On Aug. 30, 2009 more than 40,000 fans packed into Howard J. Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Penn. to watch a group of 12-year-olds play the championship game of the Little League World Series. There were more fans at this game than 10 of the 15 Major League Baseball games that day, including a matchup between the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.
In July 2007, a 14-year-old kid named Ryan Boatright from Aurora, Ill. was offered a basketball scholarship from USC before he had even decided what high school he was going to attend.
In April 2009, Jeremy Tyler decided to skip his senior year of high school to play professionally in Europe, becoming the first American basketball player to leave high school early to play in the pros.
These are just some examples of how crazy youth sports have gotten in that last few years. It has gotten to the point that youth sports are more about training kids for the next level than them actually having fun playing in the games. No age is too young anymore. But besides the obvious problems this can cause for young kids, this trend may also be having implications on the psyche of athletes when they get older and become professionals.
These days more athletes than ever are being diagnosed with psychological ailments. In the past five years, at least a dozen pros have missed time due to mental illness, including stars such as Zack Greinke, Dontrelle Willis, Ricky Williams and Michael Beasley. Part of this is due to an increased recognition of mental illness, but it's also partly due to the drastic change in sports culture. Though no two situations are alike, today's athletes are facing circumstances that can cause them more mental strain than in the past.
Casey Cooper, a sports psychologist who hosts the Dr. Casey Show on KLAA in Los Angeles, says the problems we are seeing in pro athletes are likely a result of the change in our youth culture. As pro sports become more competitive, athletes begin training earlier and earlier in life to increase their chances of making it. Cooper says she has treated athletes as young as 8-years-old who were suffering from depression and anxiety from playing sports.
"Athletes are spending so much time training at such a young age that it is affecting their social development." She says athletes spend so much of their young life protected from their mistakes that when they fail at an older age, they're not ready for it.
When it comes to recognizing the emotional needs of athletes, youth sports simply have not evolved like pro sports have. After years of mental illnesses being ignored or overlooked, teams are starting to treat things like severe depression or anxiety as injuries that can be just as debilitating as broken bones and ligament tears.
Charles Maher, head of the sports psychology department at Rutgers University and the sports psychologist for the Cleveland Browns, Indians and Cavaliers says that pro teams are paying much more attention to the needs of their players on and off the field. This helps the development that some of these players missed when they were younger. "The window for a pro athlete's career is particularly short," he says. "The management realizes that the ability to focus and have a clear mind are needed much more today."
Meanwhile, most little league and high school coaches are not professionals, and are inadequate when it comes to dealing with the psychological demands of sports. "A lot of the time the coaches are uneducated and unaware of their impact," Cooper says. "A lot of coaches mimic their mentors, who are from the old school. This delays their kids' development. They have good intentions but they don't realize what they're doing."
With all the money involved in pro sports, teams are willing to pay to keep their players in the best frame of mind. But sometimes, all that money is what causes the problem in the first place. When a player lands a huge contract, the team's success falls on his shoulders. Living up to the expectations of the team owners, the media and the fan base is difficult for anyone, but someone who did not properly develop as a kid is doomed from the start. Cooper says this situation is the "perfect storm." This is when "athletes become marginalized and seen as objects of their performance."
Maher says players have responded very well to sports psychologists, which has led to an increased trust in the field. As recently as ten years ago, no pro teams employed psychologist, but now Maher estimates that 65 percent feature them in some way. It might be time that college, high school and even little league teams utilize them as well.