Young People, Sports, and Mental Health ft. Dr. Jonathan Jenkins, Psy.D, CMPC – Shrinking It Down

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Posted in: Multimedia, Podcast

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development, Culture + Society, Healthy Living

Sports can be such a positive space for young people to let off steam, learn important life skills, and build long lasting relationships. There are times, though, when it can be too much, injury strikes, or someone doesn’t make the team they were hoping to.

In this must-listen episode, Dr. Jonathan Jenkins of the Sport Psychology Program at Mass General joins Gene and Khadijah to discuss all things sports psychology and how best to support our young people in this important area of their lives. Whether your child dreams of being a professional or just likes to play for fun, tune in to learn how parents and coaches can promote a healthy mindset around sports and physical activity.

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Want more from Dr. Jenkins? Tune in to this bonus segment: How Do Social Justice and Youth Sports Intersect?

Episode produced by Bianca Dempsey

Edited by Sara Rattigan

Music by Gene Beresin

Episode Transcript

Thurs, Dec. 22, 2022


Gene (Beresin, MD, MA), Khadijah (Booth Watkins, MD, MPH), Jonathan (Jenkins, Psy.D, CMPC)

Jonathan  00:00

In reality, as much as parents and coaches and other people may resist this reality, sports aren’t really that important. They’re a luxury, they’re an opportunity to do something. It’s not life and death, even though it may feel like that at times. So when we have youth participating in sports, it gives them an opportunity to experience loss and to grieve and to bounce back or to rebound in ways and in situations that are not life and death that are not 100% serious. I’d rather them take risks, playing sports than take risks in some social situations, or in situations with drugs and alcohol.


Gene  00:38

Welcome back to Shrinking It Down Mental Health Made Simple. I’m Gene Beresin.

Khadijah  00:42

And I’m Khadijah Booth Watkins.

Gene  00:45

We’re two child and adolescent psychiatrists at the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at the Massachusetts General Hospital. We’ve become a sports podcast now. And I’m Gene Lasso.

Khadijah  00:58

Oh, my God.

Gene  01:01

Not really. But I do like that show. And you know, it’s I can’t wait to the for the next season. It’s the first it’s the first series. Literally the first series on television that I’ve watched

Khadijah  01:14

I told I told you to watch it like two years ago and you didn’t listen to me. It. Now someone else had to tell you and that was valid. Okay.

Gene  01:22

Okay, just kidding. But we’re going to talk about sports and mental health and young people the good and the bad. And we’re very excited to welcome Dr. Jonathan Jenkins, who serves as assistant director of psychology training for the Department of Psychiatry at MGH, and he’s co chair of the department’s anti racism Task Force. He also works as a clinical psychologist in the Child and Adolescent outpatient psychiatry department, and serves both as a clinical psychologist and certified mental performance consultant at MGH and sports psychology department. Dr. Jenkins is author of Wednesday Afternoons With Dr. J. A book that serves to whimsically explain psychotherapy and play therapy to young audiences. He also founded a private practice called Mental Fitness and Psychotherapy that serves the emotional and performance needs of those in the greater Boston community. So we’re thrilled to have you today, JJ, welcome.

Jonathan  02:19

Thank you. Thanks for having me. I’m excited to talk about today’s topic.

Gene  02:22

And you know, Dr. J is near and dear to my heart because I’m from Philly.

Jonathan  02:29

My dad’s side of the family is from Philly, North Philly.

Gene  02:32

You know what part og, part of Philly,

Jonathan  02:34

They’re from North Philly, a lot of my aunts live in Lower Merion, King of Prussia

Gene  02:39

Lower Merion? That’s where I grew up!

Jonathan  02:41

Oh, nice. Nice. You and you and Kobe Bryant.

Gene  02:43

Me and Kobe Bryyant. And he was a little after me. Okay, so let’s start with you, JJ, how did you get into working in sports psychology? So, you know, what exactly is it? And what surprised you most about it.

