Identity vs. Values in Sport

Several years ago, I wrote a post about identity and self worth in athletes. Since then, so much has changed in our world and in my life. With new context and thousands more coaching hours under my belt, I decided to update my thoughts on these concepts.

“I AM AN ATHLETE”

Michael Phelps is an Olympic Gold Medalist.

Simone Biles is a gymnast.

Naomi Osaka is a tennis professional.

Those labels, those titles are identities. While there is a range even in those titles, athlete identity is in part defined by how you perceive yourself and how others perceive you. This can be a helpful part of your sports experience because when you play sports, there’s built in identity, community, friends and support for any particular team you play for – from little league all the way to the bigs.

Identity is an external label. It is what you do or what team you belong to.

As a coach (with a background in psychology) I love the work of developmental psychologist, Erik Erikson. His 8 Psychosocial Stages of Development have helped me build developmentally appropriate resources for athletes of all ages. Three of his stages represent the years from age five to age eighteen. Stage 5, “Identity vs. Role Confusion” says this:

“During this stage, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs, and goals.” Simply Psychology, Erik Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, Dr. Saul McLeod, 2018.

Simply put, adolescents and teens are looking for an identity. They are also looking for peer approval, belonging and acceptance. Athlete identity (or any group your teen identifies with) actually serves a specific purpose for the psychosocial development of a child. This stage hits some big physical and emotional milestones too as it begins around age 12 and ends around age 15.

During this time, your child is also exploring their own personal values, beliefs and goals. So, here’s where the work begins – because without a foundation of values, identity can be the only thing an athlete clings too and that can be a slippery slope if it ever gets taken away. Spoiler alert: at some point, ever athlete’s journey comes to an end.

“I started thinking about who I am off the floor. I started searching for what success is outside of basketball. If I didn’t play sports again, what could I possibly do that still brings value to the world and to my family?”

Anna Wilson, Stanford Basketball
Photo by David Iloba on Pexels.com

“I AM DRIVEN, DETERMINED AND HARD-WORKING”

Athlete values are the internal operating system by which we live our lives.

Our values are defined by (but not limited to) culture, religion, ethnicity, community, sport played, family, country of origin, city, state, political climate – so you can see, values are not easy to come by and very rarely are they spelled out and defined.

Values are internal. It is who you are as an athlete.

Here’s why value work and formation are so important. We make decisions based on our values every single day. From what we wear to how we speak and act in public or private, our values drive decisions, thought and behaviors. If you know your values, you make better decisions for your life and your goals. If you do not know your values, you are at the mercy of whoever you are around to help define those for you and guess what, your decisions and goals might not align with what you actually believe, but what someone else believes.

“For the longest time I thought asking for help was a sign of weakness because that’s kind of what society teaches us. Well, you know what? If someone wants to call me weak for asking for help that’s their problem. Because I’m saving my own life.”

Michael Phelps

Michael Phelps, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have all come forward with testimonies about their personal experience with anxiety, depression, trauma, social anxiety; and many more professional and collegiate athletes are coming forward with their own personal stories and journey through the murky waters of sport and mental health.

While there are some amazing organizations like “I love to watch you play” and “Changing the Game Project,” who are creating resources and better ways to do sport, there is still so much work to do at so many levels and so many kids who are not getting this message. Talking about the differences between our identity and our value system can be a way to open a conversation with your athletes and teams about what matters.

WRITE IT DOWN

Here’s a little exercise to do on your own or with your athlete.

Download my FREE RESOURCE “Identity Versus Values” and keep it handy. You can either print it out or screenshot it for reference.

Find a list of values (you can search one up or use this one). Print out a copy – yes, pen to paper because it’s good for your brain – and circle all the values that you feel best describe you.

Now the fun begins. Select your top FIVE values out of all the ones you circled.

These are the ones that matter most to you – notice any similarities to your sports team or your family. Notice any differences. You may not begin to live out or make decisions off these values (and some may change as you grow and learn) but now you have values to work from.

Write this down: I am an athlete who is (fill in one of your values from the list) and keep it somewhere you see everyday like your bathroom mirror or your nightstand.


Priscilla Tallman is a Mindset and Performance Coach in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. 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 played one season of professional volleyball in Geneva, Switzerland. She has coached at the youth, high school, club and collegiate level.

She has written two nationally-published performance journals.

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits for Life

Resiliency in Athletes: Of Ghosts and Gaslights

A few weeks ago a thought popped into my head “I wonder whatever happened to that article I pitched to … ?” So I hit the command/F keys and searched my email for said inquiry.

Found it.

Sent September 16, 2020. Opened September 16, 2020. No response – and I guess I forgot to follow up as well – as it goes with writing and inquiring. Lots of no’s. Even from those I’ve worked with or written for in the past. It’s a tough gig sometimes and the pay isn’t great, often there’s no pay at all.

For a second I thought “I’ve been ghosted.”

