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Are Sports Killing Us?

Mindset Made Simple Tip #94 - Watch or listen HERE.

I have spent the past two weeks thinking about this post – and it has taken me a LONG time to get it completed.

How do I throw anything into the conversations that surround the loss of five female student-athletes over the past few months?

I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. But I have spent my entire adult life in college athletics and I read, share and practice mental techniques to help improve well-being daily.

None of this makes me qualified as an expert in this area, nor do I pretend to know any more than any of you, but even outside of these tragic losses, we have some issues on our hands with kids and pressure that we need to examine…and possibly help adjust as we help those we lead to become the best versions of themselves.

I don’t have answers on how this can be done with foolproof systems (of course), but I do have a few thoughts on how we can help those we lead manage the everyday stresses that can lead to uncontrolled stress and hopeless feelings.

My hope is that learning tools, managing pressures and acknowledging the things that cause stress can keep us from all of this devastating loss!

I can’t imagine the pain of those who loved these young women. As a mom, the thought of losing a child is more than unbearable. And if there is anything any of us can do to help one child find their way back from the precipice, we must act or at least rack our brains for ways we can help!

Second, I think it is important to stress that campuses have been reeling over the past decade or more to help all students manage their mental health. If we look at statistics, it isn’t a huge surprise we are here, particularly as we add in the stresses that mounted through the pandemic.

I shared in Tip #25 that according to a recent survey of college presidents, student mental health concerns, including reports of anxiety, have escalated over the last 10 years and visits to counseling centers have increased more than 30%.

In another look at where our college students are today, a Gallup and Lumina Foundation poll found that one-third of all four-year college students surveyed considered leaving college over the last six months. Of that 33%, over three quarters cited emotional stress as the primary consideration.

Another recent study shared that 30 percent of the athletes surveyed reported feeling seriously overwhelmed and 25 percent reported that they felt mentally exhausted (Walters, 2021).

And so we can see where we were less than 10 years ago, according to Rao (2015), suicide represented 7.3% of all deaths among student-athletes over 9 years.

Even before the pandemic, the CDC reported that suicide rates for young people ages 10 – 24 increased by 60% between 2007 and 2018. And 50% of those who die by suicide have not been diagnosed with a mental illness.

So this is an issue for all of us!

Again, if we look at statistics, it isn’t a huge surprise we are here.

These stats are alarming and devastating! I share them to shed light on the fact that our college-aged kids (and younger) are STRESSED OUT…and BURNED OUT!

Right now, those of us in athletics are taking a hard look at the relationship between suicide and our athletes.

There is no doubt that the “race to the scholarship” has added pressure to young athletes’ lives…then they get the scholarship and the pressure continues…or gets worse!

I read a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that suggested that the race to the top in college athletics, meaning the constant pressure to generate revenue and the justification of athletics departments or sports on the basis of exposure or revenue creates an incredibly stressful culture for both coaches and athletes. Thus, when push comes to shove, mental health takes a back seat to the bottom line.

Knowing everyone is racing to the top, it is our job, then, to learn tools to balance the pressure for ourselves and those we lead…and/or to help keep these pressures in perspective!

I recently spent some time talking with a few of my high-level youth athletes talking about what stresses them out about their sport. I left their sport out of the quotes because I am certain there are similarities with ALL sports. The sport is irrelevant! Their statements are not!

Here is a sampling of their answers.

  • “I am at (my sport) so much and miss so much stuff, my friends don’t understand, and they get mad at me.”

  • “I am afraid my college coach will change his mind as he watches me make mistakes and be disappointed that I committed there.”

  • “We drive 2 hours to and from practice 3 times a week and I have a hard time studying in the car, so I get stressed out about my schoolwork."

  • “I stay up late to do my schoolwork because I have a “sport” commitment every night.”

  • “On my only day off from practice, travel, or games, I get up before school and go to the gym so I can get in better shape. I sleep about 5 hours a night, normally.”

  • “I am worried that I won’t get committed. All of my teammates have verballed and I haven’t. I have to play perfectly and show my skills every time I play.”

  • “I want to make my parents proud. They have put so much into this for me and I want to do well for them.”

  • “My dad thinks I need to practice every day. I want to get better but I would like one day off a week.”

Wow! They are worried about their friends, whether they will get committed, if their coach is happy they are committed, making their parents happy, sleeping way too little (about 75% of them didn’t get enough sleep) and they fear their school work will suffer because they are tired, busy and have expectations of being the best in all realms.

So, what do we do? Here are a few simple (but probably not popular) options.

  1. Find time to CHILL! We have 168 hours in a week. Looking at those hours and planning them out to allow for 8 hours of rest (this is imperative!), enough time for homework (sitting in a space that promotes learning), and enough time for social interaction can help avoid the overwhelming feeling brought on by the rat race we all run!

  2. Before even getting out of bed, drink a glass of water. The brain is about 73% water and starting our day with a big drink increases oxygen and blood flow to our brain right at the crack! Being 2% dehydrated leads to a 10% decrease in performance, memory loss, irritability, poor focus and slow cognitive processing of information. Dr. Caroline Edmonds found that those who drank water before a cognitive test, increased their reaction time by 14%. The better our brain functions, the better we function and the better we feel…and can manage the stresses of life!

  3. Back to the 168 hours. TAKE A DAY OFF…at least and find time to PLAY! Young athletes need to play in the backyard, learn to make rules, call fouls, and fight over who when out of bounds where! These interactions help build confidence and relationships. Learning to stand up to that guy who fouled the crap out of you and come to an amicable resolution is a lesson that will serve our kids for years to come. The more confidence we have, the more hope we see, even in tough situations. And hope is everything!!!

  4. LEARN TO BREATHE! Yes, I know, we all know how to breathe. But we always have with us the biggest regulator of stress and anxiety in our breath. A simple breathing routine, whether that be in our pre-performance routines, at the onset of a stressful situation or a set practice we use before we get up or before we fall asleep, can help us regulate blood flow to our brains which helps us see, predict, think, adapt and react more effectively and efficiently. It also helps us lower the stress hormones in our body, and lower our heart rate and blood pressure. It helps us control ourselves…and until we control ourselves, we cannot control anything else!

I know that these seem so simple…and they aren’t going to change the tide for someone who is at the end of their rope.

However, if we can start to implement some of these techniques, we may help someone…someone who needs a break, someone who needs some balance, someone who needs her/his brain to function at its best so they can meet the expectations that face them with more energy, confidence and focus.

Lastly, have to add a thought that was shared with me by a dear friend. Yes, the race to the top can be a bit ridiculous and there is no doubt it weighs heavy on our kids.

BUT, we can’t forget that sports save kids, too. Think about those young people whose lives are changed by an opportunity to play a game that shapes them, builds them, connects them and teaches them that they are worthy of success and greatness!

As they say, everything in moderation. Sleep too much...not good. Breathe too much, you’ll pass out. Take too many days off, you’ll suck. Play too much, you’ll burn out or get hurt.

Sports are not the issue.

How we handle them is!

Even so, maybe it’s that sport that keeps that one kid hanging on. And if that is the case, we can all thank God for that!

Manage the moments!


P.S. Need a better mental training system that you can implement without doing your own research, prepping for team chats or doing the work yourself? Call today and let me build a plan that fits your budget and schedule. Shoot me an email at and let’s set a plan in motion to manage your team’s mental game!

Julie Jones

Certified Mental Performance & Mindset Coach

SSB Performance • 234-206-0946

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