Sports are stressful.
And we know that the challenges, conflicts and commitments sports provide can build mental toughness and character. But how much stress is too much stress? And at what point is it unhealthy — even traumatic?
Rats and depression
In 1967, Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, started some unique research on depression. Seligman and his colleagues created an experiment in which two rats were housed in bordering cages.
In cage one, when the rat pressed a lever for food, it was given an electric shock first. The rat in cage two got food by pressing the bar just like the rat in the first cage; however, the rat in cage two got shocked only when the rat in cage one pressed the lever.
The rat in cage one experienced stress, but over time, it became tolerant as it recognized that it still got food after the shock. Knowing the shock was coming when it pressed the lever allowed the rat in cage one to still hold onto some level of control.
The rat in cage two experienced stress but had no control over or idea of when it would be shocked. The rat in cage two became sensitized to the stress, not tolerant of it.
After running these tests, they found that the rat in cage one actually experienced some health benefits, while the rat in cage two experienced a weakened immune system, weight loss, and was nearly three times more susceptible to cancer.
Seligman and his team tried to reverse the changes by giving the rat in cage two its control back, but it was too late; it was too afraid to learn how to help itself.
The Theory of learned helplessness
People can have a similar depression and submission in reaction to stress and pain. Seligman used his observations on the rats in his study to form links between depression and uncontrollable stressful events that we experience as children. This became the foundation of his groundbreaking theory of learned helplessness.
The theory is based on the idea that we can predict and have some element of control over stress in our life, our stress decreases, and our tolerance increases. But when we experience pain and stress and feel that there is no way to escape it, we feel helpless, and our stress becomes trauma.
I’ve heard the distinction between stress and trauma best explained by Dr. Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz in their book, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog:
“Resilient children are made, not born. The developing brain is most malleable and most sensitive to experience — both good and bad — early in life. Children become resilient as a result of the patterns of stress and of nurturing that they experience early on in life. Consequently, we are also rapidly and easily transformed by trauma when we are young. Though its effects may not always be visible to the untrained eye, when you know what trauma can do to children, sadly, you begin to see its aftermath everywhere.”
Stress or trauma
As a high school athlete, I struggled through four years of being coached by a man whose treatment of some players was emotionally abusive. He had good intentions, but multiple players sought psychological counseling for similar issues related to their experience with him. While some athletes did OK in that environment, I struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts. Our coach created stress that I wasn’t ready to handle. I’ve since come out the other side and believe I am stronger for it, so it’s debatable whether my parents should have pulled me from the team.
Now, whether it’s bad coaching, bullying teammates, or toxic team culture, nearly every parent is tempted at some stage to pull their kid off the team. As parents, it can be hard for us to see them struggle with the many challenges that sports present. We know the stress that these struggles create can be healthy and build character. But at some stage, these struggles can become unhealthy and harmful, with long-term negative consequences. So, how do we know when enough is enough?
As Seligman and others have shown, we can train our brains to deal with stress from an early age. However, not every athlete develops similar strength, speed, or skills in their sport; likewise, not every athlete develops similar tolerance for stress. What is traumatic for one child may only be stressful for another. If you’ve got more than one kid, you definitely know this to be true from an early age!
So, not only should their “struggle be age-appropriate,” as Heath Eslinger says on the Coaching Culture Podcast Episode 90, but their struggle should also be child-appropriate.
This is why a parent is most likely the best person to decide what is appropriate and manageable stress for their child. It can be valuable to seek the opinion of others, but only you know your child best.
Four questions to guide your decision
The challenges and struggles that athletes face in sports are so wide, and every person and their circumstance is unique. So, the best I can do is give you four questions to ask yourself as you decide whether or not to pull your child from the team.
What’s really going on?
Often, our children are unable or afraid to communicate what’s really going on. In my own athletic experience, I never spoke to my parents about what was really going on in closed practices and locker-room talks. Do some fact-finding before you make your decision.
What are my child’s options, and do they know they have them?
Remember the critical difference between the two cages of rats: One group had a choice and the other didn’t. Often, kids feel like they don’t have a choice. As an athlete, I played basketball all my life; I didn’t want to give up on my dream, so I didn’t feel like I had any other option than to just keep playing.
What previous struggles have they experienced that will prepare them for this one?
We want to prepare them for the road, not the other way around. But have we allowed them to experience other struggles before this? And if so, how have they responded to them?
How can I support them through their struggle?
If you decide your child should remain on the team, you’ll need to determine what type of support is both appropriate and healthy. If your child leaves the sport, you’ll need to help them find new areas of life that will challenge them.
I’d love to hear more about your challenge. Shoot me an email at email@example.com
Also, if you are interested in bringing our Healthy Sports Parenting Workshop or Coaching Culture Workshop to your organization, you can learn more here!