The Mental Health of the Game

This is the third blog in a series about youth sports. The prior two discussed the win at all cost mentality and the lost focus on the priority of youth sports. This one addresses a more serious concern, the mental health of the game.

Let me start by noting that I am not a mental health professional and am sharing my thoughts specific to the evolution of youth sports being one factor creating an environment that fosters mental health issues. Youth sports are no longer the neighborhood pickup games or even organized activities meant to be recreational. Children as young as 6 and 7 are being placed by adults in high-level sports programs with hyper-focused, specialized training, year-round schedules, and even professional coaches. A culture that prioritizes winning and personal achievement above everything else, sets the stage for massive mental health issues for developing young persons.

This “professionalization” of youth sports has added tremendous stress on children with unrealistic expectations of college scholarships or potential professional play. It has created an environment that is less fun with increased criticism. In addition, these kids miss out on other normal and important non-sporting activities. They miss family events, religious services, and developing friendships with kids who have diverse interests outside of sports. We have raised generations that define their identity by what they accomplish. We have created stress ladened, burned out children.

Coaches push for more, decide who takes the shots or carries the ball, offer corrections or criticisms, and make playing time decisions. While these efforts often come with good intentions, they can cause profound harm. Young athletes begin to understand their value is defined only in terms of their performance. Some coaches do not think about the person, they only think about the result that person creates. These coaches need to look at players as maturing persons rather than commodities or skill sets. They are Billy or Susan, not my team’s Quarterback or Striker. They forget that when we take away the accolades and success, there’s just a kid there. A kid who simply wants to play and feel safe while looking for approval.

Youth sports is an integral part of the formation of a maturing young adult. This development is the whole person – body, mind, and soul. It is physical health in relation with mental and emotional health. Just like their bodies, the minds of our young athletes are worth valuing, developing, and protecting. A healthy, nourished mind is important for a child’s wellbeing. So, training and caring for the mind requires the same intentionality that is devoted to training and caring for the body. We must put the person before the athlete, or we risk losing both. For a healthy future society, we need to see wholesome, happy, and complete kids.

We are making strides in addressing mental health in sports, especially with elite athletes. Olympian, Simone Biles and professional tennis player, Naomi Osaka, are two recent cases of making candid admissions that they needed to prioritize mental health over “societal expectations.” The concern is that we need to get upstream with youth sports and all athletes, regardless of abilities.

It’s unfortunate that the volunteer youth coach position is not considered as worthy as a high school or college coach. The reality is that these coaches can impact more young people than higher-level coaches. Typically, it is just a slot to be filled, often by the first person who volunteers. It is being left to chance if the coach will make little impact, a lasting negative impact, or a lasting positive impact.

Young people need someone to believe in them; to affirm and validate their presence; and a place where they feel welcomed. In Carol Dweck’s book ‘Self Theories,’ she notes what people believe about themselves determines how they live and play – beliefs shape outcomes.  Dr. Joyce Brothers said, “You cannot perform in a manner that is inconsistent with the way you see yourself.”

Are we aware of the thoughts, both positive and negative, we plant in the minds of young people? According to a study done by the Department of Psychology, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, an average teenager has 148,000 negative stimuli per year. I learned in a leadership seminar that the “behavioral management standard” is 5 positives are needed to counteract 1 negative. Do the math – that’s 3/4 million positive stimuli just to break even.

According to a Stanford University study, 92% of the capacity to be successful has to do with the development of character and attitude, while only 8% has to do with technical skills, knowledge, and innate ability. Yet coaches, managers, and consultants invest so much time and effort on building skills.  We rarely coach the intangibles that will raise the level of performance to be productive in and beyond the game. It is an interesting dichotomy, that Professional athletes hire mental health coaches.

“Watch your thoughts, they become words; Watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits they become character; watch you character, it becomes your destiny.”- Frank Outlaw

It is on us as coaches and adults to hold each another accountable when we lose sight of the great responsibility to influence the lives of young adults and kids. If we cannot fill this role while offering grace to the young adults within our charge, then we are unfit for the position. Being the adult in this situation carries the responsibility to make sure that the young adults feel valued.

A greater emphasis on mental health may even lead to better outcomes on the field. However, it accomplishes so much more. Seeing the mind and body as God sees them—worthy of profound love and care—frees athletes from defining their worth by what they can or cannot produce. Over time and in a culture of care, athletes can untangle their identity from their output, and instead they can begin to see themselves as mind, body, and spirit all wonderfully made and woven together, never to be torn apart.

As Christian coaches, we should be providing a culture of love and belonging that applauds the person as well as the performance. We also have a responsibility to help those who are suffering. Scripture is clear that we should love others and do what we can to ease their burdens. In Galatians 6:2, “bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Serve one another through love.

In the same manner of ‘love the sinner, but not the sin’, we need to be ‘loving the player, not the performance.’

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