More conversations are happening about the importance of mental wellness for student-athletes, and mental health is increasingly talked about in similar ways as physical health. But how are communities, schools, trainers, parents, coaches, and even the athletes themselves best able to support mental well-being within youth sports? It’s not an issue that any one person can solve—but together, change is possible.
That’s why the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and TrueSport began hosting an annual mental wellness conference in 2021. The first iteration focused broadly on youth athletes and the 2022 conference addressed the specific challenges facing student-athletes. In 2023, however, TrueSport expanded the focus of the symposium to further address the larger sports landscape that athletes are operating in and the need for collaborative solutions.
Dr. Jennifer Royer, Senior Director of TrueSport and Awareness at USADA and TrueSport, explains, “We’ve focused narrowly on athlete mental wellness in the past. But we’re leaning into the idea that there must be an intentional system in place in order to best support athletes. If we don't have healthy systems, we don't have healthy participants. We need coaches, trainers, schools, and communities to be proactive and evolve around this topic. In order for athletes to learn resiliency, self-confidence, and self-advocacy, we need the people around them to be able to teach those from experience. If we don't make changes at the systemic level, there's no hope of supporting athletes correctly at the grassroots. Coaches, who have such an impact on young athletes’ experiences, deserve the support and training necessary to help them in these efforts."
The focus on sports systems is the product of research TrueSport and mental health thought leaders, including lead researcher Jessica Kirby, PhD, began at the conference in 2022. The resulting recommendations report, “Humanizing Sport,” doesn’t focus on one specific mental wellness issue, but instead, looks at the challenge holistically and proposes system-wide improvements.
Essentially the recommendation report argues that sport can act as a key protective factor in support of mental health. Additionally, it showed that student-athletes face two distinct problems that impede that benefit: Athletes in lower socio-economic situations, were lacking in resources needed to engage in youth sport, thanks to the growth of ‘pay to play’ clubs and other expensive additions to youth sport. Then, for athletes in the middle and upper class who can afford those luxuries, burnout, and overtraining became much more prevalent. It seems an obvious conclusion, but if athletes are not staying in sport, it can’t meet those young athletes’ needs and our opportunity to help stem the growing tide of youth mental health challenges is lost.
“But what I found encouraging is that the solution to both challenges is the same,” says Royer. “That gives us hope that there is a systemic approach that will work, one that allows us to address healthy, trusted adult relationships that make a difference for young people. We need an organizational culture that supports a process-oriented youth sports experience, communities that encourage participation, and student-athletes who learn to trust their intuition about what feels right for them.”