In the lead up to the Olympic games, athlete counsellor and a mental performance coach Matt Brown had been meeting with one particular Olympian every week to make sure she that besides being physically ready, she was mentally ready as well. By all accounts, she was set to achieve a podium finish as she was on top of her game with no major concerns.
In the last meeting she had with Brown before she left for the Olympics, she was about to leave when she turned around to ask one final question.
“Is it okay that I am scared,” she asked.
“Of course it is,” responded Brown, “Of course.”
On the surface, watching an athlete win gold in the Olympics is an exhilarating experience, especially for young athletes who have their golden hopes and dreams. Yet what often gets overlooked, is the mental pressure these pro and amateur athletes are faced with.
Brown is a sports psychologist and a mental performance coach with the Calgary Flames (NHL), as well as with youth athletes at the Edge School for Athletes. With anxiety and depression increasing at alarming rates in youth sports (link),Brown has valuable insight as well as practical tools on how best to support your youth athlete when it comes to mental health. This is our Q & A with Matt Brown.
*This interview has been abbreviated.*
You’ve been a mental health and performance coach for 20 years. What have you noticed when you first started, compared to now?
The pattern that I noticed starting in the early 2000’s is that this is the anxiety generation. Dominant profile these days is a kid who is trying hard to be their best and trying to do everything and they’re stressed to the gills.
It’s a much more anxious generation and if you look at the statistics at the amount of kids that are medicated for instance for anxiety, it’s climbing at an alarming rate. That’s the pattern at least that I have seen.
What’s different about kids these days?
Well, kids are kids. They are always going to be a product of how they’re raised. So if there’s a millennial effect, it’s a parenting effect. Because you look at how much they spend (time) building their kids up not ruffling their kid’s feathers or getting them upset.
We have a lot of ‘parent is best friend’ models in how people parent with the best of intentions. We have more parents who work hard to try to protect kids from failure or from feeling responsible for their failures. Couple that with particularly in sport, a lot of parents (who) have been impacted by the Anders Ericsson 10,000 hour rule (link). Things that are out there whether it’s Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers) – linkor The Talent Code (link)which have a similar message that any kid can be the best in the world as long as they have the right environment and do enough of the right stuff. And I just don’t think that’s true. This notion that talent doesn’t exist is just misguided.
What would you say to parents who are raising kids at the grassroots level?
Failure. Since the beginning of time failure has been the best teacher. Anytime you try to talk to a kid out of accepting or owning their failures, you are sabotaging their learning.
The other thing to recognize is that this generation is trying to do it all. Trying to be great at everything and with that comes a lot of emotion. So as parents we have to do a lot of listening. We have to give them an avenue to feel out loud and express some of that stress and anxiety and hopelessness out loud that they will feel when they’re trying to be the best version of themselves. So most cases it’s not what you say to them, it’s making sure they feel heard.
To the parents, and you never get through to these people anyway but the parents who are hunting around to make sure they find a place where their kids will win all their games. I would say developmentally is (you need) to win as often as you lose. Both of those things teach good things. If you try to pursue this elitist, posture my kid where they have an advantage over every other kid, what will you train in that kid?
What is most effective when it comes to talking to kids about mental health?
I think the biggest thing is that they understand their emotions deserve respect. Because a lot of times they feel a certain way and think that they shouldn’t feel that way or feel ashamed of how they’re feeling and then they can conceal it and then it grows. Then it becomes a cocktail of emotions they won’t express and shame and doubt and anger that they’re feeling that way and that’s when things can spiral out of control.
If there’s a single thing collectively, it’s that we need to educate ourselves, and our kids about their emotions. We seem to have steered on this road where we think of emotions as being a liability, but the emotions are survival instincts. They are the bodies’ response to demands in the environment that help us have the energy and motivation to cope with situations and sadness most of all.
Sadness we treat as a cold. You need to self medicate and just get through it but sadness if it’s processed well it’s one of the most important and transformative emotions. Because if things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, sadness slows us down. It takes our emotions away and forces us to think about what’s lost.
So it’s things like that that I think those should be cornerstones in our education. Helping kids, people to understand what our emotions are for so that we can honor them, use them, not get used by them. If you understand them, then it’s better to direct your response to it.
Why are mental health issues higher in youth athletes versus the average young person?
In the 1930s, Kazimierz Dabrowski a Polish psychologistobserved that most of the population, they don’t worry about much. If they get a paycheck and a bag of chips, their basic needs met they’re happy to just be. And then a level up from that are the strivers who see where they are and have a sense of where they could be. And the difference between those two things makes them uncomfortable and that discomfort is what drives them.
So that is the fire behind their push. Those are the ones who then excel, that discomfort compels them to work, train to study to do those things and that’s how they get good. That means the ones who reach the highest levels are suffering more and a level up from that is the ones who see the world where it is, and the world where it could be. And that difference compels them.
At the grassroots level, what should parents of kids between the ages of 8-12 be doing to help their young athletes when it comes to mental health?
The biggest thing we should be emphasizing at grassroots and up is effort, attitude, and resilience. It’s most natural to pick out the one who made the nicest play and made the best play and get excited and naturally it is. But that just teaches them that if you score you’re the special one.
Instead, if you see someone trying hard, we should be jumping all over that. You’re sticking with it, you’re gritty and awesome and you can see how you’re getting better in each try. That’s the lesson they need to learn. It’s all about sticking with it. Keeping a positive attitude. It’s all about getting back up when you get knocked down. And if we’re focused on effort, attitude, resilience, then what we are putting our kids in sport is going to bear fruit because it’s going to make them stronger more resilient people.
It’s those things, it’s attitude, it’s team. Treating others with respect. Being in a heated competitive competition but still helping someone up or patting someone on the back or shaking hands.
That’s why it’s so heartbreaking taking the handshakes out of hockey. If we can’t manage a handshake then we’ve lost this.
What do you say when they’re athletes between the ages of 12-18, competing at a higher level?
It goes back to the idea we are all vulnerable. Just because someone seems to be exceptional physiologically or neurologically or both, they find themselves in the WHL or NHL or junior National Team doesn’t mean they’re not susceptible to the same emotional traps.
Look at it this way, when are people most at risk for a bad psychological episode is when they’re chronically fatigued when they’re chronically stressed when they’re under chronic pressure and that is the swimming pool. Those people are swimming around constantly.
It’s trying to push the envelope of training, which means you’re always teetering on overtraining which means these are people at the end of their days they’re completely depleted. That’s when they get leveled by these waves of emotion.
Then the higher you go, the more competitive it is, the more pressure there is. Then the closer you get to the top, the more sexy the outcomes look. Even though the notion that success equals happiness is so miserably misguided and so wrong. I’ve dealt with some of the best in the world that are tormented in their minds, so it’s not a magic pill that takes away our insecurities and our fears and our need to feel.
I just think as long as we are going to have pro sport, elite amateur sport, all these things where it’s chronic fatigue, chronic stress, chronic pressure, then it behooves us to support those people. To make sure they have some professional support when they need it. But also make sure they have professionals that deal with them, their coaches, their trainers, their whoever, that understand mental health.
If we are going to allow these environments to exist where the risk is high, for someone to hit a threshold and spiral downhill then it’s our responsibility to make sure they are supported and cared for.
Matt Brown has a B.A. in Psychology, an M.A. in Sports Psychology and a Ph.D. in Counselling Sports Psychology. He is the Mental Health & Performance Coach for the Calgary Flames, Stockton Heat, Calgary Hitmen and the sports psychologist for Edge School for youth athletes.