Celebrating Imperfection & Vulnerability in our Student-Athletes Has Never Been More Important

As a behavioral health specialist working with teens, student-athletes, and college students and the mom of a division 1 soccer-playing daughter, the increasing accounts of suicides among student-athletes in recent years hits close to home.

In fact, my daughter and her teammates were huge fans of Katie Meyer, the Stanford student who tragically passed away last week as a result of suicide. They followed her socially, not only because she was a star soccer player, but also because she was a strong and empowered woman with positive messages for other young women. My daughter and her teammates did not know Katie personally, but they are nevertheless grief stricken and confused.

My daughter read me a specific social post that resonated with me. It noted that Katie was surrounded by teammates who loved and supported her. As I process this with my daughter and my professional colleagues in Caron’s Peak Performance Student Athlete Program, I am deeply concerned that the enormous pressure to be exceptional – coupled with two years of a global pandemic and our Instagram-centric culture – has left this young generation without sufficient skills to cope with these pressures.

What can we do to promote the acceptance of imperfection and vulnerability – to make it okay not to be okay – even when you have a reputation for achievement and strength? Although I struggle to find the answer, here are a few thoughts on steps that parents and peers can take:

For Parents:

  • Ask about your child’s support system: I encourage all parents to ask their teenage and college age children about their support systems. First and foremost, as parents, let’s take the time to reassure these high achievers that we are here for them not just for their successes but also for their struggles. Regularly reinforcing that message may be beneficial to these students, who are focused on pleasing the adults around them. If they are away at school, have them identify the trusted adult at school, or a service, they can go to if they are feeling anxious or depressed.
  • Practice mindful engagement: When you ask your college-aged child about classes, grades. sports, activities – are you focused solely on outcomes, or are you equally interested in the experience of just participating? Our language, tone and choice of words may put unintentional and undue pressure on our kids, so we must find a balance between expressing interest and helping to remind them about what really matters most – a balanced and healthy life. Some kids are too tough on themselves, and parents may need to focus on teaching them self-compassion – or even how to relax and have fun safely – as an important component to prevention and self-care.
  • Advocate for education and awareness programming: If your child is away at school, I strongly encourage you to reach out to the college or university to act as a partner in your child’s success. Ask about how you can work together with the institution to provide educational and psychological support for students and parents alike on serious issues like suicide prevention, healthy eating, substance use disorders and time management. Students are often catapulted into the higher education system without having fully developed the adult skills they need to make important decisions and deal with stress and difficult life challenges that arise. Call on your child’s alma mater to be part of the solution.

For Student-Athletes and Peers:

  • Embrace vulnerability as a strength – which includes asking for help. Even the strongest, seemingly toughest people can encounter incredibly dark times and difficult life challenges. That pressure can seem overwhelming. It’s important to identify adults in your life who you can trust and talk to if you’re struggling. Reach out to that adult and let them know they are that person for you. Give them permission to check in on you and call you out if they suspect something is wrong.
  • View unhealthy coping behaviors as warning signs not to be minimized. If you or your friend is using substances to cope, sleeping too much or too little, not eating in a healthy way or even making jokes about not wanting to live, these are all considered unhealthy coping behaviors. Take these warning signs seriously. It’s important to get professional help to understand what’s really going on before things get worse.
  • Know your 3 a.m. friends and trusted adults: It’s important to establish your 3 a.m. friends, the friends you can call no matter what time of day or night if you are ever in need of support or are in a crisis. Let your friends know they are that person(s) for you. Likewise, you should tell those same friends who the safe adults are in your lives if you ever need support beyond what the friend can provide. Many young people worry that if they tell an adult about their friend’s struggle, their friend will be angry with them. That is certainly understandable, but there are times when we need outside help to step in and provide guidance in a serious situation. If you have already identified your trusted adult to your friends, it may make it a little easier for them to reach out.

We are living in complex times. We will all have days where we feel like we’re being pushed to beyond our limits in ways we never anticipated. However, when we create a strong support system and develop healthy coping tools, we can ride out the roller coaster with the knowledge that tomorrow is another day.

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