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YOUTH ATHLETES +

MENTAL HEALTH

by Mikaela Brewer
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Mikaela Brewer is an athlete, multidisciplinary writer & content creator, speaker, researcher, and mental health advocate & activist. Link to her first novel here.


 

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"A child’s relationship with their sport is unique, and something that I don’t believe I had the mindset to weigh when I fell in love with basketball. I believe that children can fall in love the way I did — especially with a sport — but there are dualities and boundaries that we’re not quite equipped to hold when we’re young. For those of us in the position to coach, mentor, guide, parent, and love — these notes, reflections, and considerations are for you."


 Mikaela Brewer
 

My teenage search for belonging wasn’t unlike that of any other 12 - 17-year-old. The difference was, I found it in something that constructed,  gripped, and then manufactured my identity — becoming an elite athlete. I’ve played basketball for Stanford University and Team Canada, which I am immeasurably proud to say at 23. However, I’m only beginning to unpack the baggage that I carry with me — the steep emotional curve that I subscribed to twelve or so years ago.

The glossy hardwood was a place to be praised and rewarded for work ethic before skill. It was a unique neighbourhood of company where I felt seen. It was a place where I felt control — a raft in the expansive ocean of youth uncertainty. With the soft, orange leather bouncing up and down, catching briefly in the pads of my fingertips, I knew exactly what to do next. I was trusted to know what to do next. Twelve years later, this bond and the feeling it surfaces is still strong. My friendship with basketball — though founded by passion, respect, and devotion — quickly became my identity. Rather, in my mind, my ability to perform became who I was.

A child’s relationship with their sport is unique, and something that I don’t believe I had the mindset to weigh when I fell in love with basketball. I believe that children can fall in love the way I did — especially with a sport — but there are dualities and boundaries that we’re not quite equipped to hold when we’re young. For those of us in the position to coach, mentor, guide, parent, and love — these notes, reflections, and considerations are for you. 

 

Brain Malleability

As children, and even into our mid-twenties, our brains are still developing. The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is particularly malleable. It is responsible for goal-directed behaviour patterns, attention lengths, memory, inhibitory control, information filtering, problem-solving, planning, and flexibility (1). The young PFC is vulnerable to details and experiences in our environment that shape its engineering and architecture, further refining who we are and what we believe about ourselves. 

In youth, your mind is acutely aware of many things that we disregard and dismiss as adults. As you might imagine, a young athlete’s awareness and attention to detail can be extraordinary. If you’ve ever played a sport, you might remember those moments where time feels still and calm. As we age, we crave this feeling because time accelerates — we stop paying attention, especially emotionally. This, unfortunately, is the root of stigma — we reject carving out space to feel as a frivolous luxury.

 

My emotional connection with basketball has shifted over the years, though I remember a deep sense of attachment — a need that felt suffocating if not met. Two parallel sets of strengthening were occurring simultaneously — the biological connections in my brain, and my relationship with basketball. There was undeniable overlap between the two. Many people have heard of the PFC’s executive functions and their slow development. However, we don’t realize how closely coupled emotion regulation is in this neurobiology. 

 

Language is therefore one of the most important pieces here. In youth, something as simple as word choice surrounding a mistake can be internalized as an attack on the fibre of our worth and morality. This is not a lack of grit, character, or a weakness of spirit. It is what we are vulnerable to in youth when we love with raw passion before our brain has built biological boundaries and levees. If we’re not careful, a fierce feedback loop fortifies itself: “if I can't perform well, then who am I? Am I worth anything if I can’t perform?” 

As adults in the athletic ecosystem, we must exemplify that it is necessary and productive to put our oxygen masks on first. In these moments we must pause, and help young athletes craft and embrace meaningful values, goals, responsibilities, possibilities, imaginations, and avenues outside of and unrelated to sport. This exploration will only strengthen their ability to be their best selves moving forward, in sport and in life.

Performance Pressure, Identity, and Balance

 

At 19 my mental health took its darkest turn yet. I found myself on a psychiatric hold after years of climbing and clawing up the valleys of depression. Though physically I never lost my ability to play basketball, I lost it mentally. I needed something to take basketball's place — to give me hope that if I couldn’t perform I was still valuable. There was nothing there. It felt like my Lego Millennium Falcon, which had once been so confidently guided, smashed inside of me. We all know what it feels like to step on scattered Lego pieces. I didn’t have the energy to pry at the depth of my heart, mind, and body to find each grey piece, let alone realize that once I found them, I could build a new kind of ship. 