Jonathan  03:03

So to think about how I got into sports psychology, I think I gotta go and tell a little bit about more about myself. So my parents met on a blind date to play tennis. So sports had always been a part of my life. Question. Yes, my mom was my dad. And so we’d always been a family that had had sports been part of our life and our lifestyle. And I grew up playing tennis for a while, then transitioned to playing lacrosse. And so I personally had learned a lot through sports, particularly as I had struggles with asthma as a kid, having to stay inside for recess, but really wanting to be out and be active. I, my life then transitioned to become a clinical psychologist and deciding that I really love the bedside manner and talking to people, but also the problem solving and figuring out what’s going on in somebody’s life and watching them blossom, right in front of your eyes or be there for a really stressful experience, which I’m sure kind of encouraged you both to kind of be in, in the field as well. And then there was an opportunity at MGH to work with athletes in particular, through my mentor at the hospital, I jumped at the opportunity. I had graduated graduate school with some sports psychologists who were in my class, and hearing about the work that they were doing to help empower people through the environment, the atmosphere, the arena of sports was attractive to me. And so I took the opportunity to do that. And I also did some additional education in the field and it’s gotten me to where I am where I’ve done that work for probably about past four to five years. Really enjoyed it. actually longer than that, now, I think about it. Pandemic has truncated everybody’s approach to time, it’s probably been about six or seven years.

Khadijah  04:36

That’s, that’s really awesome how your, your passion into your work, which I think makes the work that much more enjoyable and meaningful. I’m curious to know, how do you approach professional athletes different from young people or is there a difference in your approach?

Jonathan  04:52

I think the main difference is that for professional athletes, everything happens in public, right? So not only do they play their sport in public, but a lot of their private life plays out in public as well. And so there has to be some care and consideration to the fact that they lack a sense of privacy that the average person has. And so when working with youth athletes, we can have conversations where we are able to fully unpack challenges or trials or tribulations a lot easier. But for professional athletes, we have to be aware about how we unpack these things, because they live so publicly so that they have the space and the resiliency to be able to cope and deal with it. That being said, their public lifestyle and their public persona really does give us an opportunity to leverage a lot of the leadership skills that they have, or leadership opportunities that are available for them. And also what sports provides in terms of resilience factors, it’s a great place, you’re involved with a bunch of people working towards a common goal, you’re able to experience loss or success in a constant daily battle or daily struggle, things of that nature. So there are resiliency factors as well as risk factors, and we try to mitigate that as much as possible.

Gene  06:02

Now, if I were a young person, under what circumstances would I find myself needing help from the sports psychologist and noting your book about child psychotherapy? How does psychotherapy come into play? Pun intended, when working with young people in sports, I imagine it has the same, some of the same principles as therapy in the office. But perhaps it’s somewhat different.

Jonathan  06:29

And I’m sure you both experienced this too. I think there’s a misconception that you use either a sports psychologist or clinical psychologist when things are trending downhill. And sports psychology offers the opportunity to get in front of people when things are just normative, or when things are really going well as well. And so promoting psychology as a anytime anyplace type of assistance, as opposed to, we only want to contact the therapist or clinician when things are trending downhill. And so that’s why one of the reasons why I love sports psychology because you can access it. And you can promote or encourage people to access it when they’re trending high as well. And that’s something that I leverage, and really try to take into the work that I do on the clinical side. When we’re talking about performance and excellence. We’re talking not only about achieving it, but how to maintain it. And performance and excellence does apply to, you know, sports and what you do with your body, but it’s also the mental health perspective, how can you be excellent? About how you do your mood management? How can you be excellent about how you do your self care? All those goals are just equally as important as it would be kicking a soccer ball or, or you know shooting a basketball?

Khadijah  07:38

What are some of the benefits to participating in organized sports? And is there a benefit? Is there a different benefit at different stages of life, for instance, is does a seven year old benefit from sports in the same way that a 16 year old benefits from sports?

