Scott Pederson

The Impact of High School Athletics on Mental Health

By Scott Pederson

Framing a conversation on mental health can be a little tricky since there seems to be a lot of confusion relative to this topic. We all have mental health. We all can struggle with mental health just as we could with physical health. To be physically healthy, you train your body to become as capable as possible to withstand the rigors of physical activity. So, with mental health, your mind needs to be trained to develop coping skills, such as understanding where stress, pressure, and anxiety come from. Everyone needs to honestly address their mental health.


One problem is that people generally associate mental health with mental illness, which is typically diagnosed by a professional (a psychologist or psychiatrist). Thus, people have a knee-jerk reaction when someone asks them about their mental health with “I’m not sick” or “I don’t have a problem”. But we all must take care of the health of our mental state. Be aware that there is a difference between those two when you bring this subject up with someone. Just because you may be struggling with your mental health doesn’t mean you have a mental illness.


Understanding and prioritizing mental health isn’t something new, however with the implications of current events, it is a highlighted topic right now. I spoke with United State Olympic Committee mental health consultant Dr. Tiffany Jones recently. She believes it is more socially acceptable to talk about it now because of the pandemic, social justice issues, and a variety of other factors. People have been spending more time alone with their thoughts and feelings, and maybe they are paying a little more attention to it than they did before.


As Jones puts it, “With kids in particular, while technology is a great thing, there is a tendency to not develop some of the necessary coping skills because they are so quick to grab their technology devices and get on social media to distract themselves from their thoughts and feelings. What ends up happening is they stuff their thoughts down, creating a dangerous potential to implode or explode. No kid is immune to it no matter their socioeconomic background.”


The fact that high-profile athletes such as Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys and Hayden Hurst of the Baltimore Ravens have revealed their anxiety and depression issues shows that you can be a multi-million-dollar athlete and still struggle with mental health. The bottom line is, not dealing with your mental health can lead to mental illness.


So how should high school coaches help manage the mental health of their athletes? Jones challenges the coaches of Olympic and professional athletes to create a “safe space” where the athletes feel like they can be vulnerable and where they can talk about what they are feeling and thinking without being judged. According to Jones, “There has been a tendency for coaches to say things like ‘you’re fine’ or ‘suck it up and deal with it,’ which are not coping skills. I teach coaches to have their athletes write out what we call RUTS, which are raw unfiltered thoughts, to allow the student athletes to talk about their stress, frustrations, and even their anger. We find that when young athletes can write these feelings down on paper, you get a much better window into the reasons they may be struggling in their sport, their academics, and their personal lives.” This allows the coach to ask some questions and get to the bottom of what these kids are thinking and feeling. Remember, we don’t feel anything unless we think it first.


COVID-19 has certainly been the driver of questions about mental health these past few months, but it’s symptomatic of life issues that trigger anxiety and stress with middle and high school aged kids. Most of the time, stress is tied to the uncertainty of the future. They worry about their parents losing their jobs due to the pandemic and how that might affect their opportunity to attend college. How their parents are responding to the changes and how they are expressing that at home can have a major impact on their children. Their lives have generally been consistent the past few years, and now there is a sudden world-changing pandemic and social justice issues they are trying to understand.


Middle and high school kids tend to get their news from social media and are confused about what to believe and what not to believe. This all goes hand-in-hand with the normal anxiety high school kids have over the pressure to be accepted into the college they want, or even receiving academic or athletic scholarships they are counting on. There is just so much on their plates that it becomes overwhelming.


So, how can participating in sports be a positive in all this uncertainty? Sports and belonging to a team can be a great outlet even if the teams aren’t able to play right now. Jones says as long as athletes feel they are a part of something with their peers, their sense of belonging is not disrupted. As it relates to coaches, Dr. Jones says, “The relationships for athletes with their coaches are also critical because they generally feel like they have someone who loves and cares about them and is willing to listen to them about things other than athletics.” These are great times to be working on the psychological and emotional skills that coaches generally feel like they don’t have time to do.


Sports also can teach life skills that 98% of the kids who are not going to be professional and Olympic athletes will need to function in life. If you have a coach helping young athletes translate the skills they are learning in their sport to life skills, what an amazing opportunity to prepare a young person for coping with life. Sports can teach you how to adapt into new environments, deal with issues out of your control, and focusing on things you can control, and it can impact the way someone deals with winning and losing.


As Jones puts it, “Think about how critical sport can be to a young person if a coach is willing to take the time to work with them. Coaches should not assume the athletes understand this education on their own. They need to purposely use this opportunity to help them process what they are experiencing. We throw around words like work ethic, confidence, and focus, and we assume these athletes understand what we mean and how to accomplish these things. And we assume the kids will be able to translate this into their schoolwork, how they deal with testing, and how this will help them in a job interview someday.”


So, as you see, sports are an incredible way to learn life skills. But coaches and parents need to ask themselves, are we teaching the kids what we think we’re teaching them? Do the athletes understand it? Can they apply it to their sport? And can they apply outside of their sport?


NOTE: If you would like to hear the entire conversation between Pederson and Jones, you can listen to it now at



Scott Pederson is the president and CEO of Celebrate Positive, LLC. He has spent over 35 years of his career marketing some of the most high-profile events, corporations, and celebrities in the world. He has staged a World Series, helped develop the National Football League's most high-profile grassroots event property (Punt, Pass & Kick), and negotiated endorsement contracts for professional athletes. He has consulted with four major sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NASCAR, and NBA) and with many sports franchises. He has also designed numerous programs enabling clients to leverage their sponsorship investments at retail, including Miller Brewing Company, Gatorade, Pillsbury, and General Mills.


Through Celebrate Positive, LLC he could focus his efforts on the marketing and development of a program called Positive Athlete. With the help of Super Bowl XL MVP Hines Ward, the Positive High School Athlete Awards were created in Pittsburgh and then in Georgia where over $400,000 in scholarships have been given away to student-athletes who have overcome obstacles, given back to their communities, and been a positive influence in their schools. It is estimated that over 10,000 high school student-athletes will be nominated nation-wide in 2019-20 with market specific programs in New York, Michigan, Washington and Minnesota. In February of 2020, The Positive Athlete – 100 Inspirational Stories of High School Student-Athletes book was released and a weekly videocast was launched in May 2020.