Flag Football in the Olympics! Uniting for Collective Support and Success

Tackling challenges like a pro

Flag football, with its exhilarating highs and challenging lows, imparts invaluable life lessons to young female athletes that extend well beyond the field. This includes instilling important values like teamwork, discipline, resilience, and determination. However, one aspect that often goes overlooked is mental health.

Anxiety, for example, is an experience that can significantly impact the on-field performance but is frequently disregarded by parents, coaches, and the athletes themselves. In the wake of the pandemic, reported rates of anxiety among young women have reached unprecedented levels. As coaches, we see the consequences of anxiety on the field every single day.

Much like a quarterback needs a strong arm to throw a touchdown pass, our flag football players require support in developing robust mental health to navigate the challenges they encounter on the gridiron, whether from opponents or spectators, as well as in life. Understanding mental health cues, cultivating coping skills, and building resilience are vital aspects of their overall development, especially during a time when mental health concerns are on the rise.

Your role in supporting your daughter’s mental well-being

As parents, you play a pivotal role in nurturing your daughters' love for the game and ensuring that they are set up for success. While you encourage them to perfect their passing technique and agile footwork, it's equally important to encourage them to tend to their mental health. Think of it as the"line of scrimmage"- it's the starting point. It's where the action begins, and in mental health, individuals often need a starting point or a clear understanding of where to begin to address challenges they may be experiencing, early. 

This blog post aims to shed light on why mental health matters, and how we can collectively support our young female athletes to develop a personal menu of healthy coping and self-care strategies so that they can feel empowered, on and off the field. If you’re in, let's explore some ways we can equip our young athletes with the tools they can keep in…the gym bag. 

Why does my daughter have anxiety now? 

Numerous factors contribute to the experience of anxiety. Here are a few things to consider:  

  1. The social dynamics on the field can sometimes exacerbate anxiety. The pressure to perform well in front of peers, parents, and coaches can lead to social anxiety. Adolescents may worry about judgment, and this can significantly impact their confidence on the field. They might feel like they are playing to please their parents, peers, and coaches.

To address this, consider having a conversation with them about this pressure. Here's a tip: Have you ever noticed that discussions with your child are often easier when you're driving? There's a reason for that. Try asking them about whether they feel the "pressure" to perform, and do it casually while driving. This is known as a sideways conversation, designed to create an informal setting where your child can avoid eye contact. It's a more comfortable environment for them to open up and share their feelings. Trust me, they're more likely to express how they're feeling this way.

  1. Lack of experience: Let's be straightforward about this. The COVID-19 pandemic has left many of us confined within the four walls of our homes. However, for young people, especially aspiring athletes, this isolation has resulted in profound losses. Youth sports leagues across the country were compelled to cancel entire seasons due to restrictions, which resulted in young athletes losing out on valuable playing time and the social interactions that come with being on the field. One notable consequence of this lack of experience is the escalating anxiety experienced by young female athletes. With no chance to have engaged in sports FOR YEARS, they may now find themselves feeling ill-prepared for upcoming competitions, afraid of being away from home and harbouring a fear of making mistakes when they finally get the field. It’s the sheer absence of exposure to high-pressure situations, including critical game moments, intensive training, and competitive challenges, that may be contributing to performance anxiety, leading to self-doubt and diminished self-confidence. In a way, it's like these young athletes have been kept in a pressure cooker without ever having the opportunity to experience the intense heat of the game.
  1. Performance Location: The location where competitions take place can also play a role in performance anxiety. Unfamiliar venues or a lack of comfort with the playing environment can heighten stress levels. They may be completely unprepared for away tournaments. 

Recognizing common signs of anxiety

Recognizing anxiety in young athletes requires attention to certain behavioural cues. One you may recognize is resistance or reluctance to attend practice. Young athletes who express a lack of interest or enthusiasm about attending practices or games may be demonstrating anxiety-related avoidance. Additionally, they may exhibit apprehension, nervousness or unease before or during sports activities, such as pacing, excessive fidgeting, or appearing unusually tense. Physical symptoms like "butterflies" in the stomach, clammy hands, and a rapid heart rate can also be indicative of anxiety. These physical responses can disrupt their game and affect their performance on the field. In such cases, it's essential to address these issues early on to prevent underperformance and help young athletes manage their anxiety effectively.