Jonathan  07:52

It’s a great question. I think one of the benefits of sports is skill acquisition. As humans, one of the priorities that we have and one of the musts that we must do is we need to be refreshing our skill set so that we’re able to kind of maintain and exist in the world. And when you expose young people to sports and another opportunity for them to gain skills and go through the trials and tribulations to adapt to a challenge, so that they can have ways to build resistance. In reality, as much as parents and coaches and other people may resist this reality, sports aren’t really that important. They’re a luxury, they’re an opportunity to do something, it’s not life and death, even though it may feel like that at times. So when we have youth participating in sports, it gives them an opportunity to experience loss and to grieve and to bounce back or to rebound in ways and in situations that are not life and death that are not 100% serious. I’d rather than take risks playing sports than take risks in some social situations, or in situations with drugs and alcohol. So I think that that’s something that provides an avenue and an arena for people to do that. In terms of the age difference. There are ways in which person casuals eight at 16, and self actualized, excuse me at 16 that they can’t at seven, but that personality development, that resilience and what you’re going to try to build in terms of resilience for a seven year old. And what you’re going to build in terms of resilience for a 16 year old is going to be similar. With the 16 year olds, we’re building towards them, hopefully leaving the house soon and being able to take on the responsibilities as being chronologically identified as an adult in their environment. And with the seven year old, it’s really about trying and failing. But getting back up getting excited about the learning process getting excited about asserting themselves in an environment of sports.

Khadijah  09:38

And so we’re talking about sports in general. But if we break it down and think about if we’re talking about organized sports, you know, friendly play at recess, if you’re playing for neighborhood team or even if you’re just in gym class, are there different benefits that you can reap from those different ways in which you can engage in sports?

Jonathan  09:57

Sure. I don’t think everybody needs to play organized sport. Um I think there’s physiological and mental and emotional benefits of just being able to get a group together and be able to organize the game. So I’m an 80s baby, I’m 38 years old, hopefully don’t look like it. And I grew up in an era where we would just meet in the neighborhood and just figure out the game for ourselves, we would sometimes play basketball and sometimes play kickball. But we’d often play games that we’d invent on our own, come up with the own rules, come up with the way to evaluate the rules, and then just go and play. And so I think one of the things that this generation lacks, is that creativity to kind of come up with these spontaneous games on the spot, because there are a lot of things that are challenging for their attention, whether it be the tablet, or the phone, having those moments where you have to sit and create a game, come up with fair rules, and then judiciously play the game and experience the rules on either side, whether they benefit you or they don’t. It’s something that I think is a part of those unorganized activities. And then when it comes to organized sports, the commitment that’s involved to sign up for the team, do the tryout, make the team that you want or to not make the team that you want, and then follow through and have that commitment to play the entire season. We’re navigating the ups and the downs. I think that that’s something that’s important too in terms of building resilience, the frustration tolerance for both the young person and their potential parent or parents.

Gene  11:22

So we’ve talked about the benefits of participating in sports. But we also know that there are times when sports go from being from fun to simply being another source of stress for kids. And at what point should parents be concerned? And recognize when it’s too much? I mean, when are we pushing our kids too much?

Jonathan  11:47

It’s a great question. And I think it’s a hard question. What I would encourage any parent to do is to seek out advice, counsel, ask friends, ask the coach, ask a sports psychologist, we’re more than happy to consult on the situation. But when it’s becoming clinically significant when the sport is starting to interfere with the normal functioning of your child or the person that you’re thinking about, that’s when we really want to step in and help that young person reevaluate their relationship with sport. So there are obvious indicators for anybody of any gender, that could be inappropriate weight loss, that could be inappropriate exercising, that could be mood challenges, tantrums on the court that seem inappropriate, or on the field. Those are types of symptoms and sounds that might encourage us to further investigate the situation. But also could be the person becoming elite overnight, and getting a lot of attention and a lot of focus. So they might be performing well, they might manage it. But they might need an hour to talk about it privately and confidentiality with confidentiality, in terms of how their overnight success has really changed some of their relationships or changed the way that they view themselves.

Gene  12:56

So can you describe some other forms of stress that you’ve seen in kids with sports.

Jonathan  13:02

So I think a main one that we often forget about is physical exercise is physical stress. Right. So there’s a whole industry that’s based upon exercise, get up and move, do this, do that burn all these calories, and all these other things, and the AAU circuit and all these organized and unorganized sports. We have to acknowledge that it really is physical stress on the body. So if you have somebody who is going through puberty, going through a growth spurt, their diet is changing based upon their growth spurt or, and all these other things, you have all those biological internal things happening to their body. But then also, you’re putting the demand of 10 hours of practice on their body. You have a young person who’s going to a really high achieving school, and they have tons of homework. And so there’s a cognitive demand on their body, and then you’re putting this physical demand on their body as well. So we really need to figure out ways to kind of balance the social emotional demands or the cognitive demands that a young person is going through with the physical responsibilities that they have to go through for their sport as well. So we’re seeing this a little bit in some of the elite prep schools in the area where they’ve actually decided to reduce the amount of practice time in order to give young people more time to do their homework, or more time to rest and recover, particularly for those transition age, young people who are going through being bombarded with puberty and all these other things and changes just to help them have more time to recover. And it support their mood development but also support their development in the sport or the activity that they’re doing.