Ghosts and Gaslights

By the time this post runs, these two terms will already be gone – you know, like ghosts – without warning and because it’s your fault and you are crazy. If you don’t know already ghosting refers to a person who “cuts off all communication with their friends or the person they are dating with zero warning or notice.” No texts, no phone calls, blocked on social. Gone. Like a ghost.

Gaslighting is a term used for someone who uses manipulation or intimidation to make you think what you know about a situation is wrong, that you are imagining things about a relationship or situation and to make you doubt yourself, your relationships, your situation – your sanity. It’s abuse.

So, who cares about these words and why do they matter for sports?

Social Terms Aren’t Always Relevant in Every Situation

Example 1: Sometimes I misplace my keys. I know where I put them. I KNOW where I put them, someone else MUST have moved them. The song and dance begins as to who moved them, why it couldn’t have possibly been me who moved them and at some point my husband says “maybe you put them somewhere else.” It’s all fun and games and just as the tension hits a peak, someone other than me finds my keys – in my closet, or still in my car or … you get the picture.

What my husband gaslighting me? Nope. It’s life. I’m not crazy, I am over booked some days though and things get missed. I own that (sometimes).

Example 2: Sometimes, I pitch an article to a publisher and editor or someone who needs content. I’ve worked with many editors and people who need writing. Recently, I’ve pitched a few articles on mental health and athletes, research ideas to people who asked me for research ideas and I’ve been working hard to sell journals to sports teams, coaches, athletes, organizations looking to build culture through journaling.

I’ve pitched and had more conversations – with people I know and have worked with – than I can track or remember. Most of them don’t get back to me and most of the time I forget I’ve even pitched because in the writing business there are a lot of no’s. A LOT.

So is the publishing industry ghosting me? Nope. There are some jobs and teams (most of them actually) where the purpose is to get as many inquiries (or tryouts) in order to find the best content (or athlete) for the gig. It’s simple.

Unfortunately, these terms aren’t necessarily simple concepts and when we put them in a context that is simple, it complicates things.

Don’t Complicate Simple Things

I’m not saying ghosts and gaslights don’t appear in sports. We’ve seen entire industries shaken because of the manipulation, abuse and trauma caused by adults who convinced families and athletes that they are crazy because of an abusive, manipulative adult who has used their power in the worst ways imaginable.

We know coaches and sports teams regularly have to make decisions that will cause people to think they are ghosted or forgotten about (this happens to me every day in my business). Sometimes I get my feelings hurt and it stops me from pursuing things I love or makes me place that next email in “draft” for a few days while I muster up my courage again to hit send.

Most times I remember that I’m not the only person pitching ideas or selling content. And that if I really want to share my message, I can.

A Side Note on Resilience

This week I spoke to a parent with a child in sports. They shared an very difficult experience their child was going through on their team. “As a parent, a coach and as a person with experience in psychology, what would advice would you give in this situation?”

I get calls, texts and have conversations like this often. As long as there isn’t any physical harm or emotion/mental abuse (because if there is, GET OUT, no sport is worth that bargain with your child) I respond like this:

  • AS A PARENT: You are a consumer. You are paying money in exchange for a product. Yes, a product. Not your kids hopes and dreams, not a D1 scholarship, not an Olympic gold medal. The product is there to work for you, your family and your kid. If you are getting fed promises about the things above and you want to pay for that, that is on you. Otherwise, be very clear about what you are spending your money on. If it works for you, your kid and your family – then let’s go.
  • AS A COACH: Ideally, directors and coaches are doing their best to create the best product for your child. But they are human. Things get missed. If a club or a team has multiple groups and has to manage all those groups, their staff, a facility, all business related issues (e.g.budget, fundraising, uniforms, purchases), programs, practice planning, athletes, etc. they may have the best intentions and will still miss things. Again, aside from physical/mental /emotional abuse, go back to “what am I paying for?”
  • AS AN M.S. IN CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY: I always encourage parents to speak with their child about these things. How much pain is this situation causing your child? Is the situation a hard lesson or is it abuse? Has your child’s demeanor or personality changed because of this situation? Does your child want to quit their sport because of this situation? If the situation is more than a “sports lesson” assess the situation and make the best decision based on what you learn from your child. No sport, no scholarship is worth mental, emotional, physical abuse or harm.

Look, there are lessons to be learned in sports. You know your child best. Try to help them become the hero of their story. They have choices, you have choices. They have a voice, you have a voice.


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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 USA National Team and enjoyed a season of professional ball in Geneva, Switzerland 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.

Designing Internal Pressure for Your Sports Training

One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from a book I’ve devoured (twice), notated and referenced over and over again – “Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” by Angela Duckworth. The full quote is eight words, but my favorite three are these “effort counts twice.”

As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.

Angela Duckworth, GRIT

When coaches look at a training group or session, we try to create the best possible environment for growth and grit; we design a session that will push athletes to the edge of their comfort zones while also creating opportunity for them to learn, acquire new skill, train a developing/current skill and give them chances to compete under pressure. We are trying to create pressure situations and we expect effort.

