People assume that the streets are paved with gold for a 7-foot-tall basketball player — that at that height, achieving the pinnacle of athletic success should be as easy as a slam dunk. But the truth is that participation in competitive athletics, while offering many benefits, can also cause stress, anxiety and even bouts of depression for young participants.
That’s just what Minneapolis resident Sara Kietzmann observed in her son Will last year as the 7-footer struggled under what felt like the unrelenting pressure of coaches, fans and well-meaning observers when his high school graduation approached and he pondered the next steps in his athletic career.
Even when basketball isn’t part of the picture, Kietzmann explained, “there is an extreme amount of pressure that comes with being 7-feet-tall. Basically people want to come up and talk to him all the time, want their picture taken with him.” Add basketball to the mix, she added, and the pressure is even higher.
As soon as Will reached middle school and started “ducking under doorframes,” his mother recalled, “everyone wanted to work with him, wanted him on their team. They’d say things like, ‘He’s going D1. He is going to have a scholarship.’”
But Will’s path to basketball success hasn’t been as direct as people predicted. Pandemic-era extensions granting NCAA athletes a fifth year of play severely limited recruitment options for members of the high school class of ’21, meaning that Will was not offered a spot on a college team. He opted to take a gap year and play on a post-grad team in California, but stress around that decision also took a toll on his mental health.
“Sports can give you the highest highs and the lowest lows,” Kietzmann said. “That’s something I’ve learned as a parent watching my child.” When she saw that Will was struggling with anxiety around his decisions and letting other people’s expectations weigh him down, she set out to find him a mental health professional who could guide him through this key part of his life.
“In our family, taking care of our mental health means seeing a therapist,” Kietzmann said. “It is something we all do, my teenagers, my husband and I.”
She’d heard about sports psychologists, mental health professionals who help athletes struggling with sport-related mental health issues. A friend referred her to Premier Sport Psychology, an Edina-based clinic offering a range of mental health supports.
Will met with Ben Merkling from Premier Sport Psychology a few times in the lead-up to his departure for California, and while Will was home on breaks. Now that Will’s back in Minnesota preparing for his next move, the two meet weekly.
While the therapeutic relationship is focused on Will, Kietzmann said that Merkling — or Dr. Ben, as many of his patients call him — has helped her realize that there is actually only so much that she can do to support her son’s athletic ambitions.
“There’s a fine line of, ‘How do I not pressure but how do I support?’” she said. “That’s where I realized that I can’t do this alone. I can’t be the one to provide Will with the tools he needs. Dr. Ben actually gave him the tools to stay mentally healthy and continue to compete at a level he’s comfortable with.”
Different kinds of fitness
Back in 2009, when he founded Premier Sport Psychology with his wife Carlin, Justin Anderson, PsyD, said that many people, not seeing the link between mental health and sport, often said, “There is no way you can make a living practicing sports psychology.” But Anderson refused to see it that way.
“Either I was naive enough or not intelligent enough,” he recalled. “I saw that there was a real need for these kinds of services. So I just ignored them and said, ‘Let’s go.’”
What the Andersons found was that there is a real market for their services in Minnesota. Thirteen years later, their practice is one of the largest sports psychology clinics in the country, with nine psychologists and six mental health clinicians providing care to professional and amateur athletes of all ages.
“The Twin Cities has an amazing sport culture,” Anderson explained. “We have so many professional sport teams for a fairly small market. We also have two Division I universities in the Twin Cities metro area, which is unique. There are not many sports psychologists in the area, and not many training options, so our services are in demand.”
Sports psychologists don’t only work with athletes and their coaches, Anderson said. Premier Sport Psychology staff also offer trainings for business professionals interested in bringing an athletic mindset to partnerships and high-stakes negotiations.
“We have businesses and some government agencies interested in working with us around development and burnout and resilience and mental toughness,” Anderson said. As old stereotypes around mental illness are beginning to blur, more kinds of people are seeing the benefit of working with a professional to support their mental health.
“In some places, there is still a bit of a stigma around psychology,” Anderson said. “People don’t want to feel like they are off, or there is something wrong with them. But that’s changing. Our sports psychologists do a wonderful job helping people understand that mental health issues are more common than they realize and there are many ways that we can help.”
