Diagnosed: Human In The Helmet Pt. 2

Apr 18, 2019

During the first segment of Human in the Helmet - part of our UPR original series Diagnosed - reporter Paige Mendez introduced us to collegiate athletes who spoke about ways they have faced and addressed mental and emotional challenges, including anxiety and depression. In this next episode, she addresses these same issues but this time with younger athletes, including those who play for the little-leagues or compete through school athletic programs.

“In sports, you try to have this ‘I want to be tough and I want to work hard.' But this is an area that needs some attention and we need to talk about details that are contrary to that philosophy.”

This is Darren Campbell, a doctor who practices sports medicine with Utah’s Intermountain Health Care. He has watched as Utah State University athletes walk-off the physical pain when he worked as their team coach. Now, he does the same for athletes at Brigham Young University.

Campbell says athletes are coached at a young age to develop tools and skills to overcome the physical barriers of playing sports, but there isn’t a team trainer who pulls players off to the side to check their emotional or mental well-being.

“I ask myself, 'Am I really a jerk?' 'Am I smart enough?' 'Like, do I really belong here?”

This is nine-year-old Jane. She plays volleyball.

Jane and her sister Abby used to play different sports together. But after Jane lost a close friend to cancer and started getting bullied at school, Abby and their mom watched as Jane withdrew – no longer wanting to play the sports she once enjoyed.

But for Abby, playing sports helps.

“My anxiety more motivates me, like with math homework, to get it done right now,” Abby said.

Parents Richelle and Corey don’t necessarily like knowing their daughters feel anxious—but they recognize this realization opens up opportunities for their daughters to talk about ways to minimize the effects of anxiety, depression or other mental and emotional barriers their young athletes face.  

“We love sports and we embrace the mental challenges in life,” Corey, their father, said.

“I know some kids don’t tell their parents a whole lot, but I can tell my parents anything,” Abby said.

Another young athlete, Tanner, is a little league baseball player who plays on his dad’s team. Tanner says baseball is the place where he experiences some of his strongest emotions.

“It’s not just about baseball here, we’re teaching life lessons.”

This is Tanner's dad Garrett, who has found baseball to be one of many sports where young athletes can build and develop healthy emotional wellness

“We’re not just trying to create good baseball players here, we’re trying to create good young men,” he said.

Parents are not the only adults, says Dr. Campbell, who have a chance to help young kids and teenagers recognize aspects of stress and anxiety associated with team competition or induvial goal setting in a sports setting. 

“Coaches are really under-recognized sometimes for the impact they can have on these young athletes. Most of the athletes they work with aren’t ever going to be a professional athlete—most aren’t going to be a college athlete—but they will forever take those lessons that they learned from athletics and from their coaches and use them in their lives every day,” Campbell said.

My brother Mark and his friend, Kalan, who both played high school sports and a lot of little league sports, have both had experiences with their coaches in high school that has shaped the way they look at themselves.

Here's Mark's experience. 

“I remember we were doing a layup drill and basically you have to hit a certain amount of layups in a certain amount of time for the whole team and if you miss one, your whole team is going to be offset for that whole routine. So, I remember going up for a layup and I started down toward my knees and I missed the layup. Everyone—you could just hear kind of a sigh. I remember Coach Barker stopped the whole practice and brought me to the other side of the court where no one could really hear, but he was talking loud enough so they could still hear.

"He told me ‘Mark, I don’t know anyone on this team with more heart than you. You should be dunking it every time, hitting the backboard. Now go back there and do it. I know how you play basketball.’ I don’t think I ever missed a layup again in that drill because Coach Barker believed in me. He told me that if I want something I’ve got to tell myself I want it. The stuff I’ve been told my whole life, has influenced me in a way that I never would have realized. Like, now that we’re expecting a baby girl, I was told my whole life the things I could do and what I should be doing and now I’m actually living those dreams. Those things, obviously, are more important than the sports were, but they set me up for those bigger goals in my life,” Mark said.

Kalan had a different experience.

“The opposite story is, I grew up in a family well-known in our community. My siblings were all really athletic. I remember distinctly, I can still remember the exact moments we were doing a layup drill and I missed a layup. The coach stopped everyone and brought me to the middle of the floor. He yelled at me and said ‘Why can’t you be like your brother? You’re a mental midget. Your brother never would have missed that layup. Season goes on, and every time I got nervous, I would underperform, because I was so worried I would get yelled at. I think that really affected my whole high school career and my life since,” Kalan said.

Kalan and Mark both had coaches who influenced their lives. In sharing their stories, their hope is that coaches will learn to impact their athletes in a positive way and realize the effect their coaching will have on them for years to come.

If you are wondering how to look for evidence of anxiety or depression in your child or teen, the Child Mind Institute suggests looking for signs like restlessness, loss of focus, trouble sleeping, fatigue, irritability and muscle tension. Dr. Campbell also suggests looking for long-term patterns.

“As we parents are looking at these things, we expect a range of emotions," he said. "Kids are feeling out who they are, they’re experiencing things for the first time. But when we start to see other areas of their lives significantly affected, then that warrants some additional questions and evaluations and conversations. And if we’re all having those, at the friend level, at the parent level and at the professional level, as teachers, physicians or administrators in school then I think we can pick these things up earlier and make changes and interventions that can really help people and in some cases save lives.” 

Support for Diagnosed has been provided in part by our members and Intermountain Healthcare, a Utah-based not-for-profit system of 23 hospitals, 170 clinics, a Medical Group with close to 2,300 employed physicians and advanced practice clinicians, a health plans group under the name SelectHealth, and other medical services. Details found here.