trapped by the stress of sports, there are concrete things you can do to release some pressure and find balance.
Get enough sleep.
Getting enough sleep is one of the best ways to feel replenished and manage the emotions that come with competition. It may sound hard, but your body and mind need eight to 10 hours of sleep to function at their best. When you get it, you will be surprised by how much it helps you manage and cope when things are tough.
Center yourself in high-stress moments.
Anytime you feel anxious before, during, or after a game, try taking a few minutes to do a breathing exercise, such as box-breathing. Breathe in for a count of four, hold it for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and then wait for another count of four before repeating the sequence. Breathing deeply helps you shift your focus by giving you something else to concentrate on, and it sends a signal to your nervous system to calm down. Just a couple rounds can make a big difference.
Remember there’s a bigger picture.
Even if you plan to pursue your sport after high school, it’s just one piece of who you are and not your whole identity. Continuing to participate in other activities because you enjoy them is not only OK, it’s good for your mental health. It can be a good reminder that the skill set you bring to your sport carries over to other activities.
Having friendships with people outside your team can also be a big help. Even if your teammates are some of your closest friends, having a supportive network that includes others can give you a much-needed break from the pressure of your sport.
Sports may be one path to what you want to achieve after high school, but it’s not the only one. There are many colleges and universities where you can pursue your sport (or not) and where you can thrive. There are likely other available financial-aid options in addition to sports scholarships. Your school counselor can help you learn about them, so you know all your options.
Focus on what you can control.
No matter how strong an athlete you are, you cannot control all aspects of a competition. Recognizing that there will always be things out of your control can help you cope with negative outcomes such as a big loss, says William Massey, Ph.D., an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Health and Human Sciences. Concentrating on the aspects you have the power to change—such as improving your skills and how you prepare before a competition—can also make it easier to keep things in perspective.
Know it’s OK to step back.
You may feel that you have to stay on the team—that if you don’t, you’ll be letting other people down. But if it’s taking a toll on your own health and emotional well-being, it really is OK to take a break or even quit. Hearing someone say they have to stay on the team is a red flag, Massey says, because it indicates that they feel like they’re trapped and don’t have options.
Realizing you have the option to quit can relieve pressure or lead you to think about the reasons you don’t want to quit, which may help you reconnect with what you like about playing. “It can be really easy to lose sight of the joy of the sport when you’re in the middle of a grind and all the pressures are weighing on you,” Massey says.
Reframing your decision to stay involved as a choice you’re making—rather than something you feel you don’t have control over—can be enough to shift your mindset.
If it’s not, know that it’s OK to step back. Talking with an adult you trust about how you’re feeling may make this process easier, whatever you decide to do.
Get help when you need it.
If making these changes doesn’t help you feel better, reach out to a trusted adult, whether it’s your coach, your team’s athletic trainer, a caregiver, or your school counselor. They can help you come up with specific steps to reduce the pressure and brainstorm what kind of support you need. Sometimes just being able to open up to someone about what’s bothering you and how you’re feeling can be a relief.
If the stress starts to make it hard for you to do other things in your life, or if you feel constantly unhappy, talking with a mental health professional can be a big help.
If you are struggling with thoughts of hopelessness or suicide, you are not alone and there are lots of ways to begin to feel better.
If you need help right now, text HOME to 741-741 for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor any time of day. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, including suicide or a substance use crisis, text or call 988 or use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.