How mentally strong is your athlete?

Does a strong physique for an athlete relate to them being strong with their mental health? Do old school coaches who verbally abuse high school and college athletes make the person “mentally tough” or do they instead about bring undo stress, anxiety, pressure and fear of making a mistake?


Does the yelling, barking and running for punishment tactics coaches use work to make the athlete mentally tough or tear the person down to the point where their performance hurts the team, their teammates and creates a dislike for the coach and sport? Or would talking through with the athlete what they viewed on the playing competition provide better understanding and help the athlete through the situation?


Fundamentally, athletics is supposed to be fun – working to achieve a goal; playing with your teammates and forming positive social bonds; learning time management; and how to get along with teammates of different backgrounds. This concept is summed up in a video titled #HuddleUpAmerica published by The Pro Football Hall of Fame.  In today’s athletic world, a teenager is playing their chosen sport year-round, parents are aggressive towards the coach and referees and there is little room left for learning from mistakes. On top of that, many parents are taking pictures and videos to post on social media to add to the pressure of athletic performance.

C&A partners with Dr. Steve Graef

This fall, Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health (C&A) partnered with Dr. Steve Graef, a Columbus-based sports psychologist and performance coach and owner of Mindurance, a mental health fitness community bringing like-minded individuals together to manage stress, enhance performance and optimize life through virtual group coaching and online support to provide tips for athletes navigating the student-athlete-teenage balance needed for positive mental health.


Graef is creating a video series titled “Ask Dr. Steve” to help area athletic directors, coaches, parents and athletes navigate through maintaining good mental health while playing sports. Graef, a former star football player at Lake High School and The Ohio State University, answers a question and tailors the information to each group.

Topics Dr. Steve has tackled (no pun intended) so far are:

  • What is mental health? In creating the videos on what is mental health, Dr. Graef talks to coaches about doing “mental health check ins” weekly. Coaches do not have to be the therapists, but if they look, listen, observe and if they notice something is different about the athlete, they can speak with the athletic director and parents or contact a school counselor to resolve a small mental health challenge before the situation presents a bigger problem.
  • For the athlete, he discusses – how much joy does playing athletics bring you? Is playing a sport bringing you the social connections you desire or is this bringing too much stress and anxiety?

Another series of videos looks at what happens when an athlete is injured. How are coaches keeping the athlete part of the team and not forgotten? For athletes, especially if it is their senior year, an injury can be devastating whether that injury knocks the athlete out for one game, a series of games/season or ends their career. Dr. Graef looks at the objectivity/subjectivity of an injury and when an athlete returns from an injury, the stress and anxiety that may occur.


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A parent's support, and startling stats

For a parent, your most important role is to be supportive at all times, especially in the role of helping your child in recovering from an injury. This may include extra time providing transportation to the doctor. But more importantly, having conversations with your athlete about how they would like to handle the injury.


Here is a comment from a parent whose son, a senior, was injured in a football game that ended his season. “I do want you to know how much the athlete videos you have shared have helped him and my husband and me. I appreciated each and every one of them.”


In the past few years, prominent athletes who have struggled with mental health have brought the topic to the public opening up discussions. These athletes include Olympians Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player Kevin Love and Ohio State University’s football coach Ryan Day and medically retired football player Harry Miller to mention a few.


Athletes feel a tremendous pressure to perform well. If an athlete makes a mistake, oftentimes they feel they have failed or let people down. Some of the pressure an athlete feels may be the difficulty or uncomfortable feeling an athlete feels being in the spotlight.

A recent study from the National Collegiate Athletic Association found said 35 percent of collegiate athletes struggle with one mental health disorder. Anxiety is the No. 1 issue mentioned. The anxiety can range from time management of academics and athletics or just not providing adequate self-care themselves. The study found 30% of athletes feel extremely overwhelmed, with nearly 25% feeling mentally exhausted.


Other mental health related issues the study found:

  • Anxiety is the No. 1 issue mentioned. That anxiety can range from time management of academics and athletics or just not providing adequate self-care themselves.
  • Other issues include eating disorders, burnout and depression.
  • 61% of women sports participants and 40% of men sports participants have had a conflict with a coach or teammate.
  • Among college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% will seek help.

Many parents take great pride watching their child play sports in high school or even into college. Today, parents often invest time and resources into travel leagues, agility training and overnight stays. The time and resources invested also distorts a parent’s view if their child is not playing or their stress and anxiety comes out yelling at referees. Parents need to realize their role is to support their child and times may have changed since they played sports.


Dr. Graef suggest parents have empathy for their child. He suggests parents ask how they are supporting their athlete’s mental health. And to further examine what their child’s relationship is with mental health. Parents need to look past the uniform and make sure everything is ok.

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Athletes Strong for Mental Health is a video series that offers tip sheets to download as well. The topics and lessons apply to athletes, parents and coaches just starting out to high school seniors. To learn more about Athletes Strong for Mental Health, please visit If you have a topic you would like to see Dr. Graef address, please email These preventative tips are designed for coaches and parents to catch little changes before the issues become bigger and more challenging.

For more information on strategies dealing with stress or anxiety disorders, please call Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health at 330.433.6075.

Dan Mucci is the author of this blog post. Mucci, who is  C&A’s marketing coordinator, has more than 20 years of writing experience. To learn more about the services the agency offers, visit , call 330.433.6075 or email