Growing up, I lived my life one basketball game at a time. I went to school and I did my work, but my mind was always on the next game, and how prepared for it I would be. I thought I was alone in this thinking, but as I got older, I realized thousands of kids out there have this mindset, and feeling like nothing else matters except for how well they do in their next game.
Because of this mindset, the anxiety and depression of young athletes is overwhelming. When an athlete plays a game, how many people are they affecting? Their coach is counting on them, their teammates are counting on them, and their parents are watching them intently. Most powerful of all though, they will analyze themselves. What happens next are the negative emotions athletes start to experience at an early age.
I was at the basketball courts this summer in New York City, and there was a game with 10 year olds playing. The kids were playing hard, but you know who was more intense than everybody combined? The coaches. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Both coaches were screaming at the kids, the refs, and everything that happened. They were cursing and screaming for their players to stop turning the ball over, make the shot, or get back on defense. May I remind you, these kids were 10 years old!
When I was 10, basketball was just a fun sport to play with friends by running up and down a court. But today? The pressure is excessive, and it’s starting earlier and earlier. The unbelievable thing about these coaches is that many of them have never played that sport before. Maybe they played a little in high school, but they are screaming at these kids to perform when they don’t have any idea what they’re doing. Because of this extrinsic intensity to perform, it will consume the minds of these young athletes. Maybe not at 10 years old, but once sports start to get serious around 15-16, they will be terrified to play bad in games. Everybody around them will expect them to perform perfectly every game, and when they don’t, that’s when the depression and anxiety sets in.
Picture this: You’re a young athlete, just coming into a new school. Everybody, including your parents, rave about your ability and how you’ll be such a great addition to the school, team, and community. You start to believe in the hype as well, and get excited and confident for the year ahead. However, once the season starts, you’re not doing that well. You’re good, but only mediocre. As time goes on, everybody realizes you’re just an average player.
During practices, the coaches start to focus their attention on other players. At home during dinner, your parents ask you every night what’s wrong with you, and why you aren’t playing as well as you should. Holding back tears, you tell them you’re doing everything you can, while your dad mumbles under his breath, “Yea, but it’s not good enough.” Changing the subject from their disappointing child, they beam about the other players on the team who are doing so well, and ask you why you can’t be like them. You go back to your room, put your head down, and feel like an utter failure. You realize that you’re letting a whole community down because you’re not that good at your sport. School doesn’t matter, because everybody only treats you as the athlete that was very hyped up in the beginning of the year for no reason. You feel like a loser, and your confidence is shot. You’re only 15 years old.
You may think this is just some fake story, but this is happening to thousands of kids all across the country right now. Nobody wants to talk about it because we live in a culture where people only discuss their success instead of their failure. They promote their strengths instead of their shortcomings. We hear about the kid who works his way out of the ghetto and becomes an NBA athlete, but we don’t hear about the thousands who had similar dreams whose confidence was destroyed before they could develop into their full potential.
Sports is imperfect. There is no such thing as the “perfect game”. If you have 20 points, you can get 25. If you get 50, you can get 51. Where these negative emotions come into play is when we set our standards too high. If you tell your young athlete to achieve a certain thing in a game, yet they don’t achieve it, they are well aware of this. They know that coming home, they’ll have to deal with you bringing it up, and it will amplify the pain of not achieving that goal.
The only way out of this is to provide unconditional, genuine support for our young athletes. They are doing everything they can, so let’s cut them some slack. They should have an intensity and discipline during practice, but they shouldn’t be crying in the locker room after a bad game, worried to come home for fear of disappointing stares from their parents. Let’s start to cultivate a new generation of mentally sound young athletes, one kid at a time.