Swimming upstream-- How these last 8 weeks have impacted our swimmers’ mental health
This week, I would like to depart slightly from the lighthearted approach to our Swim Mom Confidential musings, to talk about a subject that is so often buried deep under the layers of our swim parents discussions. I understand that I may be a month late on this (May is Mental Health Awareness month). I am also admittedly not a mental health expert -- But I am a parent and I am grateful to have friends who can and have always helped me with discussing this “touchy” subject. It made me realize how many of us worry about our kids’ mental health and how often we may be wondering in silence and isolation. Thankfully, I also have dear and trusted friends whose expertise have been and will continue to be invaluable on the subject. And so, today, with your permission, we will deviate from our jovial tone and talk about mental health.
It really should come as no surprise that the subject of our children’s mental health is so very present in the forefront of my mind. I wonder how many other parents out there have thought about this very topic, right around the time their swimmers returned to the water in their own states. Last week was a special week in our family, and I am sure it was just as special for a lot of our SMAC families -- see, last week, the kids (finally) were allowed back in the water. When your body has been trained to sustain the rigor of swim practices, the strenuous demands of doubles, and the intensity of the Man-Maker (one of our favorite SMAC-ers sets), stopping “cold turkey” must have felt unnatural and absolutely bizarre to our children. I would postulate that they probably did not quite understand it themselves. I would even imagine that the early response may have been comparable to a slight feeling of relief; if even for a moment; if even for some of them. But judging by the almost-palpable joy and overall lightness that has enveloped my son for the past 7 days, I would posit that going back to training could be compared to the proverbial weight, suddenly lifted off one’s shoulders. Certainly, returning to a semblance of normalcy and some regular, scheduled, daily activities may have something to do with my child’s mood. Undoubtedly, the fact that he is now in closer (albeit #6FeetApart) and in more regular contact with other humanoids of his third kind (coaches included) plays a role in his newfound (and probably short-lived) sunny disposition -- I mean the kid vacuumed and washed my car for God’s sake! (no joke; fur realz;he totally did!). But, if one is to believe the scientific literature -- yeah, I know, who in their right mind would do that, right? -- this slight sense of euphoria may also have something to do with swimming itself. Research has shown that “swimming-learning program significantly improved the mental health, cognition, and motor coordination in children with ADHD” (Siva et al., 2019). My child certainly fits the results of this and other studies. We started him with the sport to help him manage that feeling that his “brain was jumping up and down at the sound of some unheard music”. That was the way he could describe the sensory overload he was continuously feeling; that intense activity he was experiencing even while sitting and trying to do school work, and that caused him to lack focus. I think that ADD/ADHD diagnoses may actually be a very common thread among many swimmers. And I have seen, firsthand, how hard it can be to fit in, be accepted and find some sense of peace when a child is continuously bombarded by misfiring neurotransmitters. So yes, while the kids are happy because “normal” is back and because they are seeing their friends , I think many of them are also experiencing effects at the “brain-health” level (whatever that is) because of their return to the water.
I would also pause here for a moment and recognize that more than the sport, it is the environment in which said sports is practiced that can and will contribute to the overall mental health of our athletes. My son has swum for coaches that thought his lack of focus was “abnormal” -- no joke -- that was, in fact, the word used by a coach when my 8-year-old squiggly, non-conforming, hyper, jumping-bean swimmer could not hold still at the wall while the coach was going through one of her interminable monologues. That’s not “normal” she would say, that he can’t just hold still (ha!). So while the sport itself is scientifically recognized for being beneficial for the well-being of children, and especially those who may find it difficult to focus, I am also certain that the nurturing environment in which the sport is practiced, plays a massive role in my child’s happiness. If you read last week’s blog you know about my love of and appreciation for our current swim team, coaches and swim family. The fact that we have been so fortunate to find a team that was equally as great as the one we had left in South Florida (shout-out to ECAC Swimming!) is just icing on the cake! Swimmers push themselves hard every single day. They are involved in what could possibly be the most demanding sport there is (I am sure others may disagree, and I am probably biased). Notwithstanding my obvious favoritism for swimming however, the mental toughness, self discipline and perseverance it demands is certainly nothing to overlook. Because of it though, coaches must strive to maintain an adequate and precious balance that will provide the nurturing our children need with the life lessons they must learn. I am not saying our coaches are responsible for raising our kids. They aren’t the parents here and we also need to provide those things in our homes. But coaches do, in fact, hold some great power. Finding a team with the right coaching style, the knowledge to balance experiences with training, and the wisdom to wield that power with integrity and love is key in ensuring our children are built and not torn down. Consequently, the social aspect of being involved in a sport, whether for recreation or at a high performance level, also has a great effect on our children’s well-being and mental health. In fact, in 2015, an article in the Encyclopedia of Mental Health (Chelladurai and Anderson, 2015) found that when it comes to sports participation, “the more dominant effects [on mental health] stem from the facilitation of social networks and associated social well-being ”.
It is important to spend some time thinking about the effect of sports, and particularly our sport, on our children’s mental health. While one could erroneously believe that athletes are immune to mental health disorders (and many may think that), study after study have shown that the prevalence of mental health disorders in athletes is comparable to that in the overall population. With it, comes the stigma that mental toughness somehow must overcome the feelings of sadness, despair and depression athletes can and do experience. In fact, in a 2016 article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr. Bauman focuses on this idea that “Mental toughness and mental health are seen as contradictory terms in the world of elite performance” (Bauman, 2016). He compares the competitive aspects of sports as “hardware” and the focus on mental health as “software”. He proposes that, much like a computer, programs and algorithms cannot be run successfully without the two aspects interconnecting. The relationship is deep, intricate and vital to the success of any project. As we delve back into training schedules, competitions (hopefully soon) and the rigor of our sport, let us all remember this analogy and accept the importance of talking openly about mental health. Let us remember that mental toughness, while important, cannot be achieved at the expense of mental health.
Bauman NJ. The stigma of mental health in athletes: are mental toughness and mental health seen as contradictory in elite sport?British Journal of Sports Medicine 2016;50:135-136.
Chelladurai P, Anderson M. Sport and mental health. In: ; 2015.
Silva LAD, Doyenart R, Henrique Salvan P, et al. Swimming training improves mental health parameters, cognition and motor coordination in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. International journal of environmental health research. 2019:1