By Ken Reed

The mental health of athletes has never been a hotter topic than it has this summer. The mental health struggles of superstars Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have brought conversations about mental health to the forefront in SportsWorld. Before Biles and Osaka, high-profile athletes like Michael Phelps, Andrew Luck, Kevin Love, DeMar DeRozan, Ronda Rousey and Aly Raisman have spoken out about their mental health struggles.

Mental health has long been a taboo subject in our society as a whole. That’s even more true in SportsWorld, where athletes are supposed to be physically, mentally and emotionally tougher than the average Joe and Jane. Mental training is significantly under utilized by athletic coaches and trainers relative to physical training. Hopefully, the high profile examples of Biles, Osaka and others will start to change that.

USA women’s volleyball Olympian Kelsey Robinson has developed a mental health program that’s helped her on and off the court. Here are a few of her tips that could help athletes at all levels, especially youth and high school athletes, who are especially inexperienced when it comes to mental health skills:

Reset and Reload — Robinson used to dwell on mistakes but she developed a technique to help her move on and focus on the next play. “When I’m walking back from our huddle to get into serve-receive position I’ll look at the corner of the court along the baseline and I take a deep breath,” says Robinson. “And the second I turn around that mistake is gone and we’re onto the next point. So I allow myself to process it, breathe and then I turn around and it’s gone.” This is a technique used by many athletes, especially tennis players, who turn away from the court after a mistake, look at and adjust their strings, and then “flush the mistake” before turning back toward the court to focus on the next point.

Balanced Breathing — In pressure situations, we all tend to hold our breath, or take very shallow breaths, and aren’t even aware of it. Robinson has become aware of that during matches and uses a breathing technique to help her relax and stay in the moment. “I definitely have nerves and those really don’t go away,” she says. “But I just really focus on my breathing: five seconds in and hold and five seconds out and just slow that down.”

Talk to Teammates — Robinson has found that being vulnerable and opening up to teammates about her feelings has really helped her stay balanced mentally. “If I am feeling nervous I always try to make eye contact with a teammate or just kind of talk through it,” Robinson says.

“I think that it’s really valuable to turn to a teammate and say ‘Hey, this is a big match and I’m feeling a little bit nervous right now.’ Just to express that and know that you’re in it together, and I think that’s a really powerful statement to say that ‘I’m not perfect and I am feeling these things.’”

The Value of Playing Multiple Sports — Playing one sport year-round, especially at young ages, can lead to emotional burnout. Robinson avoided this by playing multiple sports (basketball, softball and volleyball) as a young athlete. “The biggest piece of advice I would give to younger athletes is play all the sports,” says Robinson. “And I know that is difficult now because there is so much pressure from coaches (to specialize).”

The development of mental health skills, like the ones described by Robinson, needs to begin in youth sports. That’s rare today because most youth and high school coaches have very little background or training in mental health for athletes. Simone Biles will be speaking out about the importance of mental health for athletes on her post-Olympics tour of the United States. Here’s hoping that helps start a country-wide trend in which mental skills training is seen as an important part of developing young athletes.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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