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Have you ever seen an episode of “Dance Moms,” that utterly ridiculous reality TV show about a group of young female dancers and their moms at “The Abby Lee Dance Company?” If you have, you probably recall a whole lot of screaming, crying and pointless drama that seemed totally fabricated. As a kid, I was an avid fan, but it wasn’t the catfights between the mothers that kept me enthralled — it was the young girls who spent hours in rehearsal getting yelled at by their dance teacher. I could relate to them. 

While my time in dance wasn’t quite as dramatic as “Dance Moms,” there were plenty of similarities. Like the girls on the show, my whole world was dance. Every day, I would wake up, go to school, go to dance and come home late at night to do homework — and for the most part, I loved it. My dance team gave me my best friends, taught me about hard work and showed me what it meant to be truly passionate about something. However, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows. 

My entire identity was tied to dance — my goals, my aspirations, my self-esteem — and it made any criticism or losses within dance that much more devastating. To me, the opinions of my dance teachers and teammates were the most important thing in the world, and when they weren’t positive, I fell apart. Unfortunately, it was in these moments of emotional turmoil that I realized I did not have the support system I needed. 

When people ask me about my relationship with dance, I usually tell the same story: When I was 11, I fell during a show and broke my arm. My dance teachers immediately rallied around me and tried to make me feel better, yet they never did the same any of the countless times I cried in the bathroom after a stressful rehearsal. Those times, I was expected to suck it up and put a smile on my face, regardless of the situation. This is where the hypocrisy lies. Sports as rigorous as dance put on a facade of caring about health, but often neglect mental health entirely, expecting their athletes to perform at their best even when they are facing intense physical and emotional pressure. 

LSA freshman Sophia Meguid — who grew up on a competitive dance team and now dances on the Michigan Dance Team — spoke to The Michigan Daily about her own similar experiences with her competition dance team at a young age. She believes that with the rigor of an athletic schedule, mental health does not always get the attention it deserves. “I do feel very fortunate to have resources to reach out to,” she said, “However, there is a lot of change that still needs to happen about mental health, starting with the way we speak about it … it’s very stigmatized.” 

This is entirely unfair. The vast majority of young athletes are driven, focused, high-achieving individuals who give so much, yet — even with all that is demanded of them — their dedication can go unrewarded. Studies have shown repeatedly that young athletes are highly susceptible to anxiety and burn-out, both of which often go unacknowledged. These especially happen with athletes because many sports demand their athletes to constantly compare themselves to their teammates — a recipe for self-deprecating, anxiety-inducing thoughts that are only worsened by a lack of gratification from teammates and coaches. In the case of “Dance Moms,” the infamous Abby Lee Miller forced her students to constantly compete against one another, and only praised their performance if it was near perfect, ultimately causing her students to struggle with severe anxiety.

This has also been seen with several high-profile athletes. Simone Biles, Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka are just a few examples of those who have spoken out about how their level of athletic participation has negatively affected their mental health. Both Osaka and Biles chose to withdraw themselves from major athletic tournaments as a result, with Biles choosing to step back from the 2021 Summer Olympics due to fears about how her mental health would affect her performance. While many supported Biles and Osaka in their decision, there were also those who called them such things as “diva”, an absurd conclusion when talking about such talented athletes. This disturbing lack of regard for Biles’s and Osaka’s mental health is indicative of how little importance is tied to the emotional health of an athlete. Too often, young athletes are forced to sacrifice their well-being for the win — yet they are not met with the support and grace they need to nourish their mental health.

This is incredibly dangerous. Young athletes are not tiny machines. Their brains are not fully developed, and they are not equipped to deal with the high levels of emotional stress that can go along with intense sports. To combat this, they must feel that they have people to turn to, whether it be one of their coaches, a teammate or someone else. Otherwise, all that will be left is a colossal loss of self-esteem, passion and talent — something that is especially dangerous at a young age, when it is crucial that self-esteem is built up. 

These effects stem especially from the early specialization that goes along with youth sports. As a child transitions to doing a competitive sport, they might go from only practicing once or twice a week to practicing every day of the week. Suddenly, that person’s schedule is consumed by that one sport, to the point where their identity can become tied to that sport and everything about them is linked to it. This makes any kind of loss or criticism within that sport that much more devastating, something that — as I stated above — was especially salient in my own life, and I wasn’t alone. Even high-profile, seasoned athletes have struggled with not taking criticism personally.  

Dr. Dan Saferstein — a psychologist working in Ann Arbor who specializes in sports and their effect on mental health — told The Daily that the all-consuming aspect of youth sports is particularly worrisome. “Fear is the great toxin in youth sports,” he said, “Fear of disappointing a coach. Fear of not being perfect … many student-athletes put all of their psychological eggs in the basket of their sport and consequently lose perspective when things don’t go their way. A big part of my work as a psychologist is helping student-athletes regain their perspective and get back on friendlier terms with themselves.” 

This work is crucial, though much harder than it sounds. It can be difficult to remember that one person’s opinion of you is not the end of the world. Still, whether it’s an elementary school basketball team or a college dance team, we must remind ourselves that our sport does not and should not define us. You can, and should, love something with your whole heart, and still leave room for other passions, interests and people. For now, the focus needs to be making sure that each athlete has an extensive support system — family, friends, teammates and coaches — who prioritize that individual’s physical and mental health over their success, and who help that athlete to remember to prioritize themselves, too. 

Rebecca Smith is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at rebash@umich.edu