A few months ago, I shared an email I received from a young college athlete. She struggled with the immense pressure and expectations she felt around sports and academics. She was desperate for help and felt trapped. You can read her original letter here.
I sent it through social channels and emailed the many mental health organizations designed to help student-athletes. But they have yet to reply. Not one organization, not one person.
I continued to email the young athlete, offering encouragement and directing her to stay connected to her parents and her support system. Eventually, she replied, saying she had decided to quit, but she was terrified at how her coach would react and unsure how to break the news.
My friend and sports performance coach, Kirsten Jones, offered to speak with her. In their 45-minute call, Kirsten helped her define her goals and game plan how she would tell her coach. Kirsten helped her understand what is and isn’t normal and to figure out what other resources she has to validate/invalidate what she’s going through. We know Kirsten’s session was helpful, as her Dad sent along a note profusely thanking her for her guidance through one of the toughest times in her life.
I’m sharing this story today because too many athletes need help and aren’t receiving it. Thank you to Kirsten Jones and others who are doing the work and stepping up when the opportunity to help arises. I don’t have the answers, and I’m not trying to place blame. Yes, the stigma around mental health issues is improving as more high-profile athletes continue to come forward. But we need to do more. We need to do better.
Parents and coaches might be the most important in all this if we are to truly affect change. WE can help make a difference at the true root of the cause.
How? By creating a supportive and open environment, with direct communication and listening as the foundation. We can stop trying to develop academic and athletic robots who peak at age 15, then hate their sport and mentally and physically break down.
Is it not possible for our kids to be both balanced and excel? Can we allow them time off and pivots as needed? Can we be OK with failure? Can we put their well-being ahead of the desire to win at all costs?
And what about the organizations that exist to help these kids? How can they reach the ones who really need it? How do we not allow these kids to fall through the cracks like this young woman originally did?
Most importantly, how do we, as the adults in these young athletes’ lives, ensure they know and feel loved and cared for because of who they are and not what they do?
Injuries in young athletes have soared. Costs to compete have skyrocketed. Kids are quitting in record numbers. But we believe strongly in youth sports, and the many ways it improves our childrens’ lives.
We are here to help parents regain balance and sanity, and to help restore the joy, accomplishment, and core values derived from sports.
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According to a survey conducted over 30 years by two coaches and athletic administrators about what young athletes want to hear most from their parents after a sporting event, it turns out it is: “I love to watch you play.”