Here’s the tricky part though – external pressure from the practice design is only one part of the needed pressure to create effort. Athletes are used to performing for their coaches, for each other, for their parents but many of them need to be trained in how to compete or perform for themselves. And that internal pressure is what creates the effort necessary to not only grow and learn, but to prepare for the pressure that comes in competition and the knowledge of what to do with it when it shows up.

Most athletes are inherently aware that the reason they train is to get better, but many of them are not equipped to handle more than the learning part of sport when it comes time to cash in their training and use what they know on the competition field.


Pressure is a Privilege

In order to understand what external vs. internal pressure looks like in a particular training session, we need to blend the coaching and athlete world for a second. The chart below shows a few drills from warm-up to cooperation drills to buy-out or “doghouse” or warrior drills. In the first column are drills created by the coach to create external pressure on the athlete. In order for the athlete to take responsibility and ownership of their training time or in any particular drill, they can create their own internal pressure to get the most from it.

EXTERNAL PRESSURE is created through focus, keys/cues and intent of the drill. INTERNAL PRESSURE is added by the athlete. For training to effectively transfer into effort on the competition field, both external and internal pressure should be present. Can it work without the athlete creating internal pressure and relying on the external pressure alone?

Yes.

It works all the time. But as athletes begin to take their sport more seriously or the level of competition rises, they begin to take on more responsibility for their outcomes. The idea though is to get athletes to own their training time so that when pressure is created by a drill, a tough opponent, an adverse situation in competition, an athletes effort is not affected. Pressure prepares us to compete. Therefore, we need to practice being in pressure situations instead as often as possible. Training or practice creates these opportunities.


Creating Pressure, Taking Responsibility

This isn’t a call to arbitrarily put more pressure on athletes for the sake of having a better practice or creating desirable difficulty – though both will likely happen. The goal here is to begin placing responsibility on the athlete as they progress through the sport. Why though? Because it’s their journey. As coaches we guide that journey. As parents, we support that journey and as athletes, you live that journey. When athletes don’t take responsibility of their journey (within developmentally appropriate means), the likelihood of burn out is greater.

What seems to be on trend the past decade or so in youth sports is medal counts, number of athletes committed or signed and flashy drills or workouts that don’t translate to competition. What seems to not be trending? Those club teams posting the same athletes de-committing, entering the transfer portal after one season or the ones who come home after a year because they were chasing someone else dream.

See, effort isn’t going to show up just because someone is playing a sport or chasing the coach or parent’s dream. Effort comes as a result of the right external stimulus for growth (the practice plan) plus the internal drive and pressure (making that practice work for me) to meet the demands of that stimulus. When these two meet, kids don’t just get better at sports, they chase their personal and team goals too.


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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.

Why Cooperation Drills Train Mental and Performance Skills

Bow tie passing for volleyball (or hockey), over the net cooperative pepper, Rondo, passing shuttles or run plays in basketball … no matter what you call them, ball control or cooperative team drills in sport are commonly used to develop sport specific skills, focus and create good mental patterns and brain grooves that make it look like this stuff comes easy. It’s the kind of drill that seems pointless or boring, but it’s packs a punch – it’s a drill where athletes must cooperate to complete.

I said COMPLETE, not compete, just wanted to make sure y’all saw that right.

From a mindset standpoint, however, these drills train a variety of mental and performance skills too. Take a look at these powerful benefits of cooperative drills that may have you adding them to your practice plans to train mental and performance skills as well as the ever-sought after and sometimes elusive ball control.


RESILIENCE – In every cooperative drill there is a moment of failure. Actually, multiple moments of failure. Some days, oh so much failure. With each failure or shall I call it “incomplete” round, the drill seems further and further out of reach and athletes (and coaches) have to figure out how to adjust, adapt or change what they are doing in order to make the drill work. It could be a communication issue they need to iron out, could be a team dynamic, could be the weakest player continuing to end the drill, regardless of the point of failure, it’s what they do and how we frame the drill as coaches that matters. It’s the resilience piece we are looking at specifically. Cooperative drills have something to teach every athlete from the most skilled to the beginner and when we are paying attention, they teach us coaches a lot too.

COMMUNICATION – One of, no THE MOST IMPORTANT part of any co-op drill is communication. When co-op drills go quiet, it’s never a good sign. These drills train both self and other communication. Self-communication is how each individual athlete speaks to themselves, it’s the mental process of adjusting and adapting on the fly after a mistake or when trying to hold the drill together as a leader. It’s also the negative, self-sabotaging talk athletes do when they focus only on their own performance instead of the effort or learning of the whole group. What my athletes say to themselves is important.

