“I don’t know why, I’m just still nervous,” Williamson said. “Maybe because … all eyes were on me. And I think it’s a lot to take in.”
– Zion Williamson, speaking about the pressure of being the #1 NBA draft choice
Last night the NBA 2019 draft order was set, and if you weren’t paying close attention you might have thought it was the Zion Williamson show. Throughout the ESPN program Williamson was talked about as the presumed #1 pick, and how he might fit with some of the teams in the running for the #1 overall pick (which turned out to be the New Orleans Pelicans). Williamson might be the most hyped #1 pick since LeBron James was in 2003, and he is already experiencing the tremendous pressure to live up to incredible expectations. Watching all the focus on Williamson got me thinking about how many other athletes, albeit far less known than Williamson, face similar expectations? Perhaps these student athletes aren’t known on a national level, but you can be assured that countless youth and high school-level student athletes find themselves dealing with pressure from the school and community — and even if the stakes aren’t as great as what Williamson faces, they are very real for kids with such lofty expectations placed on their shoulders.
The pressures young athletes face today
Granted, the kids in your local community probably don’t have sports fans around the country watching their every move, but they do often experience pressure to elevate their respective teams to the highest levels. How do I know this? Because I talk to talented student athletes almost every day, and it is not uncommon for me to learn firsthand about the expectations they feel, as well as the stress they deal with on a daily basis as they work hard to play their best. While these kids might not be preparing for the Final Four or Super Bowl, they do feel the weight of their schools and communities placed on the shoulders with the expectations around their leadership abilities to bring home a championship. Some additional factors impacting the pressures kids experience include:
- Expectations. Sometimes expectations for kids are widely known through the media and community buzz, while in other instances kids place private expectations on themselves that are simply too much. When kids feel like the team’s success is up to their individual contributions, it can leave them susceptible for depression, anxiety, and a host of psychological concerns.
- Controlling emotions. Pressure can be a lot for a kid to deal with, and it’s not uncommon to witness breakdowns, outbursts, and uncharacteristic behaviors when expectations are simply too high. Being a role model is a big responsibility, especially when student athletes are placed in situations where they are expected to be star athletes on the field, and leaders off the field.
- Managing stress. When kids feel like everyone is hoping they will carry the team to championships, the stress can be overwhelming and leave kids susceptible to dealing with stress in maladaptive ways – like drinking and drug usage.
- Communicating effectively. One of the best ways for kids to deal with pressure is to solicit the help of adults, including parents, teachers and coaches. The problem is not every kid has the confidence and/or willingness to talk to an adult about what they are experiencing, leaving them prone to deal with even more stress keeping their emotions to themselves.
- Balancing their schedules. Student athletes who feel like the team’s success is largely their responsibility may find themselves devoting inordinate amounts of time to practicing their sport, sometimes at the expense of doing school work or completing other responsibilities.
- Dealing with social media. Talented student athletes often see themselves being talked about on social media, including discussions around where they project for the future, potential college scholarships, and parts of their game that still need improved upon.
Don’t underestimate the pressure student athletes experience, as we commonly turn to them to carry our local sports teams and provide a sense of pride to the community. Like it or not, we often measure our schools and communities by athletic success, and we turn to kids with expectations that they fulfill our hopes to be the best program. Pay special attention to kids with the most responsibility placed on them for athletic success, and make sure to take appropriate steps to ensure the pressure they feel doesn’t turn into bigger future problems.