How to solve the mental health crisis in young people, according to young people

If active sports are good for kids, why are so many of them dropping out, being selected out or sitting the bench because injury is keeping them out? That’s the issue I set out to address in my book, Fit2Finish: Keeping Your Soccer Players in the Game. Because the good sport can do for their health and fitness only happens if they keep playing. AND, if that playing remains healthy for them, mentally, physically and emotionally.

Ironically, dis-health can happen on both ends of the “physical activity spectrum.” Among “low active” kids, we find overweight and risk of obesity, sedentary lifestyle which risks heart, lung and blood vessel disease, and the missed opportunity to learn motor skills that would make movement games more fun. BUT among “high active” kids we find disordered eating, overtraining and excess-ercize which risks injury, and competitive anxiety which may lead to drop out, burn out, substance abuse or even the tragedy of suicide.

Even if something is good for you, both too much and too little can be bad for you. I posed this dilemma to the 140 students in my undergraduate kinesiology class to respond to on post-it notes, asking:

  • What problems do you see?
  • What solutions do you propose?

As they are very close to the subject, they had a lot of great insights — both, about the causes of this health crisis and about what might be its solutions.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

On dealing with cultural demands and societal standards

  • Body-type criticism decreases one’s confidence. Focus on how fitness makes you feel, not on how you look.
  • Surround yourself with people who will support you, push you in a healthy way and hold you accountable.
  • People are emotionally and mentally drained, ridden with anxiety and self-doubt. Get off social media. Or only use it for entertainment and news.
  • There are unrealistic expectations and standards. We overvalue “skinny.” We need to see real bodies in ads and online, not photo-shopped impossible bodies.

On dealing with unrealistic expectations

  • Focus on improving, not the quick fix. Everything is a process. Don’t jump to the endpoint.
  • Must “succeed” or be the best at all costs or you’re not good enough. People expect or want immediate results (just like we see in ads – the quick fix or easy solution). Too much focus on external rewards
  • People feel hopeless. Overwhelming news cycle. “Nobody is 100% okay.” It’s okay.
  • People are afraid of judgment and what others will think of them. (MANY said this)
  • We need to see a diverse range of athletes in all sizes and shapes.
  • We have an unhealthy relationship with our bodies and food. Engage in stress-eating or emotional-eating.
  • Perfectionism — people are afraid to fail. They need to see health as a journey, not just an end result.
  • Disordered eating is an unhealthy desire for perfection. Need more body positivity; therapy can help.
  • Online comparisons. People don’t start learning a skill or sport because they can “never be that good.”
  • Fear of trying something new that they may not be skilled at. Subject to public humiliation. Focus on what they CAN do. help them know how to start and find what they’re good at and encourage them to pursue it.

On dealing with a culture and society which can promote dis-health

  • You’re judged as an “athlete or not.” Society tells you this and you start to define yourself this way.
  • Many people believe they are no good at a young age because they were always picked last for the team.
  • The “all or nothing” American lifestyle. We need a beginning point and a stopping point.
  • More education about HOW they body works and not whose works best. Start from an early age.
  • Lost self-respect based on sports performance. Coaches need to value us as people and not just players.
  • The distraction of video games, online environment. It’s addictive and “messes with our brains.” We need to practice mindful meditation to counter the destructive nature of social media.”
  • Screens keep people inside and from moving. increase spaces outside for safe exercise, activity, walks and parks.
  • Work and responsibilities take all our time. Add in wellness and balance activities with realistic goals.

On dealing with coaches and the high pressure of college sports

  • Too much pressure on athletes. High stakes. We don’t want to be the weak link.
  • Pressure from peers, parents, coaches or the athletes, themselves. Need to go back to find the fun.
  • We need more teams at a mid-level. Less intense. Recs teams that are held equal to competitive teams.
  • Pressure to specialize and be so good. Don’t fall behind! Be patient. It takes time to become the MVP. Time=improvement. Start young with this message.
  • Sports technology (and data) encourage competitive athletes to push too hard or to push past unhealthy limits.
  • “Coaches tear athletes down with non-constructive critique and push too hard.” They need education on healthy recovery.
  • Instead of success-based training, need to use improvement-based training. More healthy bodies mean you don’t need to rely on (and overtrain and injure) one or two players.

Overall, a surprising majority of the students identified mental health concerns created by cultural expectations which have left us with an unhealthy relationship with physical activity. They provided this advice:

  1. Don’t fall prey to the singular carrot dangled as “best.”
  2. Each day get better. Take one step toward better, fitter, healthier.
  3. Work toward being YOUR best, not what the online world supposes is best.
  4. If you’re motivated by competition, put your best into play to see who is best today.
  5. Let that push you toward your better and your best.
  6. Focus on how you feel, not how you look.
  7. Congratulate yourself that you had the courage to try.

Thank you, College of William & Mary students in Kinesiology and Health Sciences 204 class of 2021. Your wisdom plays. May we listen well.

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