Other communication is what I say to the team as the drill is happening. Narrating or talking through a drill as a commentator keeps our critical and judgy part of our minds busy. In “The Inner Game of Tennis,” W. Timothy Gallwey introduces us to Self 1 and Self 2. Self 1 is the judgy, polarizing self who says “that was bad” and Self 2 is the self who has trained thousands of hours of reps and hasn’t forgotten the skill they are working on since yesterday, but often gives into the pressure of Judgy Self 1.

Regular use of co-op drills lets athletes know there’s another shot at completion on another day and another chance to practice communication – side note, they might not be thrilled at the next opportunity, but they are learning and improving. Another side note, there may be a point in the drill when the communication becomes whiny, players yelling at each other or just plain mean. Stop the drill, reset and have them begin again. Good communication leads to confidence and confidence helps us perform better.

“Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximize their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them.”

Timothy Gallwey

VARIED PARAMETERS – whether you go for time, reps or break them into smaller teams to see who can complete the drill first, varying your co-op drill parameters will help create different stimulus and different learning depending on the day. There will be days that you want to train persistence and determination and, so, you just go as long as you need to complete the rep scheme. Some days you give them a rep scheme, but you need to get to other things in the practice, so you give them one last ball and call time even if they don’t complete the drill. When you vary the parameters for completion, it keeps your athletes in the sweet spot for learning. Time sensitive co-ops create a totally different tension than reps only co-ops. Decide your intent for the drill and what skill you are looking to reinforce and use that parameter to promote their learning.

CREATING SYSTEMS FOR CONFIDENCE – I’ve quoted him before and I’ll quote him again – in his book “Atomic Habits,” by James Clear he talks about creating good systems as a way to create new habits. He says “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” Without good systems, your team goals are going to be pretty hard to achieve and if those goals include winning, you will need a good dose of confidence. Co-op drills create good systems and draw out dynamics through mental exhaustion and failure – these dynamics also regularly appear in the heat of competition. When we practice the point of failure plus mental fatigue and have systems in place to overcome them, WE BUILD CONFIDENCE.

“The primary reason the brain remembers the past is to better predict what will work in the future.”

James Clear, Atomic Habits

JOURNALING – If you want to take it one step further, you can have your team do a five minute journaling exercise about their co-op drill experience after practice. Here are the questions I’ve used:

  • 1. What worked?
  • 2. What needs improving?
  • What stopped your learning?

I’ve used this exact format as an exit ticket for the whole practice, but you could specify it to the co-op drill since most days co-ops are not easy to complete. The exit ticket has been used by many coaches and classroom teachers, it’s not mine, but it’s a great practice.

There are many resources out there for us to continue learning and educating ourselves as coaches (I’ve included a couple books in this article), so no matter where you are on your coaching journey you can be encouraged that we are all somewhere on the continuum of growth. Happy coaching!


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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.

How to Coach a Winning Practice Without A Practice Plan

(Let me first start by saying that I’m not advocating running a 12U practice without a practice plan. That is not advisable. This is a tale about how I accidentally ran a practice without a plan and how it worked out pretty nicely.

Photo by Mica Asato on Pexels.com

Last Thursday I arrived at practice thinking I was going to assist, not lead a group of 12’s and a few of their friends. I’ll clarify that I wasn’t assigned to be the assist, I was assigned to be the lead, but my head was full from a day of homeschooling and somehow I just missed the full scope of information (it happens).

Anyway, the assist coach and I spoke beforehand and agreed to some slightly planned out drills and skill work between the two of us and then I would lead the remainder of the practice including drill setup, demos and game play at the end.

We had a few new athletes that night, so there was a range of ability and skill. It was clear right away I would have to adjust and tweak things as we went along but that’s normal for any practice, coaches are used to knowing when to progress or regress a drill at any given time based on the needs of the group or individual athletes or if something isn’t working all together.

Once the practice started, I felt the familiar tension of managing a group with different needs and abilities. The tension that makes you want to cater to the more advanced athletes and be frustrated with the ones who are just learning. Or the tension that makes you want to tell the more advanced athletes that we need all the skills, not just the skills that are fun.

The tension of the parents watching on the sidelines who might be thinking “what the heck is this coach doing?” I’m not saying this tension is necessarily true, only that it exists for me.

As I navigated this familiar tension, I remembered a coaches clinic I attended last summer; The Way of Champions Conference and one of the speakers, Dr. Jerry Lynch who had a unique and special way to beginning each of his sessions.


Jerry began each of his coaching sessions at the back of the room. An extremely passionate coach, mentor and teacher, Dr. Lynch is also an intuitive sports psychologist – so, he’s not just standing at the back of the room waiting for his turn to speak, he’s reading the room. He’s measuring and taking in the full energy of the group.

When it was his time to speak, he had all of us coaches come into a small huddle. All 100(ish) of us, in a small shoulder to shoulder huddle. Once we are shoulder to shoulder, he tells us to come in even closer. And then, once we are closer, he says to come in closer, yet again. By day three we know the drill and we just start all up in each other’s business to save time. (It’s summer 2019, pre-pandemic and nobody was thinking how much coaching would change and how huddles, high fives and respiratory droplets would be a thing of concern).

