Courtesy of Donna Hale
Most of what I write about swimming and parenting deals with the joys and excitement associated by raising amazing athletes. It is an honor and a privilege to be part of such a terrific sport that develops character and builds lifelong friendships.
But there’s another side to teen sports that few write about because it’s painful. Swimming, like most sports, has its share of things we would rather not think about. Michael Phelps has spoken about it since being in rehab. Athletes have written books and shared their personal stories. And almost all of us encounter this in our swim journeys. It is not always easy to be an athlete, no matter how much talent you possess. When athletes are out of the spotlight and alone with their thoughts many face the same demons that plaque us all.
In the race to be the best, perform at the highest level, and exceed everyone’s goals, we often overlook the silent elephant in the room. Teen depression is a real problem that many kids face. Sadly, many fight these battles in silence. In the locker rooms after bad swims, theyhide their sadness in the shower or behind the changing curtain. In the lane lines where no one can see the tears that are well hidden by the water, they mask the struggles. Often it comes out years later, long after the racing suits are packed away. I for one would like to see us be more proactive in recognizing and helping young athletes suffering in silence.
Here’s a few steps we can all take to be sure our kids are both physically and mentally healthy both in and out of the pool.
Coaches, you are often the first one to notice changes. Your athletes admire you. You are their role models. If you see something out of the ordinary, reach out. No one expects you to be a counselor or therapist. But just maybe you can be the lifeline that encourages them to seek help and support. I’ve known many coaches along this journey and I know that most of them believe that the sport should bring joy. They understand that swimming is a passion to be savored. Not everyone can be a Phelps. But we are all human just like him. Seeking support makes you strong not weak.
Parents, it is tough to be a teenager. Academic pressures abound. Athletes set high expectations and the sacrifices it takes can seem paralyzingly scarey. Love your child unconditionally through the good swims, bad swims, and the in between moments. And if they seem overwhelmed, intervene. It’s not your job to solve your young adult’s every trouble. But it is your job to offer love, support and help. The rise in teen suicides is scarey and athletes are not immune. Be present in the moment. Remind them that if you don’t enjoy the journey, the destination will leave you sad and wondering.
Swimmers, you are never alone. One of the purest gifts of this sport is the deep and binding friendships. Your teammates are there for you to celebrate the great races, console you when you fall short, but most of all they are your friends. Their admiration for you is much more about your character than performance. Trust them if you need broad shoulders. One day it might be them who needs help.
In the end we can all take a proactive role by emphasizing the moments and the experiences more and the achievements less. We owe it to our sport and our swimmers. Asking for help requires far more courage and determination than suffering all alone. Sometimes it’s okay if others see you cry.
Donna Hale has been a swim mom for 12 years as well as executive of several nonprofit organizations. She volunteers regularly for her daughter Hannah’s USA Team The Potomac Marlins, summer team Burke Station Destroyers, and Lake Braddock Swim and Dive Bruins.