The Anxiety And Depression Of Young Athletes
Tyson Hartnett
1

Great stuff Tyson, glad you are doing a lot of work around this. Really enjoyed reading your blogs thus far. I really agree with how you closed with “helping to cultivate a new generation of mentally sound athletes, one kid at a time.”

I was a hooper just as you were (at the collegiate and professional level) and have seen many of the same things with athletes. When I look back at some of the tougher times of my playing days and self-reflect I’ve found that many times when my confidence was down or I was feeling “low” it was almost always because I was believing a story that I was creating in my head regarding the situation.

I eventually went by this approach — if a thought causes me stress/sadness…question it. For example, “If I don’t play well this game then I am worthless.” Actually, I’ve had this exact thought before, but when you ask “Is that true?” “Can I know for a scientific fact that is true?” The answer is of course, no. “What do I know for sure?” There is a game tonight. People will be watching. I’ve prepared for the game. With this evidence-based thinking and sticking to the facts, the emotional waste starts to shed off of your body — making you feel light as an athlete again.

Also, a question like “How many people am I affecting?” is a stressful thought with no real, actionable answer to add impact to your situation during competition. It’s a question that you can only speculate an answer to which makes it stressful. Spending emotional/mental energy thinking about it is a waste of time and get’s my heart spasming as I write this.

My coaches and teammates are counting on me (and only me?) Another stressful thought that should be questioned for accuracy. My parents are watching intently? That may be true. But I can never know for sure what they are thinking as I make a mistake on the court. They may actually not be disappointed at all. I know my parents, throughout high school, had enjoyed a few cocktails before the game and were yelling more than anybody. Was it at me? The refs? My coach? I had no way of knowing.

I bring up this act of continuously questioning your thoughts for accuracy, especially if the thought causes you stress or sadness, because it was such a powerful realization for me that truly changed my life.

My freshman year, I was at a high level D1 school as a walk-on. One of my roommates consistently was missing me when I was free for shots and looking me off when I was open. He started doing this so much that my confidence as a shooter started taking a hit. I began to justify a story about why he was doing it. “He thinks I’m no good. He knows my confidence is shot. I saw him laughing that one time and that was for sure because I missed 3 easy ones in a row in that drill. He basically knows it’s like playing 4vs5 out there when I’m on his team. He knows my only use is to sit in the corner.”

This turned into a month of pre-suffering before practice, suffering during practice, and post-suffering after practice because I was convinced my teammate believed I was no good. It was a domino effect, a ‘depression’ of sorts.

Then one week I decided to take a different approach. This story was causing me suffering so I questioned it.

I asked “What do I know for sure?” (getting to the facts, eliminating any drama from the situation) and then “What 3 things could I do to add impact this week?” (take action to not feel like a victim in the situation.)

What did I know for sure?

  • My teammate didn’t pass me the ball when I seemed open.
  • We consistently beat the first team in practice.
  • I never openly addressed him about “missing me being open.”

What could I do to add impact this week?

  • Focus a day of practice to see what happened after “he missed me when I was open.”
  • Watch film to see if I was, in fact, wide open.
  • Speak directly to the teammate about not passing to me.

What happened next changed my mindset forever.

  1. I took a day in practice and focused on what happened when he would look me off or miss me when I was open. I started to notice how nearly half the time he did so he would zip a pass to someone for a direct open look in the paint area or set up a hockey pass for an open three to another teammate.
  2. I ran to the film room after each practice that week to confirm what I thought I was seeing. Same theme ran true on film. My teammate (who I was convinced thought I sucked) was actually keeping an eye on me spaced in the corner and, as the defense shifted to me to honor my jump shot, he would proceed to pick them apart.
  3. I chose Day 4 of the week to approach my teammate directly sharing my misery I’ve had over the last month or so and how I thought he was looking me off. We actually laughed about the entire ordeal and he confirmed that I was the perfect piece of the puzzle for spreading the defense for him as a point guard.

Moral of this story: All of my suffering was completely optional and even self-imposed. I had created all that pressure, disappointment, and stress in my head. It really is dangerous, as an athlete, to believe everything you think.

Again, I share this story because so much of what you’re saying rings true in my experience. I’ve been there. I’ve lost all of my confidence. Fell short of my full potential and then rekindled most of it back - all in one lifetime.

Today’s athletes are always going to be asked to do more with less, elevate their games each and every year, chase continuous improvement — all that good stuff. It’s the human way to want to improve every day.

I agree young athletes (and all athletes for that matter) are under some challenge circumstances when it comes to pressure, expectations, and demands of the sport. Athletes have been in challenging circumstances in the past and, if I was a betting man, I would put $1000 down that those challenges will continue in the future.

But I think it is crucial to remind our athletes that these challenging circumstances are not the reason they can’t succeed, they are the reality in which they must succeed.

The key for us, as leaders of the next generation, is to realize that we don’t have to try to perfect the circumstances for our young athletes and coddle them through every struggle that comes up but instead give them the mental tools to be bulletproof to the inevitable challenges that come along in competition (and then in life).

Circling back, I encourage every athlete to not believe everything you think. If a thought causes you stress, I dare them to question it. You may be surprised that the truth will set you free from here on out both on the court and in life.

I truly believe many young athletes are only a few sound mental processes away from being able to eliminate much of the emotional waste that leads to lost confidence, feelings of sadness and anxiety associated with their sport.

I know I was…

AD