Some facts you should know

In Canada, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a growing mental health crisis among children and youth, with a particular emphasis on females who continue to report elevated rates of anxiety and symptoms of depression. This crisis is compounded by the lack of exposure to high-pressure situations, resulting in a generation of young females experiencing self-doubt and eroded self-confidence. Gender disparities in mental health are also a reality, as females, transgender, and non-binary teens report higher rates of anxiety and depression compared to their male counterparts. To address this pressing issue, it's imperative that parents, coaches, and peers come together to support one another and build literacy around strategies that can help young athletes navigate these challenges successfully.

Some strategies for thriving under pressure and building resilience

Like a well-rounded flag football player, young female athletes need a versatile set of skills to succeed in sports and life:

  • Confidence is their quarterback, guiding them to believe in their abilities and value their strengths.
  • Encourage athletes to practice positive self-talk, helping them reframe negative thoughts into constructive ones.
  • Proper training and mental preparation are key to reducing anxiety. Visualization, good habits, goal-setting, and pre-game routines can help them stay focused and composed.
  • Teach athletes to interpret physical symptoms as excitement rather than anxiety. The heightened heart rate and anticipation are natural responses to competition and can enhance their performance.

Did you know? Canada has a mental health strategy for high-performance sport

In response to the growing mental health challenges faced by young athletes and adolescents, Canada has developed a Mental Health Strategy for High-Performance Sports. This initiative prioritizes mental well-being for athletes, coaches, and staff, aiming to provide them with the tools needed to succeed both on and off the field. 

Implementing Strategies

As we address the pressing mental health issues that have affected youth during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond, it's crucial to take proactive steps to support young athletes, particularly young female flag football players. 

Parents play a vital role in nurturing the mental well-being of their young athletes. Be the wide receiver your daughter needs and help her to express her feelings, needs, and boundaries effectively. Offer unwavering support and ensure they know it's okay to share their feelings and concerns. The pandemic has magnified the importance of this support.

Coaches are not just mentors on the field but also in fostering a positive and mentally supportive environment. Good coaches understand the importance of initiating discussions about mental health and allowing their athletes to express their thoughts and emotions without fear. Peer support is equally significant. Young athletes should feel comfortable talking to their teammates, fostering an atmosphere of understanding and empathy.

Recognizing the impact of the pandemic on young athletes and their mental health, these strategies aim to ensure that they have the emotional tools to thrive both in sports and in life. Open conversations, strong support networks, and a nurturing environment can make all the difference for young female flag football athletes and their peers in these challenging times.

The last word

The numbers and stories of increasing anxiety among our female athletes tell us that we have work to do. So, we stand at a crucial juncture, where collective action is the only path forward.

Parents, coaches, and athletes must become champions for mental health. Let’s help to reinforce the significance of mental health in the context of youth flag football and beyond. Parents, your role in understanding and supporting your children's emotional well-being cannot be overstated. Open conversations, empathy, and acceptance are your most potent tools. Coaches, you are not just teaching sports; you are guiding lives. Initiate discussions about mental health and create a nurturing environment where young athletes feel safe to express their emotions. Athletes, champion your mental health. Recognize that a holistic approach to success involves caring for your mental well-being as much as your physical skills.

These initiatives are not just about promoting success on the field but about fostering a generation of young athletes who are resilient, compassionate, and confident. By prioritizing mental health, we empower our youth to overcome obstacles and become leaders, both in sports and in life.

Want more information? 

We believe in the power of knowledge and information. To further your understanding and support for mental health in youth sports, we recommend the following resources:

Mental Health Strategy for High-Performance Sport in Canada: This comprehensive resource outlines the mental health strategy developed by Canadian experts in mental health and sport. It offers insights, scientific evidence, and best practices to promote mental well-being among high-performance athletes, coaches, and staff. Mental Health Strategy for High-Performance Sport

Mental Health and Sport Resource Event Hub: Access a wide range of materials, articles, and tools that can aid in understanding and addressing the mental health challenges in sports. This hub is a valuable source for coaches, parents, and athletes to promote well-being within the sporting community.

Wellness Together Canada: For more generalized access to support for anxiety, immediate counselling and well-being resources, Wellness Together Canada is an essential platform. It offers a variety of resources and support services for those seeking help with mental health concerns.

We invite you, our readers, to share your experiences, stories, and questions related to youth sports and mental health. Your insights and inquiries can help enrich the ongoing conversation about the well-being of our athletes at Ottawa Women’s Football. Whether you have a personal story to share or seek guidance on specific issues, your input is valuable.

If you have any specific questions or require additional information, feel free to reach out to us at Ottawa Women's Football. We're here to assist and support you in any way we can. Your questions and feedback are important to us, and we look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you for being part of this critical dialogue on youth sports and mental health!

Jules Mckercher

Julie Mckercher
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