Clients come in a range of ages, from 6 years old to well past middle age. Clinic staff has worked with very young athletes who struggle with performance anxiety. “Basically, they are fearful of performing,” Anderson said. “We work with them to understand that these kind of fears are normal. They can still act and move in the way they want to move in the sport they are in.” In these kinds of cases, it’s also important to involve the parents, he added: “A lot of the time it is educating parents to find the right kind of sports psychology to help their daughter or son. We work with the student athlete and the parent.”
A significant percentage of Premier Sport Psychology’s client base are youth coaches. Chrissy Holm, an athletic counselor and mental performance consultant at the clinic, said that she and her colleagues have been hearing from an increasing number of coaches interested in booking support workshops for their teams. Athletes are just like everyone else, she said: Coaches say that their players’ mental health concerns are a symptom of stress created by living through a global pandemic.
“They’ve noticed their athletes are living with a great deal of anxiety,” Holm said. “They are noticing that this is a thing that is taking not only a toll on their athletes’ athletic performance but also on their overall mental wellness.”
When a coach contacts her, Holm said she first schedules a phone consultation. “This is where we assess their needs,” she explained. “Is the team wanting to work on resilience? Are there a lot of perfectionists on the team who are really hard on themselves? Once we understand what the team wants to accomplish, we come in and help them learn how to bounce back more quickly and set realistic goals for themselves.”
A good measure of interest in these team workshops came when Anderson held a presentation on sports and mental health at a local high school for coaches in the district’s youth program. “They told us they thought we’d have 20 to 30 coaches there for the evening,” he said. “There were over 150 coaches in the audience.”
Questions from the coaches who attended the presentation mirrored questions commonly asked by parents of athletes, Anderson said. “They were asking, ‘We are seeing so many mental health issues. We’re really concerned and we don’t know what to do. How do we work with athletes who are irritable or withdrawn or depressed or anxious? How do we manage that? What can you do to help us help them?’”
‘Equipping him for adulthood’
Like many young people, Will is making the transition into adulthood, Kietzmann said, feeling some bumps and bruises along the way, but mostly enjoying the ride. His therapist’s support has been an essential ingredient.
She explained that Dr. Ben has given Will, “tools for dealing with mental blocks or how to manage the pressure of being a young athlete. He’s helped him with goal setting, motivation, burnout, performance anxiety. So many different aspects that he’s being able to talk about.”
She’s always believed that it is important for parents to enlist the help of other adults in raising their children. It takes a village, after all.
“As a parent there are some things that you can’t do yourself. When my kids were younger I was told that when they are teens you should make sure you surround them with other adults who can speak into their life. Dr. Ben is one of those adults I can trust who is speaking into his life and doing good work.”
Anderson said that Premier Sport Psychology therapists focus on helping their young clients realize that there is more to life than athletics. An expansive sense of self is key to a healthy life, he believes, and he and his colleagues work hard to pass that idea on.
“We help them identify that they are far more than their sport,” Anderson said of his clinic’s clients. “We help them add and develop additional identities. We don’t want to pull the athletic identity away from them, but we also want to let them know that they are more than just the outcome of their performances.”
Kietzmann appreciates that perspective. Way back when Will decided he wanted to focus on basketball, she and her husband promised to support him, but they also still try to make it clear to their son that it’s important not to put all of his eggs in one basket.
“We don’t know what the plan is,” Kietzmann said. “We’re not in control. Basketball is something he wanted to do and he has the God-given size to play. We support that, but we’re always saying, ‘You are not identified by your sport. You are so much more than that.’”
Spreading out those metaphorical eggs is a good idea for long-term mental health, Anderson said. “What we are finding at the highest level of sports are those that have other identities tend to have higher performance levels. Those that have just that one identity tend to feel the pressure, tend to take it far worse when things don’t’ work out.”
Time spent with a sports psychologist has been a good investment for Will’s long-term outlook, Kietzmann said.
“The day he has a session with Dr. Ben, Will’s whole mind-frame is positive. I can see the difference in him. He seems so much lighter and more optimistic. I don’t know what they talk about but it’s such a positive experience for him.”