How to Help Your Young Athletes: Mental Health Experts Offer Tips for Coaching School Sports – The Boston Globe

“I think there’s a disconnect between what my teammates and I have gone through compared to what adults, coaches, parents have seen,” Joseph said. “I think it’s only going to get bigger.

Today, young athletes perform in the spotlight. The Globe spoke with four local mental health professionals to get their insights on how to help your athletes succeed during the high school sports season.

social media madness

Joseph has worked with local school programs, such as the 2022-23 state champion Andover girls basketball team, as well as elite recruits, including the nation’s top prospects at Nike Skills Academy. He said all teenagers face a common stressor: the expectations created by social media.

“These kids are at a stage where they’re trying to figure out who they are when they’re bombarded with the comparison game that comes with social media, and at the same time in sports, I think it gets worse,” Joseph said.

For athletes, it’s nearly impossible to log in and not find posts from friends and competitors about their accomplishments, college offers, training plans and highlights. Because social media is growing at such a rapid pace, parents and coaches often lack the experience and tools to manage player expectations.

now you have that [older] One generation raises and mentors younger generations who are born with significantly different experiences, and with that comes greater social pressure, Joseph said. Adults don’t have the tools to give these kids, so these kids try to solve these problems on their own, which makes them feel even more isolated.

High school sports have become a highlight for young athletes, and social media will only increase the audience.John Tulumaki/Globe Staff

Dr. Sharon Chirban is the founder of Amplify Wellness and Performance in Boston. With over 25 years of experience in clinical psychology, she has seen firsthand how the public arena has changed.

If performing well at a high school football game in front of a local town on Friday night can make viewers nervous, broadcasting is much bigger than that, she said.

Chirban said social media statistically skews the likelihood that most high school athletes will advance to the next level. Teenagers already face enough developmental challenges as they try to fit in with the world around them.

She said social media only adds excitement to teenagers’ struggles.

Playing under pressure

So, how can a young person perform at his best in the competition despite the noise and distractions?

Stu Singer, mental performance coach for the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, says there’s no magic drill. Athletes can take deep breaths, but they can’t flip the switch to stay in the right mental state during critical free throws. Singer emphasized that developing the right mindset to face stress is a long process.

Singer is a proponent of mindfulness training, which he defines as teaching the brain to be in the present moment without judging it. If athletes can take an unbiased look at their feelings and take control of themselves in that moment, it can help relieve anxiety.

You don’t judge yourself because of stress. “You’re like, I’m noticing now that I can feel the tension in my body from the stress,” Singer said. Then you come back to the present. So you might use your back to listen to your breathing, you might use your back to listen to sounds; you might use your back to listen to sounds. You can place your back against the ceiling or your body against the floor. And what you do in that moment is remove yourself from the future.

Consistent practice of mindfulness can help athletes develop the right mindset during critical moments in big games.Pat Greenhouse/Universal Staff

Joseph has developed a four-step process called the Reset System for the athletes he works with. First, the athlete creates an intention for a game or practice that they can control (example: if you score a goal, you may not be able to control it, but you can control the shot when you are open). The athlete then commits to executing the plan. Afterwards, they think carefully about how their plans align with the results. Finally, reset: accept the outcome and move on.

Joseph said that through the process of developing this habit and operating this system, every day, every time you go to the court, it rewires the way your brain digests the basketball experience.

Mindfulness doesn’t eliminate stress from young athletes’ lives, but it can give them tools to manage it.

Stress and anxiety are actually predictions: What if I miss this free throw? Singer said. By doing all this mental repetition for 10 minutes a day, day after day, you can actually create the ability to not allow yourself to engage in what we call mental time travel.

How can parents help?

The pressure young athletes face often comes from their parents.

Dr. Adam Naylor works with Telos Sports Performance Consulting and has worked with Stanley Cup Champions and Olympians as well as student-athletes and their families. He uses the term “care rampage” to describe parents who have their intentions in the right place from the beginning but get lost in trying to make it easier for their children to succeed.

We don’t want our children to struggle, he said, at least not if we have enough resources to prevent them from struggling. But actually, struggle does matter in sports. Healthy struggles are important. I always ask parents, is this a healthy struggle or an unhealthy struggle for your child? Because if it’s healthy, you have to walk away. You have to make it happen.

High school sports parents may have their children’s best interests in mind, but must remember not to lose sight of the important aspects of youth sports.Photo by Libby O’Neill for The Boston Globe

Parents can also get caught in a web of comparison and competition, especially if they invest heavily in their children’s athletic development. Naylor worries that the commercialization of youth sports can lead parents to view their children’s development as an investment, but he also understands that when a family makes a financial commitment, it’s hard not to expect results.

Naylor recalled a seminar he gave at Boston University 20 years ago and a particularly important question posed by a mother in the audience.

She said, Adam, that’s great, but do you think it’s possible to get a little return on my investment? He said the way she asked the question was perfect because she knew it was the wrong question. This is a question of human nature. The fact that she was brave enough to speak out made her decision easier.If there was an acknowledgment like this, my kids are not stocks, we might do something less stressful [and] happier.

Mental toughness and mental health

Today, more and more teams are hiring mental health experts, and the focus has turned to the overall health of athletes.

Twenty years ago, sports psychology was primarily concerned with performance, not emotion [or] Chirban said mental health is part of the conversation.

Professional athletes set positive examples for children. Chirban respects Simone Biless’ decision to retire from gymnastics during the 2021 Olympics and prioritize her mental health. Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Kevin Love are seen as positive examples of opening up about their journeys.

Simone Biles isn’t afraid to prioritize her mental health, even if it means taking a break from gymnastics.KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

Still, there’s still a lingering stigma in sports about communicating real emotions.

Mental toughness is not the same as mental health, Naylor said. Mental toughness shouldn’t be unhealthy.

How do we convince children of the value of communicating emotions? For Joseph, adults need to lead by example.

“I teach them the power of vulnerability,” he said. The power of taking off the mask, allowing your athletes to let your kids see you at your lowest moments, and everything in between.Because I think for some reason adults feel like they have to put on this mask and pretend they have their own [expletive] Figured it out at any time.

“I think it helps kids when you see parents in trouble, but you also see them trying to navigate it and try to work through it rather than just projecting their own feelings and negative energy onto other people. On my body,” he added.


Ethan Fuller can be reached at ethan.fuller@globe.com.


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