Mental Health in Youth Sports: A Discussion with Industry Experts About Player Mental Health
By Melissa Wickes
September 1, 2023
We’re facing a mental health epidemic in this country—and as leaders in youth sports, you have a huge responsibility to help players. This does not just mean helping them through crises when they arise, but strengthening their mental health in general.
We brought together a panel of leaders in youth sports at last year’s NextUp youth sports management conference—each with their own personal connection to or experience with player health—to devise a plan going forward with respect to player mental health. What tools do youth sports leaders and coaches need to support player mental health and how can they access them?
The panel included Kevin McCarthy, Executive Director of Downtown United Soccer Club; Kensa Gunter, Director of NBA Mind Health—the mental health and wellness platform for the NBA; Adam Wright, Sports Psychologist for the Washington Nationals; Marc Moreau, founder of Leading Edge Lacrosse and high school lacrosse coach; and Tyyre Burks, founder of Players Health.
How can leaders strengthen their own mental health to be able to help players?
Mental performance starts at the top, and you can’t help others before you help yourself, Kevin McCarthy reminds us.
He urges coaches and leaders to do as he does—be as mindful as possible about breathing, especially in uncomfortable situations. Take four deep breaths, hold it for two, and exhale on six. Mindful breathing is also extremely common with baseball players, and Kevin calls it one of the foundations of his self care.
“As the director of a youth club, I can’t think of anything more important than having players and families be happy,” says Kevin.
What are the most important things youth sports leaders can do to support player mental health?
When a flower dies, we don’t ask what’s wrong with the flower. We look at the soil. This analogy works for player mental health in that building an environment where kids can thrive is your responsibility, says Kensa.
Mental health isn’t about an individual—it’s about what’s happening in a social space, what’s happening systemically, etc. That’s why starting with education and resources is so important. This includes educating kids about emotions, mindfulness, and positive self talk just as much as it means educating coaches and leaders about mental health.
Luckily, there are a lot of courses that can do this—and Marc suggests having them be a part of your onboarding process. That way, you can be proactive about mental health rather than reactive. Kensa recommends Mental Health First Aid and QPR—Question, Persuade, Refer as a place to start.
How can youth sports leaders respond to mental health crises?
Five years ago, Marc faced every youth coach’s worst nightmare when one of his lacrosse players took his own life.
“I was not prepared or schooled in any way. I had never even thought about mental health or wellness before this,” says Marc.
How they moved forward from here was rooted in one thing—community. The first thing they did was listen to the boys. The line of communication was constantly open between kids and coaches, as well as coaches and parents. You got a bad grade? You had a bad game? Come talk to us.
Technology became a huge part of this collaborative culture, says Marc. They used FaceTime, Google Meets, and other online communication tools to keep lines open and include kids in all decision making.
Despite this tragedy, this high school lacrosse program has become the most successful it has been in the history of the program. That’s proof that prioritizing mental health is not only crucial, but it leads to great results too.
NextUp 2023 is coming up in October. To learn more about what kinds of topics will be discussed and reserve your spot, click here.