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An Open Letter about Young Athletes:

 

B. Quinnett

 

You may already have, or are about to have, a competitive athlete in your home. Our society puts athletes on pedestals. This is true not just for the Michael Jordan's of the world, but on varying levels, also for high school football players and even athletes as young as ten years old. We relate to them as if their gifts and successes make them stronger and more invincible than the rest of us. And while young athletes can build confidence and self-esteem and provide themselves many avenues for great success, being an athlete can also be the source of severe stress and pressure and loss.

 

Likewise, athletics can elevate individuals to very lofty positions, but reaching such heights also means that there can be great distances to fall should something go wrong. Too often, when these falls occur, and when athletes most need our attention and support, we are not there for them.

 

Children who grow and develop with athletics being a large focus in their life clearly incorporate their athletic endeavors into their personal identities. Regardless of what level an athlete obtains competitively, his or her self-esteem and self-worth can rely heavily on continuing to be successful in competition.

 

But the world of the young athlete isn't all success and adulation. There are injuries, dismissal from the team due to poor grades or lack of performance, conflicts with coaches or teammates and high demands by others, including the athlete's parents, to perform. Like anything else we come to rely upon, when our success is taken away or lost, stress and depression can follow. Eventually, every athlete wakes up one day and realizes his or her athletic career is over. This can happen at any age. These transitional periods can create incredible stress and, subsequent depression -- even suicidal thoughts.

 

A personal story...

 

I was an athlete. Like many children, I lived to play kick ball at the park and shoot hoops in the driveway. I was blessed with great athletic ability and that became my reputation. And I happily sewed it into my identity. I was ranked nationally in several track events as a 9 year old. I started on the varsity basketball team as a sophomore in high school and eventually went on to play for 3 years in the National Basketball Association. Being an athlete was a huge part of my life. When I was a young man people would describe me as a basketball player first and anything else about me would follow. And honestly, at times, that is how I saw myself as well.

 

In the summer of 1992 I had been offered contracts by the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics. I chose to play with Boston in the NBA sponsored summer league, choosing not to sign a contract until the summer season ended. I arrived in Boston for summer camp with an aching back. I had a long history of back pain but this was different, worse. As it turned out, the back injury had become very serious. For about five days I fought to play through the pain, but I never made it to summer league. I had back surgery in early September to remove a large fragmented piece of disk. Several areas of my left leg lost sensation and I suffered significant muscle atrophy that would never recover. Over the course of the next two years my career was a series of minor league teams, summer and fall NBA training camps, and European teams. I never made it back to the NBA. For the first time in my life I was repeatedly being cut and told to go home. It was incredibly hard.

 

On January 12 th , 1994 , my first daughter's due date to be born, I was cut from the Tri-City Chinook, a minor league basketball team in Richland , Washington . After two years of struggling to find the athleticism that made me so invulnerable all my life, I realized it was over.

 

The support network I relied on as a basketball player was gone. My agent stopped calling. Suddenly there were no more teammates, coaches or training staff in my life. My wife was vocally and understandably concerned about how I would support her and our new baby. My friends didn't know how to respond to me. And after years of assuming I'd retire in my mid-thirties and never work again, I was without a career and directionless. The enormity of the situation hit me like nothing I'd ever experienced. I found myself with a two-thousand pound knot of stress sitting in the pit of my stomach. And for the first time in my life, I was staring down some serious depression. A few months later, unable to eat, I ended up in the hospital with undiagnosed stomach pain.

 

The end of an athletic career is serious business. I've been working in suicide prevention for several years now. I pay attention to every suicide I read about or see on TV, and while no research has been done to date, anecdotally, I see athletes young and old lost to suicide. A great many of which are lost after their career has ended.

 

Today I work as the National Training Director for the QPR Institute , the leading suicide prevention training organization in the country. Understanding and recognizing suicidal risk factors and warning signs are at the core of our educational training programs. There are many sub-groups of our population and culture which require unique understanding and athletes are no exception.

 

Research is mixed with regards to athletes being more or less suicidal than non-athletes. There are protective factors such as the wide belief that exercise reduces stress and, in fact, can act similarly to antidepressants in protecting neurons from the damaging effects of stress. As well, being part of a team with coaches, training staff and teammates available for support also work as a safety net and provides a sense of belonging.

 

But when this safety net is taken away, a great source of self-esteem and belongingness can be lost and a young person who has always appeared so strong is suddenly in great stress and pain. At these times of transition the risk for depression and even becoming suicidal is greatly increased. Those athletes who depend on sport and rely on teammates to feel calm and secure are at an even higher risk.

 

To complicate matters, from an early age athletes are discouraged from admitting or showing weakness, and consequently, when psychological or emotional problems arise, seeking help is difficult. As they progress through their careers they learn admitting to such problems could very well lead to misunderstanding, rejection and losing status and/or position on their team. In fact, throughout their athletic careers they are told to "hang in there" and "be tough." Consequently, they become very adept at hiding their emotions and have a difficult time giving themselves permission to seek help. In addition, athletes with a family history of depression and suicide are at a greater risk to become depressed or suicidal.

 

Having participated at every level of competition, and having been witness to a myriad of depressed and struggling student-athletes and professional athletes, it is tragic how little effort is put forth to prepare them for this difficult transition. Athletes learn to deal with unrealistic expectations placed upon them to succeed in sport. These unrealistic pressures come from parents, family, coaches, and teammates and from themselves. I believe it is time we all become realistic about the harsh realities athletes face when the spotlight goes out.

 

What can a parent do?

 

One thing all of us can do is to treat the youth athletes in our lives with understanding and compassion and realize that, as much as we share in their successes today, we need to be prepared to support them tomorrow when they fail, are injured, or when their careers end. We can do this in a variety of ways. We can help protect athletes from depression and suicidal thoughts and feelings by providing them love and support in the down times, in the worst of times, and talk with them when they are doing well about alternatives for the future. We can ask them about what they hope and dream to do when their athletic careers end. Having a "Plan B" is vital to being prepared.

 

Thinking ahead, not taking away dreams but offering backup or alternative plans can help young athletes become more resilient if they experience a crisis of confidence. We can also reach out to them and provide a continuing sense of belonging to our group, family, community or team. We can make sure they are never made to feel they have become a burden to their team or those counting on them to win. We are all in position to help, to honor the hard work of young athletes, and to support them win or lose. Parents, coaches, trainers, administrators, and teammates are all in a position to make a positive difference in the life of athletes and to help keep them healthy and safe.

 

A true story...

 

A major college baseball pitcher with professional aspirations found himself sitting in his dorm room having just suffered a career ending shoulder injury. All he'd ever wanted in life was a career in professional baseball. He could find no solution, no means to end the pain of his lost dreams. In his hands he held a loaded handgun. As he sat in the dark, a knock came on the door. Bitter, he stood up and went to the door. It was an assistant coach from his team. The coach had come by to check on him and offer some emotional support. He knew how important baseball was to this player. The coach mentioned several other avenues to developing a career in baseball that he could still follow. After a while, they shook hands and the coach left. The player went on to a very successful career in baseball marketing and broadcasting. The coach never knew he saved a life that night .

 

Brian Quinnett served three years as team captain on the Washington State University basketball team, was First-Team Academic All-American, and Pacific Conference Student Athlete of the Year. His successful collegiate career led to being drafted by the New York Knicks, where he played three seasons. Following his NBA experience, he played on minor league teams and in European leagues, including a basketball team in Spain.

 

After earning a master's degree in sports psychology from the University of Idaho, Brian Quinnett now dedicates full-time professional attention to suicide prevention as the national training director for the QPR Institute.

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