Gene  14:33

Now on the other on the other side of the coin. Could stress be a positive source of motivation? In other words, is there is there good stress that can actually help kids perform better?

Jonathan  14:49

I think exercise is great stress. I think it’s an opportunity to watch yourself grow and develop both mentally and emotionally. I love to lift weights. And I think one of the things that I valued from lifting weights is I could chart the amount of weight that I could lift last year at this time. And I could look at the amount of weight that I could live or lift at this time, there’s a year later, and there’s going to be growth, hopefully, on that curve. But in the moment, a year ago, I might not have recognized how strong how powerful, how much positive change I could have now if I stuck to it. But longitudinally, lifting weights is a great opportunity to see what actually happens when you commit yourself to something in a way that’s disciplined, in a way that’s organized, in a way that’s thorough. Same thing happens to sports for hopefully, a lot of people, they have an opportunity to begin a sport, get an initiation to it. And then if they are able to maintain that relationship with sports for a long time, there’s an opportunity to see how far they develop. And for me, in particular, when it comes to lacrosse, I can’t even count how many relationships and how many opportunities I had through the sport of lacrosse, just because I played lacrosse. And for anybody who plays a sport, whether it’s an e-sport, or a non e-sport, being a part of that community and being insulated and held and supported by that community, on top of the other communities that you’re involved in, can bring a lot of benefit, particularly when things go south, and you’re experiencing stress in your life.

Khadijah  16:21

But let’s shift gears just a little bit. And let’s talk about the parents. And really, we really aren’t just talking about parents, but we could be talking about aunties, uncles, grandparents. But we know when we are at these games, and they are maybe overly invested, they’re yelling and screaming on the sidelines. They’re screaming at the players, they’re screaming at their own child, they might be screaming, you know, at the refs. What are some other ways that these individuals can challenge this energy and this investment in a more positive way? And what are some things they just should not do?

Jonathan  16:54

Yeah, I mean, I think that’s tough conversation to have. I’m a dad of a four year old right now, and I romantically look towards when he hopefully has a relationship with sports. And my ability to watch him go out there, because I had such good experience going out there, and so did my partner. But I think for a lot of parents, we need to recognize that our job as parents, when it comes to a lot of these extracurricular activities, is to set the table, provide the opportunity for your young person to engage with a sport, or music or an art, or whatever it might be, and then allow them to make of it what they need to make of it. And our job is to encourage, is to motivate, is to consult when asked for it. But a part of that, too, is to make sure that we’re giving them the appropriate support system to engage in that activity as well. So how is the coach? How are the teammates? How’s the commute to the team so that we’re reducing the burden on the young person to do the sport and do their homework at night. So being able to take all those things into consideration can be beneficial. And then as a society, unfortunately, we’ve really been taught and conditioned to take out our stress on sports, whether we’re the athlete participating, but particularly if we’re in the audience, and we’re the fans. So really, I think for parents, we need to have like a total reevaluation of how we treat athletes in general. Because when I’m on the sideline for a professional sporting event, and I hear some of the horrible things that some of the fans say when they’re upset when the team is not performing well. It’s disheartening, because what do you think is how do you think the professional athlete doesn’t know that they messed up? Do you think the professional athlete isn’t trying to do their best. And so in a similar fashion, we need to have some of those conversations with the parents. Obviously, if somebody’s being unsportsmanlike, or on sports person, like to your your youth on the field, that’s one thing, but in the context of it being a game that is played that will be played million times over the course of your young person’s life, we need to put in perspective, what we’re prioritizing with our comments. And also what we’re trying to support with our comments as well.

Khadijah  19:07

It is hard sometimes to sit in the crowd and be around all of that super negative, and sometimes even hostile energy. And so what do you do as a coach or as a consultant, in terms of guiding parents in the right way to be on the sidelines, like how to best support their child or the team or even the coach from the sidelines?

