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


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