Is Sports Culture Toxic to Athlete Mental Health?

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In early April, I was supposed to speak on a panel at a global sports summit with the Global Sport Institute on the topic of mental health and student athlete populations. The panel had a former wrestler from Arizona State University, Ryan Milhof, who had been public about his mental health struggles as well as Kristin Hoffner, a principal lecturer in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. I was extremely honored to be in the room with these people. It was what I might have called a dream conversation. After all, I’ve been talking about mental health and athletes since I graduated from high school and more publicly on this blog for close to fifteen years – not that any of those things qualify me, but you can see why I’d be excited. (If you want to see my qualifications, you can skip to the bottom to read my author bio).

So why was this conversation so important? Let me back it up a little bit. In 2003 I started my graduate program in Clinical Psychology. In fact, on my mission statement at the beginning of that program, a hopefully 25 year-old me was certain I’d be set up on a college campus as a therapist and the athletes would just flock to me in droves.

Only problem was, athletes don’t need help.

I mean, we all know they need help, but they aren’t going wake up one day after years of being told to “grind harder” or “get tough” or “your fine, man up” to deal with their anxiety, stress, depression or any multiple other variations of mood or mental health issues. Nope, they are going to pretend like nothing is wrong, work harder, train longer, rest less, ignore multiple symptoms that usually originate physically, self-medicate, isolate and then one day an injury will stop them in their tracks or they’ll graduate or somewhere in between those two things, they’ll just break.

But why do coaches, admins, parents, AD’s and all staff have to wait for an athlete to break in order for us to provide resources? Where does sport culture start, how is it perpetuated and what is the answer to the panel conversation “Is Sport Culture Toxic to Athlete Mental Health?”


Let’s begin here. The graphic above is one I created for the panel conversation and demonstrates the various levels of sport. Each color represents a different level of play and each circle anther person or group of people who contribute to an athletes sports journey – from recreational play all the way to the pros. As you can see, the longer an athlete plays, the more people they are responsible to. As for reaching the professional level, I am aware of another graph published and circulated years ago by the NCAA on the percentages from each sport that end up playing beyond high school (the link has since been removed likely because it’s old data, but here’s what the NCAA has published since).

If you are like me and have been following recent studies and trends, you know more than 70% of youth athletes stop playing their sport right around their junior year. This could be the result of many different reasons: when an older athlete doesn’t make varsity and chooses to try something else, developmentally they want to be more social, school and sports and/or family life are too much to balance, no opportunities outside of high school sports besides pricey club options, other financial reasons to stop playing like they need to have a job to support family responsibilities or personal expenses – to name a few.

Enter burnout. Burnout is a physical or mental breakdown caused by over working, over training or excessive/chronic stress as a result of playing sports. But what if there’s another, less logical and more emotional reason for kids leaving sport? What if burnout isn’t as simple as training too much, not having fun anymore and just wanting to live normal lives. 

Though I’ve not conducted research studies, I have had my own experience as a collegiate and professional athlete and have coached thousands of athletes as a sports coach. My main theory on burnout is that instead of only being a function of doing too much or training too much, it’s a function of mismatched values. Values between a coach and an athlete, a parent and an athlete, a sports culture and an athlete.

Ahhh, there’s that word, culture.

athlete athletic baseball boy
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From the moment a child kicks his first soccer ball, throws his first tiny, plush baseball or bounces a Spiderman bouncy ball we start dreaming big dreams for them. If we’re honest, we’ll look back at baby pictures and see we’ve dressed them in little miniature jerseys of our favorite sports teams. If we played sports, look out because they will either be better than we were or they will never live up to what we’ve dreamed up for them.

And, they aren’t even five yet.

Whether we want to see it or not, our kids first exposure to sports culture is our homes. This doesn’t matter what demographic or socio-economic status you fall under. What we think about sports will trickle down to what they think about sports. Even the parents with the best intentions will struggle to separate their own desires for their kids with what is actually best for their kids. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we don’t. Here are a few things I’ve heard at ball parks, soccer pitches, volleyball gyms and everywhere in between.

“Oh, they want to train six days a week.”

“They beg me to take them to weights and conditioning.”

“She’s had a tennis racket in her hand since she was 2!”

Now, I’m not saying those things aren’t real and those things won’t benefit a child or a future athlete, I’m just saying they came from somewhere. Babies are not born with intrinsic drive to perform. They are born with intrinsic drive to be nurtured and loved and be cared for and as they get older, they will do anything (even practice six days a week) in order to feel that.

