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Tips to Boost Mental Health in Youth Sports

On November 5, 2017, Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love had a panic attack during an NBA game against the Atlanta Hawks. He had trouble catching his breath, and his heartbeat rose uncontrollably, forcing him to retreat to the locker room. In his next game, he scored 32 points, but Kevin was less concerned by the outcome of the game and more concerned about his overwhelming sense of relief that nobody had found out the truth behind his late-game absence the night before.

Fast forward to March 6, 2018. Kevin shared a self-authored article titled "Everybody is going through something,” detailing his mental health struggles and how they affected his outlook on sports and life. He wrote about his journey to seek help and the challenges of admitting that mental instability could affect someone even as physically tough as him.  

READ MORE: Kevin Love Opens Up About Panic Attack During Game, Seeing a Therapist Afterwards

Kevin has since been joined by athletes across the country ranging from college to professional, to discuss their struggles with mental health and how to reduce the stigma surrounding the topic. DeMar DeRozan of the Chicago Bulls, Lane Johnson from the Philadelphia Eagles, and tennis star Naomi Osaka, amongst many others, have been incredibly open with their battles against depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges while competing at an elevated level. Mental health has surged to the forefront of sports discourse and athletes of all levels are equally susceptible to experiencing mental challenges caused by high pressure and stress. With more attention and increased investments in mental health resources from professional leagues and organizations, let’s look back at episodes from the For the Love of Sport Podcast and hear some of our guests' life lessons and recommendations around mental health and sports.

Here's What We Learned: 

1. Emphasize balance

Marie and Simon sat down to talk with Alex Wulbecker-Smith, a licensed mental health provider who specializes in sport and health psychology at Premier Sports Psychology. Alex spoke about the pressures and feelings of being overwhelmed that are common in youth athletes. Did you know that the average burnout age for an athlete is 13? Alex shared that even the most talented athletes feel a sense of burnout or lose enjoyment in the sports they are involved in. Especially as competition and expectations rise, athletes may feel they have lost a sense of control over their own lives. When Alex talks to young athletes, she says it is important to emphasize balance. Being a youth athlete means embracing the aspect of being a child. Missing birthday parties, social outings, or even just time to relax by yourself can contribute to an athlete’s desire to abandon a sport or add unwanted stress to their lives. Young athletes benefit from a balanced life where sports do not dominate every waking moment of their lives, instead they serve as a relief.  

PODCAST: The Maestro of Mindset: Alex Wulbecker-Smith

2. Instill confidence and provide emotional support

While Alex works with athletes and parents to emphasize tools and practices that prioritize their mental wellbeing and continue to build upon their passion for athletics, Marti Reed and her organization, Positive Coaching Alliance focus on the role of coaches. Positive Coaching Alliance offers online courses to help coaches be equipped with skills to deal with their social and emotional needs. On the podcast, Marti discussed the impact of great coaches and shared how important her coaches were to instilling confidence, passion, and drive in her youth sports journey. An article from The Aspen Institute Project Play spoke with Donald Curtis, a former high school assistant basketball coach, and mental health advocate. Curtis says that many coaches often avoid responsibility in handling their players’ social and emotional challenges. Curtis wants that to change. “There needs to be some level of training that talks through social and emotional needs for coaches to think about.”  

Mental health training is an aspect of youth sports that both Marti and Alex are focused on. Alex works with coaches and club administrators to build strategies and practices that bolster their players' mental wellbeing through training. She discusses the importance of positive feedback for players and how clubs and organizations can empower their coaches to provide support for their athletes. Marti Reed and Positive Coaching Alliance also understand a coach's profound impact on their team and wants to ensure they are properly trained. They offer resources that teach coaches how to provide life-changing experiences for athletes at every level of youth sports.  

PODCAST: The Ignitor of Inspiration: Marti Reed

3. Help build a foundation to cope with stress 

Another brilliant former podcast guest, Dr. Amanda Stanec, who joined the podcast to talk about mental health in sports, divulged her thoughts about the importance of coaches being invested in the mental well-being of their athletes. Dr. Stanec shared that sports are supposed to be fun, but they should not be absent of struggle. Showing young athletes that perseverance should be fun and rewarding is paramount to crafting a boisterous and memorable youth sports experience. Coaches and parents can work together to build a foundation that teaches athletes ways to cope with the added stress and pressures from their athletic endeavors.  

PODCAST: The TrueSport Trio - Kara Winger, Chris Mazdzer, and Dr. Amanda Stanec

The social environment in which athletes mature and grow has become vastly different from that of the past. Social media has worsened the feeling of isolation and highlights mistakes more than ever. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wants more professional athletes to seek mental help with the use of professional resources. Silver wants people to look at the mental health stories of professional athletes with a wider lens than just professional sports, he says it is a bigger societal issue. The development of “building blocks of wellness,” as Alex puts it, can help athletes address these challenges earlier in their lives when they first begin to appear. 

READ MORE: Adam Silver on mental health around NBA: ‘A lot of players are unhappy’

4. Provide the tools they need to succeed for the future

Sports build practical life skills that translate past the playing field, court, or arena. Sports can combat and give relief to mental struggles or worsen them. Learning how to become resilient as a young athlete and to find balance is part of setting a strong personal foundation for the future. Coaching and mentorships play a key role as well. Coaches can uplift their athletes and ensure they receive the mental health attention and resources needed to succeed on the field and in life through proper training. There is no need for stigma involving the topic of mental health challenges. Instead, players, parents, coaches, and club administrators should work together to address these challenges head-on.