The Mental State of the Game
The game as we know it is constantly evolving and changing much the way almost everything in life does over time. As a now 50-year-old man, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that I would go to bed in my uniform, wake up Saturday morning, and watch “The Baseball Bunch” with Johnny Bench and the San Diego Chicken, before heading to Newville Little League for a long day of games. I would watch my brother's game, play in my game coached by my dad, then sit in the press box and become the PA announcer with a few friends. “Please return all foul balls to the press box!”. Those were the best days of my childhood.
We did not play travel ball. Travel ball back then consisted of making the All-Star team and playing against teams outside our town. All we wanted to do was make it to the Little League World Series, but if we won Regionals or even just Districts it was considered a successful summer.
Back then, we rarely cared about pitch counts, and a bag of ice was our recovery program. We also never knew what our spin rates were or cared about exit velocity. The most money my family spent was at the concession stand feeding a family of 6 several nights a week. I used the same glove until high school, and my baseball cleats doubled as football cleats in the fall. The most pressure I had on me while playing was when my middle school girlfriend would sit in the stands.
Sure, we all had dreams of making it to the pros, but we didn’t let those thoughts get in the way of playing the game for fun and beating our classmates so we had something to brag about at lunch. We just wanted to play, enjoy the game, and have fun. The game was all about fun in those days.
Nowadays, things are much more intense at a much younger age.
Kids start playing travel ball at 6-8 years old. Teams are playing in Perfect Game tournaments and trying to win championship rings with coach pitch. Not only are so many kids playing travel ball, parents are shelling out over $10,000 in expenses per summer just to play in watered-down tournaments with teams full of mediocre talent. Some parents have spent well over $50K before their kid even sees his first pitch in high school.
With so much time and money invested in the sport, parents and players feel the need to get that return on investment. The game that was supposed to be all about having fun turned into a major trigger for stress and anxiety for everyone.
Studies show that the mental health of our youth is declining across the country. It’s no secret that so much of this is tied to social pressure, which stems mostly from social media. Being an athlete just multiplies the pressure by adding goals and objectives placed on young athletes by their parents, their coaches, their peers, and themselves.
I can’t tell you how many parents I’ve talked to about training at FullReps and one of the first things that comes out of their mouths is “I want (fill in the name) to play D1 baseball”.
What I learned from experience, somewhat the hard way, is to look for and understand the signs of declining mental health. Nearly one in three adolescents in the United States (31.9 percent) meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder. Of those, half begin experiencing their anxiety disorder by age 6. NCAA research shows that almost 85 percent of certified athletic trainers believe anxiety disorders are currently an issue with student-athletes on their campus.
Signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder can include the following:
Having a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
Having an increased heart rate
Feeling weak or tired
Having an upset stomach or nausea
While everybody experiences some of these symptoms from time to time, student-athletes with anxiety disorders experience these symptoms frequently and severely enough to negatively affect their ability to function to their potential. This is causing many athletes to suffer in silence, struggle on and off the field, and walk away from the game. Unfortunately, some of the most severe cases have caused suffering at the highest levels which resulted in death.
Stigma is the glass ceiling that keeps athletes from getting the help, understanding, and support they need. This is especially hard for athletes, as they are trained to push through physical pain and discomfort. Unfortunately, this is the same approach often taken with mental and emotional struggles.
There are many resources, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), that educate people on mental illness, how to be mentally healthy, where to go for help, and how to support those around you. Also, do not be afraid to talk to others about mental health. It is good to ask questions, and so many people are desperate for someone to just listen to them without judgment.
As coaches, we often wear many hats...parent, teacher, trainer, sports psychologist, etc. We are here to help guide athletes through their struggles, and we are getting better at looking for those warning signs of anxiety and depression, however, we are not professional mental health experts. Parents need to try and stay ahead of the issue. If you are investing so much time and money into the performance of your student-athlete, why not also invest in a certified mental health provider?
Face it, the game has changed, and so has the mental state of many of those trying to play it. Let’s all do our part to help our athletes reach their goals, on and off the field.
by Coach Shandon Walker
Shandon Walker // Director of Business Development & Communications
FullReps Training Center
2015 State Road, Camp Hill PA, 17011