Panicking over perfection

Toxicity of youth athletics threatens mental health of young competitors

Sidney Anderson, Opinions Editor

“Get on the line.” My stomach drops. I can already feel the ache in my lungs from the running I know is coming. Immediately, I started to analyze what wasn’t good enough in my team’s performance, and what we could improve on to avoid punishment next time. How can I fix it? Why is it not good enough? Why am I not good enough? How can I be perfect?

Soccer wasn’t always like this for me. At first, I joined soccer because my older sister played, and I thought it looked fun. I could run up and down the field with no worries and play with my friends. As soccer became more serious it started to take a toll on me mentally. 

According to Youth Sports Psychology, “nearly every athlete struggles with some form of perfectionism or fear of failure.”

In most cases, it can cause young “stars” to underperform during games, and set their expectations too high for their individual performance. 

As I was moved up to a more select team. I started to equate my performance in soccer with my worth as a person. If I wasn’t performing well nothing else mattered except for making myself better. 

This mindset became detrimental when I was moved back down to a lower level team. All my doubts were confirmed and I was back at where I started and had to work even harder. 

While I was conflicted by self induced perfection, most athletes can derive their perfectionism from negative experiences with past coaches. 

The National Alliance of Youth Sports states, “70% of young  athletes drop out of their sports by 13.” This can be attributed to performance induced punishment. Where running, bear crawls, and high levels of conditioning are used to teach young athletes what is to be expected of them. 

As I decided to become specialized in my position as a goalkeeper, my mental health dramatically suffered. Many days I would not get more than six hours of sleep. I became a machine. I learned how to function with little energy and convinced myself I was having fun. 

While generally youth sports engage young athletes in a positive mental outlook, when youth sports transform into club sports it takes a dramatic turn. 

According to the Journal of Athletic Training, specializing in youth sports at a young age can cause increased anxiety, negative sleep patterns, self isolation, and burnout.

This was further proven when studying Switzerland’s elite young athletes, researchers found that participating in sports for more than 17.5 hours a week can double the negative impact sports have on the youth mind. 

I would allow soccer to take up my whole week. I would come home from school, go to soccer practice, and then go home and do homework. 

This constant cycle made me anxious and terrified that I was not meeting the expectations I had set for myself. I was full of self  hatred for not being perfect. I knew I wasn’t  good enough. 

While none of this was true, the toxicity of club sports culture invaded my mind and shaped it into mounds full of unrealistic expectations. 

While I may not be able to attribute this mindset to one specific coach or person, what I do know is that competing at a high level for a long period of time took a toll on me mentally. 

An athlete’s version of “good enough” should never be based on their performance in a singular game, but their work ethic and effort they put into improving as a whole.