Athletes' Mental Health Still Should Be Top Priority

As the chorus of whispered "I told you so's" echoed down the halls of Chatsworth High, All-City shortstop Mike Moustakas lay in bed at home, his ankle broken, his days as a quarterback over after only one football game.

Everyone, from family members to friends, had warned him not to play football for fear an injury could jeopardize his promising baseball career, and now the worst-case scenario had happened.

For close to 10 days, he waited for the definitive judgment as to whether surgery would be required.

"He was so down," his mother, Connie, recalled.

It wasn't a time for second-guessing but for acting in a positive manner when it came to their son's mental well-being. Connie and her husband, Mike Sr., kept telling Mike that everything would work out. So did baseball Coach Tom Meusborn.

The Moustakases even gave their son permission to swing a bat in the house and hit tennis balls off the ceiling.

"We put a recliner in his room and he'd sit there with a bat and swing it," Connie said. "And I have the dents on the wall and ceiling to prove it."

After three months of healing and rehabilitation -- and without surgery -- Moustakas returned to the baseball field, played his way into being named the City Section player of the year and, last summer, received a scholarship offer from USC.

No one should doubt the impact of unwavering support, especially from his parents, during those early days of uncertainty.

For those involved, there is nothing more important than the mental health of a high school athlete. And yet, it sometimes ranks with deciding whether to order a white or gray T-shirt in terms of program priorities.

Coaches are often too busy planning practices, dissecting videos, creating strategies, scouting opponents and lining fields to devote attention to a player's mental outlook, particularly in sports where they have to watch over dozens of athletes.

That leaves it up to the parents, and they are sometimes too focused on what happens during games rather than what's taking place off the field.

"Children need to feel they are loved for who they are and not what they do," said Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist for 25 years and author of the best-selling book, "The Price of Privilege," which looks at depression, anxiety and substance abuse among adolescents.

Levine was one of the speakers at a sports conference for parents and athletes at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center last week that offered tips to maximize athletic performance.

The issue of mental health among athletes became a national subject last month when initial police reports indicated Terrell Owens of the Dallas Cowboys had attempted suicide. Later, his incident was ruled an accidental overdose of pain pills.

Levine insists that parents are actually intervening too often in a child's life, whether challenging a teacher about academics or confronting a coach about playing time, thus preventing their son or daughter from learning how to deal with distressing situations.

"It is appropriate to let your child fall and pick himself up," she said.

Parents need to be active participants but must understand how their actions can negatively affect a child's outlook.

"Parents are supposed to be involved," Levine said. "You're supposed to push your kid. You're not supposed to shove them. I think what's happening for a lot of kids in sports is they're really getting shoved."

Parental criticism, pressure and dissatisfaction lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and poorer grades for teenagers, Levine said.

"I have dozens of kids in my office sobbing," she said. "One came in with a razor because he didn't make the varsity team and couldn't go home because he knew his father would be terribly disappointed.

"So how does a kid feel they're OK? You can't feel OK if you feel your parents are ready to disown you."

Levine's message to parents is to create healthy expectations and avoid criticism that involves rejection, guilt or shame.

"It means not screaming at the coach for more playing time and not screaming at your kid when they strike out," she said. "And it means to be supportive and not use guilt or shame to try to encourage performance. They get in the way of performance."

Audrius Barzdukas, the head of athletics at North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake who used to work for the U.S. Olympic Committee, made a simple but powerful observation at the medical conference.

"Every child is different, and I think it's a challenge for adults to listen to our kids and hear what they are telling us," he said.

Moustakas' parents sensed their son's anguish and responded with positive help.

That's what needs to be done to monitor the mental health of high school athletes. Listen to what they say, watch what they do and pay attention to how they react in stressful situations. Every day should be a teaching opportunity for everyone involved.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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