Why Elite Sport Teens Are At Risk of Suicide

Updated: Apr 20

The importance of building a solid human foundation in our children explained through personal insights from a parent and the devastating consequences when it's not present.

Image courtesy of Braden Collum @ unsplash.com

By Lee Frimston, Key Account Manager at Wavin UK


How might young people involved in elite sports become suicidal?

On face value, this may seem like an odd question to be asking, but it really has shocked and surprised me to learn how common suicide is amongst children and teenagers, including suicidal thoughts and tendencies, too. I recently came across the following article about suicides among teen athletes. This piqued my interest, as for a number of years, my son was in an elite sports development program and made me realise the potential impact it could have had on him.


Looking at institutionalised discipline

On the upside, the elite sport environment is very structured and geared up to support the child in a systematic and disciplined training regime; complete with one-to-one coaching, physiotherapists and nutritionists. When you are in the system, there is a genuine sense of belonging to a synthesised family (your local club) and also to a wider community where the shared experiences of participation is the bond and connection to your teammates and your competitors. As is the case in all elite sports, there is a high degree of competition and pressure that comes with the territory. You are expected to perform consistently to the required standard or else you are dropped, so you are constantly competing with yourself in terms of self-improvement whilst also being compared and graded with your teammates too.


Taking good care of our children and ourselves

When children come out of this environment, they leave everything behind them that was part of the supporting framework, leaving a void that needs to be filled. When my son gave up, it was preceded by him struggling to maintain the required standard and his passion and enthusiasm for the sport was waning. Once out of the system, he no longer had access to that strict schedule and support structure that he had been so used to for years. The struggles that my son faced were twofold in having to face up to the prospect of coming out of this well-known community that he had enjoyed for years and also the disappointment he felt on the inside in seeing himself as a failure.


Thankfully, we had discussed the decision for a few months before reaching a conclusion, so we were sufficiently aware of and prepared for the downsides of coming out of the structured sporting community. Because of that awareness, I was able to reach out for help and benefited from a lot of support to assist with my son’s transition away from elite level competition into other areas.


Sobering statistics and the tragic loss of a child

Unfortunately, there are many others who don’t receive this support beyond a superficial level which has the propensity to lead children down a much darker path.


As a parent of two teenage boys, this got me thinking about the underlying reasons behind child suicide. How do you reach the point where the pain that you are experiencing in your life, whatever that may be, drives you to want to take your own life to stop that pain you are feeling?


Here are some shocking statistics that paint a picture of what I am talking about when a child decides to take their own life.

[Source: The Lancet] Between Jan 1, 2014, and April 30, 2015, we were notified of 145 deaths by suicide in children and young people under the age of 20 years, which corresponded to a prevalence in 2014 of 2·1 deaths by suicide per 100 000 10–19 year olds in England. 102 (70%) of those who died were male, giving a male-to-female ratio of 2·4:1. The number of suicides seemed to increase with age, as did the proportion of males (figure 1).

The pain and the heartache that anyone who loses a child would go through is difficult enough to contemplate, let alone what a parent would experience themselves through the loss of their own child to suicide. Not all children are able to handle rejection in their life and feel deeply depressed about their transition out of their elite sport and consequently suffer high levels of anxiety and feelings of low self-esteem. Dealing with the feelings of rejection and facing the reality of not realising our dreams and aspirations is something that we all face throughout our lives.


The reset

Looking back, I really hadn’t appreciated how much my son had confided in his coaches about his feelings and that he was struggling with the required technical elements of the sport. It was only after a few months that he began to open up more to my wife and me at home, that we began to discuss his thoughts and feelings. This was priceless. I remember that he came to the conclusion that he didn’t see himself with a future in the sport. We spent some quality time jointly discussing and planning other areas of interest outside of elite sport. Five years on, we do have a better relationship, not least because of the foundational work that I have received through being mentored at Lighthouse International Group. I was able to use what I was learning about my own foundation and invest that into my son and the relationship we were building through this challenge he faced. We used this opportunity to grow together as a family by working through the situation to find a solution. I am very grateful for this and for the relationship I have built with my son since.


Recognising that we all have the power to choose how we respond in any given set of circumstances and situations that we face is key. This is why it’s so important for parents to learn and to understand the primary root causes that lead to a child wanting to or actually taking their own life.


Building a solid human foundation

How many people ask the question, what does it mean to build a complete and holistic human foundation? What does that mean to you and why would that be important? Have you ever contemplated such questions for your child or even for yourself? Would you at least be open and interested in understanding and learning about what that means?


To use an analogy, before a building is constructed, a lot of time is dedicated to making sure that the physical foundations upon which the building will sit, has a very strong and stable base. Typically, the taller the building, the deeper the foundations must go. The process of calculating and designing the most appropriate foundation for a building involves a significant amount of time and effort, with the appropriate involvement of architects and design engineers. Interestingly, when you compare the amount of time, money and effort that the average person invests in building a solid and holistic foundation for themselves, the differences are stark. You would never consider building a house without firm footings and firm foundations. So, why should we believe that we can develop into highly effective human beings, without making sure that we have the best possible foundation to grow into the healthiest human being that we possibly can?


Many young people leave school and university with qualifications under their belts to help them get a foothold in the job market. They will have spent at least 18 years in various educational institutions learning traditional, academic subjects. However, how many of them are aware of what a human foundation is and why it is so important to build one? What are the essential and fundamental building blocks that ought to be built within each and every one of us from an early age, before adulthood? This goes beyond the scope of traditional institutions that we rely so much upon to educate our children. Inevitably, the consequences of a weak or poorly constructed foundation become apparent when it is put under strain and stress. At the extreme end, buildings fall down and so do human beings.


Creating meaning and purpose in life

This is why it is crucial and vital for a child to have the best foundational education and, as loving and caring parents, we have a responsibility to provide this for them, starting with ourselves. As parents, we have a responsibility to educate our children and to equip them well to handle life’s challenges and to build a solid principle-centred foundation for themselves and to rely less on institutions to provide this for them.


I wanted to share with you a very moving and tragic story of a father who lost his son to suicide, and how he has used this experience to help other parents to build a meaningful relationship with their children.


The more that we, particularly as parents, openly talk and share about the pitfalls of not having a solid foundation as part of our upbringing, I hope that we can address the root causes of suicide and that no child reaches the point where they believe that suicide is the only choice that they have left. Responsible parents have a huge role to play in the upbringing of their children, and we need to help each other to recognise that.


If you would like to reach out and share your own thoughts and experiences, I would welcome you to get in touch with me about this.


Additionally, there are many resources available that provide specific guidance and support services on the subject of suicide in the UK:


The Samaritans https://www.samaritans.org/

Freephone 116 123


Childline https://www.childline.org.uk/

Freephone 0800 11 11


Papyrus https://www.papyrus-uk.org/

Freephone 0800 068 41 41


There are also Associates at Lighthouse International Group who have attempted suicide themselves and are now helping prevent others from taking their own lives as Paul Waugh explains in the video below.

In line with this you can read this article from Lighthouse Associate Sean Tiernan on why people kill themselves based on his own experiences.


If You or Anyone You Know Has Been Affected By Suicide And Would Value Support, Please Contact One of Our Mentors on Our Site.


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