Once we are in the huddle, Jerry begins with a story. The whole time he’s still reading us, reading our responses to his story, to each other, to being a little bitty huddle with people who are no longer strangers. He’s also measuring his own energy and responses; after all, his own responses to us are also a mirror of the group. It’s an emotional, spiritual and physical circle few of us are aware of in that moment.

What he says in the huddle slips my mind. I recall a few details of a story he told us about his son texting him or a some details of a team he’s working with, but really what I remember is his ability to just vibe-out every single one of his sessions and how connected I felt.

No script, no slides – all vibes (make a sticker of that).


And so there I was last Thursday in the middle of a practice I forgot to plan just vibing-out the room (or the court). Watching when a drill became too stale and kids started tuning out. Looking at the connections between the girls and gauging if they were having fun, complaining, talking badly about themselves. Keeping an eye on my assist to see if he was confused (perhaps, at times) or if he was connecting with his group (he was).

As coaches, we usually see that kind of stuff from an analytical point of view and we are good at adjusting and adapting on the fly, but at this practice I felt different. I wasn’t analyzing. I was vibing (make another sticker). No, I WAS JERRY LYNCHing my practice.

At one point I remember hearing a new athlete almost scream the words “this is so much fun!” Her excitement bursting from her chest. The tension from earlier in the practice had faded completely. From me and the athletes.

Like I said, I’m not advocating running practice without a practice plan. In fact, I make sure to have a plan for the sole purpose of being engaged and in the moment – lack of preparation can create tension too – but it was kind of cool to see it with the wheels completely off.

I like structure and kids need structure too, but maybe every once in a while we Jerry Lynch a practice and see what happens. Maybe sometimes we ditch the slides and scripts and vibe our way through.


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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.

The Connection We Crave

“We haven’t had a team meeting since March 12.”

Brent Brennan is the Head Football Coach at San Jose State. He’s in charge of over 100 young men and oversees a staff of over 20. His team only recently returned to campus in limited capacity, but Brennan says it’s still messy and complicated.

In the wake of a pandemic that shut down sports on a global level, a social justice movement that has given public voice and platforms to current and former athletes and an election right around the corner, coaches are guiding young athletes in more than systems, scouting reports and building team culture. Athletes and coaches are navigating new waters with heavy emotional and mental consequences.

The Numbers
From the beginning of the pandemic to now, mental health statistics on depression and anxiety are way up in populations and demographics across the board – as of May 2020, anxiety screenings on mhascreening.org have increased by 370% over January. Prior to Covid-19, nearly 1 in 5 reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder and during the pandemic that number increased to more than 1 in 3. Perhaps most alarmingly, 21,000 people considered self-harm or suicide in the month of May alone (see Kaiser Family Foundation article titled “The Implications of Covid-19 for Mental Health and Substance Abuse” for additional information, statistics and research specific to the pandemic).

Clear numbers for student-athlete populations are yet to be determined, but here’s what we know: social isolation, loneliness, disruption of daily routines and not engaging in person with peers and teammates are all contributors to the increase in reports of mental health in youth populations who have been removed from school and/or sports programs.

“The pandemic has either revealed mental health issues that were previously unknown or created mental illnesses that was not there before. What we are seeing is an increase in anxiety and excessive worry,” said Joe Jardine, a Marriage and Family Therapist who teaches a university level psychology class and treats clients throughout Orange County, California.

Jardine is also a performance coach for professional (NFL, MLB) and collegiate (NCAA, PAC-12) athletes, teams and coaches and has noticed some trends since the pandemic started early this year,

“People are feeling helpless because they can’t do anything about it and they are feeling hopeless because there is no end in sight. When helpless and hopeless meet, that’s where we have mental health problems,”.

Joe Jardine, MFT

The Athletes
Samantha Arellano is going into her junior season as a collegiate volleyball player. When quarantine hit, her coach did what many coaches did at the time – made sure to connect with and provide as much structure to her team as possible. Skill workouts as well as strength and conditioning workouts were provided and adjusted for each athlete depending on what equipment was available to them in their homes. The structure was nice, but without teammates, motivation wasn’t as easy to find.

Arellano, who has suffered from social anxiety and depression even before her sports career said “quarantine brought on a lot of mental challenges. I hit a low point during the quarantine when I felt like I couldn’t do it on my own. But I had to learn to struggle on my own, with no one two feet away from me saying “Samantha, you can do this.”

Another collegiate volleyball player, who wished to remain anonymous, found similar struggles. While her coaches and teammates connected via weekly zoom calls and continued their group chats, the lack of physical connection or gathering began to take it’s toll. As an athlete who rehabbed through several injuries to train for Spring season, news of the cancellation was difficult.

“I was finally getting healthy and to have that removed again, it was a gut punch,” she said.

