I watched them and so many more young, strong athletes from countries all over the world in the Olympics during these past two weeks. These teenage athletes have been perfecting their sport for years: practice, sacrifices, stress and pressure all leading up to their moment of glory at the Olympic Games.
Whether these teen athletes are going home with a medal or simply the thrill of participating in the Olympics, they were part of a handful of athletes that make it that far. The hundreds of thousands of athletes in high schools today may not all be Olympic caliber, but many of them certainly contribute their own share of sweat, commitment and sacrifice to their particular sport. They also experience incredible pressures from a myriad of sources be it coaches, parents, teachers and/or peers.
This past year I have worked with many teenage athletes seeking therapy. A teenage lacrosse player with panic attacks, an anxious softball player experimenting with drugs and alcohol and an anxious field hockey player whose grades are slipping.
Recently, a parent of a new client was describing his daughter to me. She played varsity soccer as a freshman, finished her freshman year with a 3.9 GPA and has many friends and an intact family. He said “she's 'That Kid'.” I had the privilege of meeting "That Kid" at our first therapy session shortly after that initial phone call inquiry. She is beautiful, polite, kind and sad, very sad. She said she doesn't know who her friends are, feels a tremendous amount of pressure to perform on the field and feels very lonely.
All of "Those Kids" experience a lot of pressure. They are usually adorable, kind, smart and talented. Teachers and coaches all love them. All of my athlete clients have shared similar stories; pressure to make the team happy, fear of letting down the coach, needing to keep their grades up and make their parents happy.
One of the most common things I have heard from "That Kid" is that they feel that they can't be good enough; they feel so much pressure that even when they are the star player on the team, they struggle to see their strengths. I have heard these athletes tell me after a great game that they are afraid that they won't be able to do it again and will disappoint the coach and the team. They rarely ride on their successes and instead stress over what they perceive to be their inevitable failure.
In therapy we work on building self-confidence, relaxation techniques and reality testing. "How will you know when you are successful?" "What has to happen for you to know that you are good enough?"
A great book that I have been using with these clients is "The Anxiety Workbook for Teens" . It educates the teens about anxiety, what it is and how they can learn to function without this constant underlying angst.
If nothing else, the message that I want these teenagers to hear is that life doesn't have to be this hard, painful or anxiety ridden and that it will get better. I want them to be able to reach for some hope, to understand that although the world can feel overwhelming right now, there is a light on the other side.
If you know a teen that is struggling either with athletic pressures or anxiety, please share that message with them: things can get better and life just shouldn't have to be this difficult.
As always, I am open to help. You think any of those Gold Medalists need one of my cards? :)