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  • Game Changers: How Sports Psychology Can Level Up Young Minds

    Understanding Mental Health and Its Importance

    From the moment we step into the field of psychology, we recognize that one size does not fit all. As mental health providers, we appreciate the complexity of human experiences and the need for tailored approaches. Whether we’re fresh-faced undergraduates or seasoned professionals, this fundamental truth remains: individuals are unique, and their well-being requires personalized care.

    The Developing Brain and Identity Formation

    Our brains continue to evolve well into our twenties, with some individuals reaching full maturity even in their thirties. This developmental journey shapes not only cognitive abilities but also the very essence of who we are. As a clinician who’s specialty includes treating adolescents and young adults, I frequently encounter the dynamic interplay between brain development and identity formation.

    • Brain Development: The prefrontal cortex—the seat of executive functions—matures gradually. Decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation all hinge on this region. Understanding these neural changes informs our therapeutic strategies.

    • Identity Construction: As these young minds navigate the complexities of adolescence and early adulthood, their identities evolve in tandem; shaped by myriad factors such as  self-esteem, core values, religious beliefs, and social affiliations. 

    Sports Psychology: Beyond the Field

    Now, let’s pivot to the realm of sports psychology. Traditionally associated with athletes, this discipline extends far beyond the playing field. Here’s how it intersects with mental health:

    1. Optimal Performance: Sports psychology equips athletes with mental tools to enhance performance. Techniques such as visualization, goal-setting, and managing anxiety translate seamlessly to other life domains (e.g. academic performance). This helps clients foster resilience and adaptability rather than avoiding the discomfort that comes with difficult or stressful tasks..

    2. Emotional Regulation: Athletes experience a rollercoaster of emotions—victory, defeat, pressure, and camaraderie. Learning to navigate these emotional tides builds emotional intelligence. Similarly, adolescents and young adults benefit from emotional regulation strategies as they navigate the highs and lows of these complex years.

    3. Self-Identity and Athletic Identity: Athletes often intertwine their self-identity with their athletic roles. The same holds true for our clients. Recognizing how their chosen sports (and for my practice, e-sports) impact our client’s self-concepts allows us to address identity-related obstacles like ‘stuckness’

      • I find it particularly impactful to help clients examine discrepancies between their core values and actions, an approach known as Motivational Interviewing.

    4. Social Connection: Team sports foster social bonds. Adolescents and young adults thrive when they feel connected and wither when isolated. Whether on the field or off, building supportive networks contributes to mental well-being and is a major protective factor against stress.

    Let’s explore how sports psychology techniques can be effectively utilized during sessions. As a clinician, a parent or even on your own, you can use the below structured process to support recovery after a destabilizing event. 

    Not only that, but this can help change one’s internal narrative by altering their locus of control. This is the degree to which one believes themselves to be in control of their own destiny.  Integrating that belief into one’s identity as a teenager can have a massive, lifelong impact as a result.

    Sports Psychology Intervention: Navigating Intense Moments

    1. Release: Get Rid of Negative Energy

    • Context: Your client is upset, perhaps due to a mistake or a challenging situation. If they’re an athlete, for example, they may struggle to stay present after missing a goal.

    • Objective: Help them release internalized emotional distress and regain control.

      • Encourage physical actions to dissipate the tension:

        • Intense Physical Activity: There are any number of good options ranging from punching a pillow nonstop for 30 seconds to doing as many push-ups as possible.  The intense, strenuous exercise will both discharge tension and also release endorphins.

        • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: This involves tensing and releasing each muscle group for 3 seconds, starting with the toes and ending with the facial muscles; this muscle group can be engaged by acting as though you’ve bit into a lemon.

          • The body responds to stress with muscle tension, which can cause pain or discomfort. In turn, tense muscles relay to the body that it’s stressed. That keeps the cycle of stress and muscle tension going which is why this technique can be so effective.

    2. Regroup: Compose Yourself

    • Context: After the emotional release, your client needs to regain composure.

    • Objective: To shake off the cognitive effects of the triggering event. This can be thought of as ‘’getting your head back into the game”.

      • Imagery: Guide your client through a short meditation in which they are physically moving in some way. Because the scene isn’t static, the client will have to focus on generating the different images rather than getting lost in their thoughts. 

        • Examples include walking through a forest, strolling on the beach or canoeing on a lazy river. 

      • Self-Directed Affirmation: Encourage positive, present-focused self-talk: “Relax. You’re good!” Remind them that emotions are transient and that ‘’this too shall pass.’’

    3. Review: Analyze Objectively

    • Context: The brain naturally will seek to understand how and why the situation occurred.

    • Objective: Facilitate an objective analysis of what happened free from judgment.

      • Non-Emotional Reflection: Ask your client to think analytically: “What went wrong? Why did it happen?”. If judgment is still present, have them try to externalize the situation as if it happened to a teammate and then try the analysis.

      • Adjustment Plan: Help them identify corrective actions: “What can I realistically do differently next time?”

    4. Relax: Reconnect and Learn

    • Context: The mistake is now history; learning from it is crucial but suffering from it is optional.

    • Objective: Reconnect once again with the present moment and embrace growth.

      • Reconnect to the Moment: A simple mindfulness exercise is helpful at this point, such as naming three observations for each of the five senses, e.g. ‘’I hear people talking, the wind in the trees and a car driving by’’. 

      • Learning Opportunity: Acknowledge the mistake as part of the journey of growth and self-improvement.

    5. Refocus: Step into the Uncluttered Box

    • Context: For an athlete, this step is about looking toward the next play, round, inning, etc. Non-athletes would thus look towards whatever the equivalent next step is for them.

    • Objective: Sharpen focus and take action.

      • Uncluttered Mindset: Maintain focus on the task at hand. One way to do this is to think through each step, visualizing oneself completing a given step before then moving to the next.


    In the arena of mental health, we don’t merely treat symptoms; we nurture growth, harness strengths and ultimately try to work ourselves out of a job. As adolescents and young adults are still growing, we have an incredible opportunity to provide  By integrating sports psychology principles, we empower them to thrive—both on and off the field.

    1: Kerulis, M. (2022). Mental Health for Young Athletes: An Essential Guide. Psychology Today. Read more

    2: Psychological Considerations of Adolescents in Sport and Performance. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology. Read more