Current Volleyball Athlete, NCAA, Division I

As important as rehabbing her physical injuries, she has a mental health history of PTSD (discovered through athlete counseling a few years earlier) that requires her to recognize triggers and lean on her support system to stay healthy.

“In terms of health and mental health, it was amazing. My therapist was reachable by phone and I can still see her by FaceTime if I need to,” she said. Like Arellano, she found difficulty and struggle early on, but also found meaning and purpose in that struggle. While most athletes know how to solve problems on the court and in the weight room where things are assigned and controllable to an extent, life off the court doesn’t have the same rules.

“Quarantine allowed me to cope with things better, but at the same time it forced me to push the limits of my frustration. I found I could solve issues off the court too. By pushing myself, it made me more confident. I found my own voice off the court,” she said.

So, What’s Working?
While most athletes and students are back on campus, some in limited capacity, it’s still complicated. Training in some conferences is just that, training. There’s no short term goal or long term answers being provided and no competitions to be played. Athletic programs are learning new information every day and every week. The structure they do have comes in the form of practice and school.

But without consistent face to face access to athletes, it’s hard to identify what their actual needs are.

“Some of the young people I’m working with, they don’t have a healthy home environment. That space is really complicated for some,” says Brent Brennan.

Brent brennan, Head football coach, San Jose state university

Despite limited physical connection between coaching staff and teammates, one thing Brennan has added in recent years – and continued weekly throughout quarantine and returning to school – is the addition of a sports psychologist and the Headspace app. This not only helps improve their game, it leads to better mental health and equips them with tools they need for sport and life.

So, what’s working? What can we learn from collegiate programs, coaches and athletes?

Connect.
* Check in with your athletes, regularly.
* Know your mental health resources and how to refer your athletes.
* Ask hard questions. Not just about sports, but about their lives.
* Determine what stressors to take on and which ones to refer out.
* Enlist as many supportive people as you can for athletes and staff.
* Coaches need to stay healthy too. Get rest when you can.
* Have your sports psych do a coaches meeting to give your staff healthy resources too.

And those video conferencing calls? Keep them going.

“It is some connection. It’s not the connection we crave, but it’s still connection,” said Brennan.


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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.

Resetting your Game in 30 Days

action athletes black and white court

When quarantine began, many athletes found themselves sidelined. Not because of an injury, but because the world hit the pause button. I coach for a beach volleyball club and we had been discussing the roll out of a mental training/mindset/performance program for some of our select athletes. When our sports were put on hold, we decided to fast track the program and use this as an opportunity to fine tune the mental aspect of our game since our physical and competition reps were limited.

A group call each week presented the information and work for the week and an individual call where we talked about their personal goals, dynamics and looked at the specific mindset tools each athlete could use to improve their individual game within a team context. The individual work pushed them to see their limitations, how their mindset is currently helping or hindering their performance and which tools worked best for them and which ones didn’t.

I started to see patterns and similarities between athletes and I want to share my findings here in hopes it can help more athletes, coaches and parents.


woman in blue and white basketball jersey holding brown basketball

PREPARATION IS KEY – Every athlete knows how to prepare themselves physically. If they don’t, they at least know what they should be doing to prepare physically. Nutrition, hydration, sleep, strength/conditioning training, speed work, getting their bag ready with everything they need for a competition and a good warm up were common answers athletes gave when asked them how they prepare to perform at a high level. Though these answers came easy, most of them couldn’t distinguish how to prepare mentally or emotionally for performance.

Mental prep includes things like visualization, performance journaling, gratitude, breath work and the ability to play and make decisions under pressure. Mental prep, however, is tied to both physical and emotional prep – so if you are physically prepped but not emotionally prepped, you’re only halfway there.

The key is having awareness of our emotions, and how they contribute to our performance. There is a time and a place for emotions: relationships, friendships, sharing with teammates and coaches off the court or being with family and friends. A rich emotional life is important to thrive and have a healthy life off the court. But what to do with them when we compete? Some athletes think that if we stuff them, shut them off or harden ourselves, we will perform better. That might work in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. The answer? Awareness. Being aware of what you are feeling and when can be a quick way to prepare yourself mentally to compete.

Finally, understand your physiological response to stress. Start by figuring out where you feel stress in your body. Do you get butterflies before a big match, do you have to run to the bathroom or feel sick? Do your legs feel like a ton of bricks or do you get light headed or tunnel-vision? Your body gives you clues about your stress. Become aware of where you feel stress in your body, clear a path or use that stress to perform.

Physical Prep + Emotional Prep = Mental Prep


person swimming on body of water

GOAL SETTING IS ABOUT SYSTEMS – We all know how to have goals or how to dream big, but for many athletes, it stops there. Cultural signals like “grind never stops,” “outwork the competition” or “character over talent” while motivating for some athletes, can be confusing to others and have you chasing the wrong things. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear says “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” Create good systems around the goals you are trying to achieve. You can desire a big, crazy goal (I encourage all athletes to write these down), but if you don’t have the habits or support to get there, your desire may lose out to discouragement, frustration, failure or many other obstacles in your way. You need something to keep you pursuing your goal in the face of adversity – environment, daily routine, friends you surround yourself with, what you spend your time on, what you watch, listen to or read all contribute to your system.