LESSON #1: The first place sport culture starts is in the home and from our first caregivers. And, that’s okay, just know you are part of defining that and however you choose to do that will set patterns for future mental health and wellness.

As the child’s sports experience broadens, they will be exposed to various other cultural influences from coaches, the sport itself, the level of sport played and various other influences. My graphic above shows that from the moment a child begins sports, the opportunity to start building healthy mental wellness habits and skills is available.

Most sports programs are aware of mental health issues at some level, but most programs, including recreational leagues, have no idea how to implement skills and exercises that address it at these younger levels. Coaches at these levels are often volunteers and parents who are doing crowd control. And before you think I’m dissing the volunteer and parent coaches, I’m not – my husband and I have done our fair share. I am saying that we can coach and add in good, healthy mental skills at an age. An hour of fun from a supportive, encouraging parent or volunteer coach is a mental health skill. 

LESSON #2: Even at the most introductory levels of sport, we can begin to implement mental wellness skills like fun breathing exercises, communication skills and having a basic understanding of the developmental stages of the kids they are coaching. Support, safety and encouragement are a priority and those habits begin at the youth level. We create the team culture at any age.

As athletes progress to high school and club levels, their cultural exposure shifts to whatever values those clubs and institutions embody. Some higher rated clubs and programs may focus on outcomes, win/loss records, getting athletes seen by scouts or college coaches. Other programs may be more focused on the whole athlete experience, academics as a priority, community service and the athlete’s goals after sports. Developmentally, however, the high school years are when we start seeing more burnout and injuries as pressure mounts for them to do more as they begin their foray into young adulthood.

It is during this time when teenagers are at an age that developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson, would call “Identity vs. Confusion.” These are the years when children and teens are forming their social identity and figuring out where they fit within their peer groups. This is an extremely difficult time as they are simultaneously separating from their parents and also still dependent on them for many physical and emotional needs. They also need a lot of naps.

Coaches, admin, academic advisors, teachers, college scouts (if applicable), sports med, friends, teammates and yes, still parents, all become a regular part of the culture that builds a system around the athlete. In an ideal world, this system builds physical, emotional and mental health into the sports experience. Unfortunately this often gets silo’d off and instead support it feels like a bunch of people they have to figure out how to please. Sports at this age becomes more stressful and athlete personal values begin to develop as they navigate their own personal identity.

LESSON #3: When athlete values and sport program values begin to differ, there’s an opportunity for growth and learning. When we dismiss their values and who they are becoming (even if it varies greatly with our sports team culture or family sports culture) athletes experience burnout. Sports is no longer fun because now they have to work hard not only to be good at their sport, they have to work hard to be good at a value system they may be struggling to understand or fit into.

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If an athlete makes it to the collegiate or professional level, they have likely already internalized the various cultures they have been a part since they began playing. Each team they played for has either reinforced or helped them rework values based on their team cultures. Colleges usually recruit to their cultures – when those values match, its usually a great experience for the both the athlete and the university or college. When those values are healthy and support mental health and wellness and provide resources that put the athlete first, that’s the best case scenario.

LESSON #4: When values and cultures do not put the athlete first or do not provide resources that athletes have clear access to, mental health issues are sure to continue and perpetuate. Ask yourself, are my athletes better and healthier because of this experience or are they more confused and more stressed?

I love sports and team culture as a vehicle to teach and grow athlete and coaches. Our responsibility as coaches, administrators, sports medicine, teachers, parents and athletes is to have these conversations often. To grow and learn on our own, not just in the systems that create winning records, but in the systems that create winning communities, societies and cultures. I hope I didn’t answer the question for you, but allowed you to think about what your program or family culture looks like and what conversations you can be having to do what is best for the athletes in your life.

If you’re still here, thank you.

Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has written for FloVolleyball, Volleyball Magazine, The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Sweat RX, Gorgo Fitness Magazine, CrossFit Fury, The CrossFit Games and OPEX Fitness. She has also written two performance mindset journals:

“30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, A Habit for Life”

30 Day Return to Play, An Edge in Sports, Mental Reps for Life.

She is an 2x All-America volleyball player from the University of Georgia, SEC Freshman and Player of the year and was inducted into UGA’s prestigious Circle of Honor in 2006. She has played on the US National Team and enjoyed a bit of professional ball in Europe and on the beach. She has coached at the youth, high school, club and collegiate level. She is married with two children and currently coaches performance and mindset journaling to youth and college athletes and coaches.

Published by pytallman

Wife, mother, Christ follower.

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