The Fine Line Between Commitment & Obsession

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How can you help your young athlete understand the difference between commitment and obsession?

Let’s start a conversation about one of the most controversial issues today—at least for coaches, teachers and parents of young performers.

First, let me introduce you to Megan. Megan is a gymnast. Or, should I say, was a gymnast. She’s been into gymnastics since she was four years old. Like many who are gifted in the sport, it became her obsession. Partly due to the coaching she got, and partly due to extreme parents—she overdid it. After thirteen years of balance beams, floor routines and uneven bars, she quit. She became overwhelmed, over-committed, over-extended and burned out. Nearly every adult around her tried to persuade her to keep going. They told her she had what it took to compete at the highest level, but she was spent.

I bet you know someone like Megan. A kid who becomes completely absorbed in something—performing on stage, on the field, on a court, you name it—until finally they wilt emotionally. We live in a society that pushes us to be obsessive:

  • Sports seasons have gotten longer since I was a kid.
  • Travel teams and multiple seasons are now available.
  • We can watch cable television channels for food, golf, baseball, you name it.
  • Go online, and you’ll find websites and videos targeted as specific topics.
  • Netflix has all kinds of genres and series that keep playing until you say stop.
  • Commercials constantly harass us to be dissatisfied with our current reality.
  • Facebook and other social media sites allow for intrusive, focused messages.

No one likes to see kids become emotionally brittle or soft and wither under the pressure. Unfortunately, however, we’re seeing it in record numbers today. We live in an extreme culture that strains and shoves all of us. And we’re suffering for it. More than nine in ten college students say they are absolutely overwhelmed with their life. Almost half say it’s almost impossible to function. In student-athletes, stress levels are even higher due to the pressure to perform. Depression levels have risen in the last twenty years among athletes, which can lead to physical injuries, not just mental health problems. The emotional health of our kids today is at stake. Why? It’s often us. In our effort to encourage them to “be their best” or “reach their potential,” we frequently push them too hard, failing to read the signs in their lives. We cross a line between commitment and obsession. On the one hand, we believe kids must find their strengths and play to them. We all do better when we’re performing in our sweet spot, our gift area. On the other hand, ancient wisdom has taught for years: “Moderation in all things.” This means we don’t cross a line where our commitment to something becomes unhealthy. When it grows into an obsession, we can’t make wise decisions with our time, our relationships, and our future.

Where Do We Draw the Line?

We’ve all heard the phrase, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” So how do we read a student athlete or performer and help them navigate their health and potential? How do we recognize when stress (which can be good) becomes distress? The American Psychological Association just released a report saying that teen stress is on the rise. A full 27% of adolescents now say they live with extreme stress. That’s a higher number than the adult population.

I’m very aware you have student-athletes in both categories. On one hand, you have ones who want to quit because they are wimping out on you. They need to get acquainted with the real world where navigating demands are part of the territory. On the other hand, there are student athletes who are trying to please too many leaders and are over-committed, leading to mental health problems.

Some Guardrails and Questions

As a coach, here are some guardrails to use to stay on a healthy track. When an athlete begins to falter, and wants to quit their commitment:

  • Check their emotional health: are they close to burnout? Has their stress level become evident in their behavior? Are they experiencing anxiety attacks?
  • Check your motives: are you pushing them because of your reputation? Are you living out your unlived life through this young athlete?
  • Check their skill level: are you pushing them beyond their talent and ability? Do they truly have the gifts, depth and desire to push to the next level?
  • Check their workload: have they made too many commitments? Do they have too many conflicting bosses—parents, coaches, faculty, trainers, etc?
  • Check their lifestyle: do they have a life outside of the sport? Do they have friendships, social outlets and other interests?

Here are the questions I’m asking—and challenging you to ask:

  • What does moderation look like for a young performer?
  • Is a large portion of athletes’ emotional problems due to obsession?
  • How can we help them build a life outside of sport or stage—and still excel?

Let’s discuss this. Where do you draw the line between commitment and obsession?

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