Head Games in Youth Sports

Head Games in Youth Sports
Are We Smart Enough to Focus on The Mental Side of Sports?
Just when we dive so deep into the debate on where LeBron James will play next season or how Germany could already be eliminated from the World Cup, we are reminded of the battles that take place within those whose lives appear so enviable.

While not athletes, the untimely deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain by their own hands rocked, shook and crushed us, and instantly recalled the sporadic attention and resources dedicated to mental illness in the U.S. Add the millions of youth that compete for a starting position on any field or court with the correlating pressures to excel and maintain any semblance of a life balance, and the fiercest of games begins in their heads.

Consider that one in five youth ages 13-18 experience a severe mental disorder, and an overwhelming half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

Not A Level Playing Field
At the risk of overstating the obvious, mental illness is often (but not always) very difficult to detect to the untrained eye. Compared to an ailment that is overtly obvious, millions suffering from mental illness fail to receive help until a critical cry is heard or it’s too late. Couple such undiagnosed illnesses with the physical prowess of a star athlete, and Kevin Love may come to mind.

Much to the (pleasant) surprise of many, the former UCLA and current Cleveland Cavaliers’ champion recently revealed his own struggle with mental health issues. The affirmation that despite fame and fortune, world-class athletes are still human, can only raise the level of awareness that we should remain mindful of, while positively impacting the youth who revere such players in a manner that says, “You’re not alone, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Seek the help you need.” Echoing this sentiment was fellow NBA star DeMar DeRozan of the Toronto Raptors, whose personal battles with depression have also been shared with the public; thereby, directing invaluable focus on the invisible battles that far too many lose.

Are We Equipped for Mental Toughness?
From the onset of a youth’s training in any sport emerges a balanced emphasis on fundamentals, proper equipment and mental toughness. Staying keenly focused, scouting the competition, overcoming adversity, and sustaining a high level of mental fortitude are just a handful of requirements instilled in youth sports.

Contrastingly, based on the estimated $15 billion spent annually by Americans on youth sports, equipment costs have become astronomical. Select sports are more expensive than others, simply based on the proper equipment required to compete. Lacrosse and hockey lead the list of priciest sports with basketball and soccer at the opposite end of the equipment cost spectrum.

Yet, what do we invest in mental toughness, durability and stability? Is it a stern voice, supportive glance, misguided comparison or something else that falls woefully short of fostering a healthy mind, along with a fit body? Studies have shown that a youth’s motives for competing are often disparate from his/her parents, further deepening the divide in the veiled support needed to bolster a child’s mental fitness.

Consider that suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth and young adults ages 15-34, says the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Who Are The Real Winners and Losers?
Off the basketball court, Kevin Love and DeMar DeRozan are the unequivocal winners in this game of life, simply by sharing their stories and personal plights with mental illness. The hope is that their stories have inspired both high-profile and unknown athletes at any age, whose personal journeys will benefit from the same support at home or in the classroom as on the competitive field of play.

Tragically experiencing the enduring impact of suicide in my own family, the losers aren’t defined by wrongdoing, but by the immeasurable loss of a loved one.

Cristina Walters is the CEO of She’s A Gamer and the host of a sports talk radio show in Southern California. Visit www.ShesAGamer.com to raise your game and sign-up for weekly e-news. Contact Cristina directly at cmw@shesagamer.com for content contribution or speaking inquiries

Liked it? Take a second to support Cristina Walters on Patreon!