By Ken Reed
From the time athletes are five years old and participating in their first sports activities, the emphasis is constantly on the physical: run faster, jump higher, move quicker, throw harder, etc. Very little attention is given to the mental aspects of being an athlete: performing with confidence, dealing with expectations and comparisons, dealing with pressures unique to athletes, etc.
It’s time that changed. Progressive organizations like the Seattle Seahawks are taking a holistic approach to the well-being of their athletes. They offer their players yoga, psychological training and counseling, and a variety of other mind-body tools designed to take the development of athletes beyond the physical.
“Mental illness is probably one of the greatest silent epidemics in our country. It’s a public health issue and now we’re seeing it more and more in our student-athletes,” said Timothy Neal, assistant athletic director for sports medicine at Syracuse University.
“One in every four to five young adults has mental health issues, but what is unique about the student-athlete is they have stressors and expectations of them unlike the other students that could either trigger a psychological concern or exacerbate an existing mental health issue.”
It’s just not high-level college and pro athletes that are dealing with these challenges. More than 80% of young athletes drop organized sports by the time they’re 13. Many times the reason they give is “It’s just not fun anymore.” That’s often code for “I don’t want to deal with all the pressures and stressors.” Often those stressors come from the adults in the lives of young athletes — parents and coaches — who unreasonably place adult standards of behavior and performance on children.
Unfortunately, people dealing with mental health issues are still stigmatized in this country. Now, consider the plight of the athlete who’s constantly being told that they need to be tougher — physically and mentally. As a result, athletes tend to bottle up emotions more than the average person.
“I liken the awareness and management of mental health issues in student-athletes to where we were with concussion awareness and management about 10 to 15 years ago,” Neal said. “The landscape, in my opinion, is a little behind.”
Everyone involved with athletes, at whatever level, should do what he or she can to help us as a society catch up on this issue. Coaches, trainers, administrators, etc., need to move along the change continuum from awareness of the issue, to understanding, to acceptance, to attitude change, to behavior change. Every sports program, from our little leagues to the big leagues, should have a comprehensive mental health game plan in place.
“I’m hoping that this [attention to mental health issues] continues to evolve to the point where in-house psychologists for athletics or coordinators of psychological services for athletics becomes as common as athletic trainers and strength coaches,” said Chris Carr, a member of the NCAA Mental Health Task Force.
I’ll second that.
— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman, and has a long involvement with the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sport (now called the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition). We discuss the state of college athletics today, given the pressures of NIL, the transfer portal, sports gambling and huge media contracts. McMillen then provides great perspective on the poor state of physical fitness our young people are experiencing today.
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Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Episode #24 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Mental Health and Athletes: Ending the Stigma – Nathan Braaten and Taylor Ricci are the founders of Dam Worth It, a non-profit created to end the stigma around mental health at colleges and universities through sport, storytelling, and community creation.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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