Mental Health Tips for High School Athletes

By Lisa L. Lewis

If you’re an athlete, you’re probably dealing with extra pressure on top of the typical stress and challenges of high school. And it makes sense. High school sports require a big chunk of your time, and often come with expectations about your performance and future plans. If balancing your athletics and regular life feels hard—or even overwhelming—you are not alone, and there are things you can do to relieve that pressure. 

Pay attention to your sleep and other basic needs.

Juggling schoolwork, practices, and games while still having time for yourself may mean you’re skimping on sleep. That can have a huge effect on your mood and mental health. It may sound hard, but your body and mind need eight to 10 hours of sleep to function at their best. Making sleep a priority can make a big difference in your day to day mood and ability to cope. Here are three ways to do it:

  • Set a bedtime that allows you to get enough sleep, and stick to it.
  • Put your devices away at least a half (and preferably one) hour before bedtime. Ideally, charge them overnight in a central household spot, not in your bedroom.
  • Silence notifications on your phone so they don’t wake you up.

Your body and mind also need rest and recovery after workouts, practices, and games. If you don’t give yourself enough time to recharge, you’ll feel depleted and less able to cope with setbacks and perform at your best. Build in some downtime where you’re not focused on being productive, whether it’s hanging out with friends, watching a TV show, or just going for a walk.

Game plan different outcomes and options.

“Anxiety often happens when people feel like they don’t have control,” says William Massey, Ph.D., an associate professor at Oregon State University’s College of Health and Human Sciences. He recommends creating a “what-if” list of all the things you’re worried may go wrong, and then coming up with plans for how you’d handle them. The list can include everything from what you’d do if you forget to bring your equipment to a game to how you’ll handle it if the first half goes poorly.

“List everything that could possibly go wrong,” says Massey, and make a Plan A, Plan B, or even Plan C for how you’ll handle each one. Simply acknowledging what could happen and knowing you’ve already planned for it allows you to take back some control, which lowers anxiety.

Don’t obsess about a bad play or game.

Losing a big game or missing a key play can feel like the end of the world sometimes, but it doesn’t define who you are as an athlete or person. Learning to cope with failure is part of playing sports and something even the most high-profile athletes go through. 

That doesn’t make it feel any less intense, though, so give yourself an emotional break afterward. Let yourself feel whatever you are feeling, and then, when you’ve moved through that part, you can go back and analyze what happened to figure out what you might do differently next time. 

Find a way to stay involved when you’re injured.

If you’re sidelined because of an injury, you can still play an active role on your team. Maybe you can help coach up your replacement, film practices, track times, or simply be another set of eyes to assist the coach. You’ll still be part of the team’s daily activities, and you may even develop some new skills.

Do other things.

Finding time for other activities can be hard, but it provides much-needed balance. Think about what else you enjoy, and try to build in time for it. Whether it’s playing another sport just for fun or hanging out with friends, having outside interests and relationships helps you recharge and get a break from the intensity of competition. They’re also a reminder that being an athlete is just one aspect of who you are.

Get support when you need it.

If you’re struggling, consider reaching 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 help you 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 way you’re feeling doesn’t change, starts to make it hard for you to do other things in your life, or makes you feel consistently unhappy, talking with a mental health professional can be a big help. 

Learn more about how therapy can help and how you can find it.

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.

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If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text, call, or chat 988 for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.