Yes, There Is Something We Can Do In Support Of Young Athlete’s Mental Health

Photo by Matthieu Pétiard on Unsplash

Every Sunday I publish and deliver an email on leadership and human performance called The Physical Movement.

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While the results of a recent survey on Canadian youth hockey players mental health during the pandemic are alarming, the narrative around the results are an even bigger concern.

The impact of losing opportunities for our young athletes to play their favorite game during this pandemic is a concern for many, as was highlighted by a recent Hockey Canada survey of parents. From the recent survey, 45% of parents worried about the mental health of their children, the effect of being without organized hockey during unprecedented time.

While the results of the survey are alarming, as 45% of parents represents approx. 280 000 families, the narrative around this becomes even more alarming.

In the below article from the Toronto Sun*, the head of Hockey Canada Tom Renney had the following to say: “I think it’s a very real problem, when you get to a certain age, and you’re pursuing a dream, and that dream is put on hold, that’s a problem. It doesn’t matter the sport, Renney said, the questions are the same: How are they doing? How are they handling life with their dreams or their activities on hold? What are they doing?”.

While no one can dispute the impact of removing something so important to our youth, the viewpoint that these sporting opportunities are what defines our youth may be the biggest reason for concern. It is well documented at how youth sports can take over one’s life with the commitment required to participate, however are we doing a disservice with this approach when this is coming at the expense developing other aspects of our kids?

Unfortunately, that seems to be a common perspective. The fact that this year is perceived as “lost” is the beginning of the concern and maybe at the root of the issue.

The reality is that there are some things out of our control, like the pandemic.

How we deal with it, and teach out kids to deal with it, IS under our control.

First, lets briefly examine the reality. This has been real rough on many, and our youth are no exception. They are one of the demographics hit hard from this pandemic. Their sporting plans have been changed drastically. Life plans have been altered around school and any activity. Their structure changed, their social interaction altered, the demands on their time massively impacted. The physical and health outlets are removed from what they knew. They are left without the structure and benefits they became so used to enjoying. In many cases, their identity has been changed. Almost from one day to the next.

This is not to be minimized.

However, this impact is much more significant if playing sports defines their identity, as opposed to being an outlet for their development.

Photo by Keith Johnston on Unsplash

Our friend Ben Fanelli of Heroic Minds understands what it feels like when your passion and pursuit is taken away. The Physical Movement documented Ben’s story here.

Ben has an unique and interesting take of the narrative of having your identity taken away. He lived it around his injury that changed his career plans, and now studies it at the University of Waterloo. Ben’s perspective revolves around defining the purpose and meaning behind what we do. According to Ben, this opportunity is a time where we can help our youth define the deeper reason for their passion and take the time to build on that so can get more from their participation when it does resume.

This is in direct contrast to the perspective that our identity has been taken away because of a lack of opportunity to play.

If our young athletes are devastated by the loss of their sporting opportunity, is that not a symptom of a bigger issue?

Something that should be addressed now when we have the time?

Ben brings up the term “identity foreclosure” in a recent interview on the topic (posted below). Identity foreclosure is a stage of self-identity discovery in which an individual has an identity but hasn’t explored other options or ideas.

The pandemic presents a great opportunity to focus on developing other interests, and outlets as well as explore the deeper purpose behind their participation. This deeper purpose can fuel a stronger return to play and a better foundation for life in general.

Coach Nick Saban, the winningest coach in college football history has a great perspective around the illusions of choice and how a driving purpose to pursuing excellence is critical to its pursuit. His viewpoint is that our youth often feel they have a lot of choices in determining what it takes to be good, and this applies to life in general. Discipline and focus are required to develop in pursuing excellence, and there are not a lot of choices around that. His quote from the below clip is “it takes what it takes.”

The reality is youth sports are a great tool to assist in development, not define it. The lessons of youth sport apply to multiple aspects of life, and we have examples of this all around us.

Examples of youth sport supporting the developmental journey, not defining it:

The Physical Movement has documented multiple individuals who have used their experience playing a sport as young athletes to fuel a career of contribution and purpose. These include profiles of Erica Suter (Soccer),Frank Fascia (Baseball),Jerry Weinstein (Baseball),Lee Taft (Basketball),Olga Hrycak (Basketball),Guy Brown (Football),Matt Young (Football) ,Wayne Burke (Lacrosse),Trevor Nyp (Baseball),Ben Fanelli (Hockey),Marcus Knecht (Baseball), Sean Plouffe (Baseball).

Share The Physical Movement: Play. Lead. Be Strong.

Higher profile examples:

Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash

Super Bowl winner Laurent Duvernay Tardif of Montreal, who has taken a year off to serve as an MD in Montreal during the pandemic. Steve Nash,Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan. Ken Dryden. Larry Fitzgerald, Chris Long are a few higher profile examples of the same.

These cases have the common link of each having a deeper identity than the sports they played. They used sport an outlet and foundation to either other roles supporting the sport they love, in the business world and/or volunteerism and charitable giving.

Fanelli makes another great point in his interview of using this time with athletes to guide and proactively discuss some of the life obstacles in front of them and how to deal with them. Sports provides an outlet to deal with adversity, so does a pandemic!

Finding other outlets for our physical and mental health, trying new things and using the time help find other interests. This is where parents and coaches as role models, and finding silver linings to difficult situations come into play.

This would be a proactive and positive approach to a challenging time.


Additional resources to support our journey.

Ben Fanelli interview this past week on the above article findings and implications:

Nick Saban: The Illusion of Choice:

More on Nick Saban:



30+ years as a coach/teacher and business leader. VP w Matrix Fitness-Canada. I write about youth sport & athletic business.

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