One more note about goal setting: Comparing your individual progress or your individual learning to another athlete will stop you in your tracks. Celebrate others, but keep your eyes on your own progress, you have your own goals.


female soccer team during time out

COMMUNICATION WITH SELF/OTHERS – When asked about what they do to communicate, the most common answer athletes gave centered around strategy. What is the game plan, who do we need to watch, what did the scouting report say, what are a players tendencies, etc? While this type of communication is vital, team and individual communication are as important. It doesn’t have to be complex, but have a strategy for communication too. What hypes you up, what hypes up your teammates? Who needs to say more, who needs to say less? Who communicates strategic things? Encouraging things? Who challenges self and others when the game is tight? Anything works, the idea here is to talk about talking. One of the first things to go when a team is struggling is communication and it’s an easy skill to fix.

When asked about self-communication, the most common things athletes wanted to work on were “I want to be more positive,” “less negative” or “stop getting down on myself.” In order to have healthy self-communication, you have to practice it. Positivity isn’t free and you cannot reverse think yourself into being more positive. In fact, positivity may be the wrong rabbit to chase altogether. What most athletes are really looking for is confidence. Confidence can be built with positive self-talk and mantras (both mindset skills), but it is most commonly formed by trying, failing, learning and then trying again. Funny thing is when we gain confidence this way, we actually become more positive on the court.

Failing + Learning + Trying Again = Confidence –> Positivity

One more note on communication: Athletes who struggle with negative or toxic self-talk need lots of good learning reps without judgment of performance and a safe place to risk failure.


TAKING RESPONSIBILITY – When I am coaching a group who knows why they are there, it’s clear that work is going to happen. When you know why you train, why you show up, why you put in all the work you do to improve and be your best, you are taking responsibility of the outcome. While I love process and learning science, at the end of the day, sports is also about results. There’s a score and win/loss column and people depending on you to show up ready and prepared to compete. You don’t have to be obsessed with the outcome, but it needs to be on the radar – the previous three things lead to ownership and responsibility of your time:

  • preparation – physical, mental and emotional
  • goal setting/systems
  • communication with self/others

One last note on responsibility: Like any physical skill development, mindset is developed with practice and over time. Find what tools work for you and practice them. You might not see overnight results, but create a system and habits to practice them daily. When is a good time to journal or visualize without distraction? Will breath work help me in sports and before a big test/presentation? What friends or environments are a distraction to my progression?

Coaching sports and mindset are a great way to see what our kids and the next generation of athletes is about. I don’t have the luxury of saying “kids these days,” I need to be growing and learning along with them. Hearing them work through these big subjects and communicate openly and clearly to me has been an amazing way to spend quarantine. And, I’m thankful to be back on the sand coaching too.


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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.

On Risk and Responsibility

group of men playing rugby
Actual footage of me waking up everyday and trying to live my life with seemingly never-ending chronic emotional, social and political unrest.

I mean there’s some kind of tension right now.

It’s not just me. You feel it right?

Tension at the grocery store standing on dots too far away from anyone to make small talk (something I relish in, I’ll admit).

Tension in my home as our conversations shift from this and that to conversations about what school will look like next year and how our summer will look much different this year than it has in the past.

Tension in my marriage as our conversations shift from coaching and sports to how we will take action and use our influence to impact our communities in a way that promotes fairness, equality and human rights for people of color.

Tension in my soul as I wrestle with my own experience with racism, my own silence about racism and my own guilt and shame about how little I’ve done on the topic – even though I am a second-generation Mexican-American who more often flew under the radar because of my light skin rather than spoke up for what was right.

What have I contributed because of ignorance, silence and shame surrounding my own experience with racism? The feelings I’ve stuffed over the years because people laughed at me or snickered because I was Mexican. How I’ve felt when people asked me “what are you?” (because my skin is light) in response to my Mexican maiden name versus what I look like.

See, this tension? This tension is layered. It is generational. It is currently fed by images in little square boxes and 280 character captions and people texting you articles to read, petitions to sign, ways to support, how to learn and so on and so forth as we try to peel the onion layers back and stack them neatly aside at the same time. I have almost 46 years of enneagram 5 layers. #iykyk


I was listening to a podcast (as an enneagram 5, my natural habitat is reading and podding – and apparently making up words too) and this tension is actually a thing. It’s not just something I feel, which is usually how things go with 5’s, this tension is real for all of us right now.

It goes like this: pandemic + quarantine + social unrest = this tension.

And, it’s happened before too.

More than once.

So, this tension? A socio-political emotional and economic math equation from our past.