Early specialization in a particular sport isn’t inherently bad, but it is a gateway to adversity — elite athletics are demanding and require heightened psychosocial skills. Many athletes are encouraged to specialize before these are developed (2). With acute focus, specialization, and a pressure to perform, something else can take shape here — identity foreclosure — the lack of interest or fear in exploring identities outside of the athletic identity (3). This process predominantly plants roots when we’re most susceptible to it: youth. 

Thankfully, balance and intentional rest can be antidotes. Of course, most individuals who influence young athletes want them to reach their potential. Yet, just as adults can burnout, so can children. Perhaps more importantly, we can burnout doing what we love and identify with most. This is dangerous, and often when a crisis occurs. As adults in the athletic ecosystem, we must exemplify that it is necessary and productive to put our oxygen masks on first. In these moments we must pause, and help young athletes craft and embrace meaningful values, goals, responsibilities, possibilities, imaginations, and avenues outside of and unrelated to sport. This exploration will only strengthen their ability to be their best selves moving forward, in sport (4) and in life.

Resources & Communication

We all know that stigma is a barrier. Even so, there are a few components of it that are often misunderstood. In youth, we don’t always understand what we’re feeling, let alone have the language to verbalize it. Now that I work in the mental healthcare field, I know that there are a plethora of resources available. However, if they’re not presented in a way that considers how stigma weaves its way through systems, they’re useless.

Mental toughness is undeniably one of the strongest values held in sports. Young athletes are particularly vulnerable to rigidly absorbing this mentality as their confidence steadies. They also perceive heightened consequences for speaking about mental health, most notably a loss of trust in their ability to perform from their coach. In this context, treatment or intervention can be framed as optimization of performance instead of treatment (5). Mental health can also be referenced as a continuum, rather than a binary of health and illness. Everyone is somewhere along this continuum, including coaches, parents, trainers, and anyone else interacting with the athlete — no one is alone.

Risks + Centering the Human

 

I’ve touched on neurobiology, performance pressure, identity, and communication, though there are many facets of the relationship between youth athletes and their mental health. Athletes often carry and wear their athletic role outside of competition settings. Being seen as “the athlete” can be both comforting and isolating. Many mental health difficulties that I continue to experience are unrelated to basketball, even though being an athlete impacts how I reflect, cope, and heal. We cannot separate who we are from what we do, but we can prioritize being human and meeting the human — rather than the athlete — where they’re at.

 

Here are a few important topics to consider, particularly as they correlate with mental health concerns (6).

 

  • De-selection from a team

  • Participating in an individual sport

  • Sudden lack of enjoyment

  • Low perceptions of competence

  • Social pressures

  • Competing priorities

  • Injury

  • Cultural, gender, and sexuality dynamics

  • The relationship with body image & weight 

  • Abuse & maltreatment

  • Peer & parent conflict

     

We teach young athletes to just trust the process. Believing in a process only works if you’re mentally well enough to be on that path. This is true of everyone, not just the athlete. We all have to be mentally well on the path together, and accept that it is okay to step off the path for a while. Trusting the process can become a weapon to bypass and bury the need to make space for painful challenges. Mental health is part of the process — achieving it is a process in and of itself. It can coexist with toughness, grit, work ethic, determination, and inspiring triumphs.

 

References

1. Neuropsychology of prefrontal cortex

2. Dunn, R., & Tamminen, K. A. (2021). “When are you gonna commit?” Exploring the experiences of youth athletes and their parents prior to a sporting transition. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1-18.

3. Brewer, B. W., Petitpas, A. J., Van Raalte, J. L., & Maher, M. T. (1993). Identity foreclosure, athletic identity, and college sport participation. The Academic Athletic Journal, 6, 1-13.

4. Champ, F. M., Ronkainen, N. J., Littlewood, M. A., & Eubank, M. (2020). Supporting identity development in talented youth athletes: Insights from existential and cultural psychological approaches. Journal of Sport Psychology in Action, 11(4), 219-232

5.  Walton, C. C., Rice, S., Hutter, R. V., Currie, A., Reardon, C. L., & Purcell, R. (2021). Mental Health in Youth Athletes: A Clinical Review. Advances in Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, 1(1), 119-133

6.  Walton, C. C., Rice, S., Hutter, R. V., Currie, A., Reardon, C. L., & Purcell, R. (2021). Mental Health in Youth Athletes: A Clinical Review. Advances in Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, 1(1), 119-133