Today I’m excited to bring back a feature from before the COVID-19 pandemic called Healthy stocks.
In the monthly series, which began in 2018, I select topics of general interest to educate readers who would otherwise not have access to our area health experts.
The series continued into 2019 and a bit of 2020 before the pandemic took over my time.
New this time we will usually have a Now you know Akron podcast available to listen to the interview. Also look for occasional videos accompanying the columns on BeaconJournal.com.
Today’s topic is youth and sports with Akron Children’s Hospital’s new sports psychologist, Allyson Weldon. Weldon grew up in Parma and played football in high school and Ursuline College. She then earned her doctorate at the University of Houston and returned to northeast Ohio for her internship and work.
Q: What does a sports psychologist do and who can see you?
A: A sports psychologist is not very different from your general psychologist. An athlete can come to see me if they have had an injury and lost a lot of time, causing them a lot of anxiety or stress and finding it difficult to come back.
I also see concussion patients, because a lot of things can go haywire with a concussion, including emotion regulation.
Not everyone clinically encounters a diagnosis of major depressive disorder or generalized anxiety disorder, but there are things that do cause some problems. I also have patients who come to see me just because they have mental blocks (with a skill they were able to do).
I also see athletes who want to take it to the next level. While sports are very physical, sometimes they are just as, if not more mental.
Q: Do patients need to be referred?
A: No, although I get a lot of referrals from sports medicine, orthopedics, sports rehabilitation and pediatricians. Parents can call 330-543-8260.
Q: What is the age range of your patients?
A: The majority are teenagers, between the ages of about 12 and 18. I have a few college-aged kids and will see until I’m 22. My youngest patient is 9 years old; my comfort level would not be lower than 7.
Q: There is more mental health and sports awareness after Simone Biles has withdrawn from some Olympic events. Has anything changed or are people more open to talking about their challenges / Has the pandemic affected that?
A: There has been a shift in society that has become more open and willing to accept mental health as a reality and the pandemic has honestly contributed to that. The more high-profile athletes we have coming out, sharing some of the struggles they’ve been through and needing services, it helps. More professional teams have access to professional psychologists, which makes it more acceptable to others.
Two years after the start of the pandemic, how are the children doing? Here’s what some Akron parents had to say
Q: Many children, especially when they are young, dream of being a professional athlete or winning a college scholarship. Can you tell me about the pressures from athletes themselves and parents, as well as early burnout and injuries they can’t control?
A: Injuries and burnout are much more common because sport has become a year-round option. Unfortunately, all of this athletic specialization that we focus on is really one of the biggest challenges that I often see with my young patients. They lose interest and I think the pressure takes the fun out of the sport and that’s really what the sport is supposed to be.
Almost all athletes experience some form of injury, hopefully minor. Many face serious injuries. Our developing bodies are not ready for the impact of some of these sports. This then takes the mental toll because they waste time. For athletes hoping for a Division 1 varsity scholarship and beyond, they could be monitored from eighth or ninth grade, so if an injury occurs early, they feel they won’t get that scholarship .
A lot is just overuse. Our bodies need time off and we don’t allow that to happen.
Q: Kids don’t want to hear “take time”. What tips do you have for coping?
A: It’s a lot of trying to figure out mentally, how can we accept that time off is needed. I relate it to school and how we have breaks in school – and we really appreciate those breaks.
This is also sometimes how I rotate injuries for my athletes. It’s a much needed rest and rehabilitation.
Q: And the parents? Sometimes parents push the athlete to continue or relive their childhood through their athlete.
A: I talk to them with psychoeducation about the mental toll it takes on their child and how if they really want them to get to that level and the child athlete wants to get to that level as well, they have to leave that space for they can recover mentally and physically.
You’re right, parents don’t want to hear that. But parents want the best for their child, so I use their words to turn things around and say, “What does your child need right now?” It usually helps them see it a little differently.
Q: Nobody foresees an injury and it’s such a blow to the athlete. How does this affect an athlete’s mental health?
A: Confidence definitely takes a hit. Some athletes will come in and see this as their much-needed break, but most don’t. They are devastated. They feel a loss of identity and feel that their team will carry on without them or that they won’t be needed when they return. Sometimes there is also this fear of returning to sport because they may re-injure themselves or suffer a new injury.
Some like to isolate themselves and get away, which we want to avoid. We want to keep them involved in their team as much as possible when they’re ready and not force them out the day after injury if they’re not ready. After a week or two, ask, “How can we start bringing you back?” What game do you want to watch or what training do you want to attend? The longer they can be on this team, the more their team still considers them friends and the more the coach still sees them.
Q: How do you help an athlete who has to leave a sport due to injury?
A: It’s a really difficult process because it’s considered a forced retirement, even though it was 14 years ago. It’s really hard when it’s not a choice. It’s hard even when it’s a choice.
It’s really about changing that identity. The purpose of sport is fun, but it’s to help build that active lifestyle for the future. How can you redefine yourself? Maybe it’s another sport or if there are physical limitations, something like yoga.
However, it is still a loss and they may go through the same stages of grief as grieving a loved one. It is important to help them process these emotions and normalize them. Sometimes people say “you shouldn’t feel like this and you had a great career”. But their emotions are real and we need to validate them and help them through this grieving process, which is different for each person.
Q: It’s the end of the school year and there are a lot of seniors finishing their last season. What advice do you have for athletes, as well as parents, with the purpose of this one?
A: For the athlete, it is definitely easier for him to find other things to occupy his time at university. Do you want to practice intramural or club sports? Or there are also many community teams and leagues.
On the parents’ side, it’s really difficult. It’s a huge loss when you spend every weekend watching your child play and it’s gone. Maybe they can find things they enjoy doing and reorganize their own perception of themselves and their child and not mourn the loss, but celebrate what they’ve been through.
Q: Do you give mindfulness tips to your athletes to prepare for a game?
A: I love doing a lot of positive mental imagery, especially with my more anxious kids who are more afraid to go back to certain things. Visualize yourself performing that particular skill or performing well. It helps reduce that anxiety. Deep breathing exercises are also helpful.
Sometimes it’s also not about focusing on the routine they’re doing before the game because I think a lot of athletes do things like, “I put this shoe on first, then this one. here and we won the game. So now I have to do it every time. Then, every time they win, it adds a little something extra. Before you know it, their pre-game routine is about an hour long and it’s like, “OK, we don’t need to do all of this.” Let’s step back and challenge myself outside of that comfort zone so they see it’s not something we have to rely on. That’s not what made you score that game-winning goal.
Q: How can athletes balance school and sport?
A: This is something that is very stressful for a lot of my high school athletes, especially my high achievers who are taking all of the AP (Advanced Placement) classes or all of the specialty classes.
If it’s game days, you might come home around 10 p.m. some days and still have to eat dinner and shower and do your homework. It’s a big challenge. They need to create structure for themselves. If you have a study room, be sure to use that time wisely. See if you can study on the bus or on the field if you are a college player and need to watch the JV game. It’s not ideal, but you can do both.
For some of them, you don’t have to get direct A’s. I don’t mean that grades don’t matter because they matter. You don’t have to get an A for every thing you do as long as your overall rating is an A, if that’s what you’re looking for, fine.
To read previous columns in the Healthy Actions series, go to www.tinyurl.com/BettyHealthyActions Beacon Journal reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ To see her most recent stories and columns, go to www.tinyurl.com/bettylinfisher