Look, I am not trying to minimize this. I’m an enneagram 5. I actually understand it pretty well, five’s live their lives by their own set of formulas too, so if the world has a socio-political emotional and economic math equation, chances are you’ll find a five scratching their head, scribbling notes and then eventually finding a way to be useful, intentional and valuable in the midst.

5’s thrive on being useful and valuable. So when I’m not feeling it, you’ll find me journaling, writing or creating. It’s the 5’s defense mechanism to wasting away or riding off into the sunset without purpose. Or more accurately riding off to a quiet corner of the house to read and be with their thoughts.

So, this is where I am currently sitting. In a corner of my house, outside an equation, scratching my head, scribbling notes and looking to see where I fit. I won’t be here long because I am a person of action too. I don’t just fret and try to solve emotional and social equations, I do something about it.


I guess I’ll leave you with a list of five ways to make things better during this time of great tension. Atul Gawande, the author of “Better, A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance,” suggests five things to anyone who takes on risk and responsibility in society:

  1. Find something new to try, something to change.
  2. Count how often you succeed and how often you fail.
  3. Write about it.
  4. Ask people what they think.
  5. Keep the conversation going (even if you have to speak up from that dot six feet away from the next patron).

In the last chapter of this book, Gawande says this “Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.”

The solution to the tension-creating equation above?

These five things. Start at one, move towards five, then start again. And, don’t forget these things take time.


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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.

Ten Things We Learned About Sports From Ten Weeks Inside

basketball park
Photo by Ricardo Esquivel on Pexels.com

Not sure what terminology you used the past ten weeks in America – I realize the timing is different for different parts of the world as is the language used for what staying inside is – but regardless of jargon, for most of us, sports were pretty much shut down globally for some time.

In fact, professional and amateur athletes from around the world were encouraged to share their best “play inside” skills on social media. And, whether you are an athlete, a coach, a sports parent, referee, director of an athletic program or an admin booking hotels for sports teams – for all intents and purposes sports came to a complete stop and may never be the same again.

For better or for worse, when we return to play, it will be different.

But, I think there has been so many wonderful, and perhaps hard, things we learned about ourselves and our sports these past ten weeks. Here’s my top ten:

  1. Athletes are creative, they’ll figure out how to play if they want to play – even if by themselves. So many creative ways to “play” the past ten weeks: skiing, figure skating, swimming with resistance in mini-pools, the April Ross Challenge for beach volleyball, it was so refreshing to watch kids be kids and have fun experimenting with their sport.
  2. Not having a busy youth sports schedule created time for families to connect but it also created space and frustration for families who are used to moving at light speed. Either way, it gave us a chance to suss out our priorities if they were out of order.
  3. For some, sport is the only emotional or safe outlet they have. There was an ache in many coaches hearts knowing “their kids” may not be in the safest situations. It has been said that coaches are second responders, we feel that ache for our athletes deeply. Up2Us Sports is providing mental health support through their coaches and working on ways to bring distanced coaching to the most underserved sports communities.
  4. Some youth programs will not return or be canceled indefinitely after this. Their funding or their athletes ability to participate is no longer a financial reality for many families. There are many programs bridging this gap, but the reality is we will lose many amazing programs and athletes permanently.
  5. Teams are teams are teams. Athletes, coaches and everyone in between worked hard to stay connected as much as they could. Again, there was so much creativity in how programs continued to educate, coach, promote and bring value to their athletes.
  6. I think about the refs. Not the professional refs (sorry), but the community refs. Some of them referee’d games/matches in their retirement, as a second income, as a first job or as a way contribute to their families income. Some of them may not have been the quickest on the whistle or seen every call the parents saw, but there are some great people who loved their jobs, had a social outlet through their work and could earn some income as a ref.
  7. When there was nowhere to play, no distractions of medals, podiums or win/loss records – some athletes chose to work on their minds.
  8. There was loss for so many. Sports is an industry and this was an unexpected off-season for everyone. There will be repercussions – financially, emotionally, mentally and physically for many people. There will be necessary and permanent structural changes that have and may create a need for more education around mental wellness and mental health protocol.
  9. The lessons from sports are there whether we are together or not.  Learning from challenges, being cheered on by a teammate or member of you community, having a safe adult coach, listen to and push young athletes to try something new – we can do this in the context of sports or in other communities as well.
  10.  Thank goodness we had “The Last Dance” documentary. Without televised sports weekly or nightly, history gave us a gift.

Maybe you have some more things to add. I’d love to hear them. I know I don’t represent every demographic or every sport, but I love learning how sport impacts athletes, coaches and programs around the world.


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 written two performance journals

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

30 Day Reset Journal: An Edge in Sports, Habits 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.

Is Sports Culture Toxic to Athlete Mental Health?

people running during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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?”

IS SPORT CULTURE TOXIC TO ATHLETE MENTAL HEALTH?-2 copy

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
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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.

two woman playing volleyball
Photo by alexandre saraiva carniato on Pexels.com

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.