Helping Youth See Their Value with Education-Based Athletics

Today’s students are under an incredible amount of pressure: academic pressure, achievement pressure, peer pressure, performance pressure and parental pressure to name a few. All of this is occurring at a developmental time in life when they are starting to separate from their parents and family in search of an identity and a path for their life. For many students, these emotional and social pressures are resulting in a mental health crisis. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that more than 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. More than 2 million reports experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. 6.3 million teens have an anxiety disorder.

Many experts believe it is hard to quantify behaviors related to depression and anxiety because they are deliberately secretive. The headline in the USA Today, ‘What ifs’ Plague Parents of Teen Suicides, author Carmen Garner states, “Our students are dying because they are not equipped to handle situations created by adults-situations that leave a child feeling abandoned and with a broken heart.” What is causing this mental health crisis with today’s youth?

Multiple studies show that much of what is causing the mental health crisis of our youth is a lack of connectedness to nurturing adults and a caring community. Caring communities once provided a web of nurturing adults that answered the fundamental questions of childhood: Who am I? Who will love me? What can I do with my life? What will I stand for? These questions were answered first in the family circle and then by the extended community. Connectedness to nurturing adults and a caring community provided young people with a sense of belonging, a rootedness and a sense of self. It was the caring community that ensured a place of safety and security that allowed for self-actualization. It is where young people learned about their unique value, the value of others and their interdependence. It was the connection to nurturing adults that cultivated moral character such as compassion, caring, cooperation and collaboration that are the very foundation of caring communities.

Why is there a lack of connectedness to nurturing adults and a caring community? While there are many reasons, think of the frenetic pace many families live today. Running from the moment they wake up until late in the evening, balancing careers and over-scheduled, over-organized youth experiences. The focus of childhood is no longer about helping children discover the answers to the fundamental questions of childhood and instead has become an outcome-based chase to acquire experiences that will provide them access to an ‘elite’ club. This pace is so demanding there is little time left for connection to nurturing the hearts and minds of our children—little time left to help them discover who they are becoming.

Author Madeline Levine states in her book The Price of Privilege that “Adolescents need tremendous support as they go about the task of figuring out their identities, their future selves. Too often what they get is intrusion. Intrusion and support are two fundamentally different processes: support is about the needs of the child, intrusion is about the needs of the adult.” When the focus of participation is about achievement instead of learning about self, the four necessary and fundamental questions of Who am I? Who will love me? What can I do with my life? and What will I stand for? become an intrusion and shift quickly to How do I look? How do I rank? and How do I compare?

In research conducted by David Murphey, Ph.D., titled, Caring Adults: Important for Positive Child Well-Being, he finds that, “when children and adolescents have a ‘mentor-like’ relationship with someone outside their home they are less likely to have externalizing behavior problems (bullying) and internalizing problems (depression), are more likely to complete tasks they start, remain calm in the face of challenges, show interest in learning new things, volunteer in the community, engage in physical activities, participate in out-of-school time activities, and be engaged in school.”

Why do we have education-based athletics in school? Because sports provide meaningful relations to caring adults and transformational coaches, focused on providing nurturing relationships and a caring community of teammates. Education-based athletics help students answer the fundamental questions of their value, worth and human dignity. And in the context of a nurturing relationship with a coach and caring team community, can provide the belonging, rootedness and security youth so desperately need today.