Jonathan  19:30

Just reminding them about some of the tenants of communication. So one being, you’re on the sideline, you’re not moving, let’s just use a soccer example, right? You’re on the sideline, you’re not moving, your heart rates up. You’re reacting and communicating to people on the field. The people on the field, their heart rates even higher than yours. So they’re stressed, they’re in fight or flight response because they’re moving around trying to figure out and negotiate. They’re also moving physically through space, so it’s going to be harder for them to hear you because at one point they’re going to be 50 yards away from you, at one point, they’re gonna be five yards away from you. They’re trying to, you know, trap the ball, try to catch the ball, throw the ball, do all these different things, and you’re yelling instruction to them, and you’re upset that they can’t hear you or they’re not putting your instruction into play when also their coach is yelling at them, their teammates are yelling at them, the opponents are yelling, all this data and information is being thrown at them and being bombarded at a adolescent or at a youth. And you’re surprised that they’re not listening to you? They’re trying to do the best that they can to navigate the skill in the sport that you know, if somebody’s 10 years old, and they’ve played soccer for three years, I got clothes in my laundry that are that are older than three, not in my laundry in my closet that are older than three years. So the idea that a lot of these young people have not been doing these sports long enough to gain mastery in them yet, but we’re treating them as if they are young professional athletes, we are treating them as if they are all stars on a little league team when we really need to remember that, you know, if you have a 10 year old, like your person has only been in elementary school for X number of years, they probably only been playing their sport seriously for less than that. And we really need to give them some grace and some guidance. And again, set the table. How do I make this experience enjoyable for my youth? And then also when they perform well, or they don’t perform well, how can I give them the support and the data to help them continue to progress in the way that they want to. I might grow up or my son might grow up, and I might have to acknowledge that he might not want to talk to me about the games that he’s playing or the sports that he’s playing. He might not want my advice. I have to be okay with that with my own ego, and with my own relationship with my son and know that by not, you know, harassing him as soon as the game’s over about what he did well, or what he didn’t, is going to help him have a better relationship with the sport.

Gene  21:53

So we have a question from a parent. My son is a sophomore in high school and was recently put on the JV basketball team. He initially had no problem with this until he learned that he was the only sophomore that had not been moved up to varsity. He was absolutely devastated. Socially, this is a disaster. What should I do as a parent to help? Should I contact the school on his behalf? Or would that make it worse?

Jonathan  22:20

So Junior Varsity is emotional in a positive way thing for me. So I went to Roxbury Latin. I’m a local kid here. And I didn’t make Varsity of lacrosse until senior year. So junior year, I came up with the moniker because it hurt my feelings, right? A lot of the people that were in my class, were on varsity. So I had a really good coach. And we came up with this moniker that I was the self proclaimed most prolific scorer in JV lacrosse history. Because I had a lot of goals. I was there for a long time, because I didn’t make Varsity. And something that initially stung to something that became a source of pride. I took it upon myself to make that team as successful as possible. I took it upon myself to make myself a leader on that team, somebody that would help these players develop into eventual varsity athletes. So that that following year when some of the people on JV went with me, they knew what was up, they saw me as a leader, and were able to get the job done when we’re on varsity. So I think transitioning from a goal that’s lost to a goal that’s still able to be obtained, is important for that young person. And instead of focusing on what does no longer remains, being able to illuminate to them what does remain, it still remains an opportunity to play the sport that you love. It remains an opportunity for you to make the JV team, the best JV team, it could be in school history, or in your league, it could be the best opportunity you could have to develop. And given that they’re a sophomore, there are going to be many more years that you can be on varsity and have an opportunity to make that varsity impact that you want. And with certain sports like a basketball or football. They are not necessarily baseball, but basketball and football in particular, a lot time a lot of times those rosters will move throughout the course of the season. So if he’s doing a fantastic job on JV, and he’s getting a ton of points or playing great, great defense, the varsity coach is going to recognize that and maybe he’ll be able to move up but even if he doesn’t, or she doesn’t, the opportunity for that person to take that moment in time to develop as an athlete, to galvanize their teammates, and go out and try to be as successful as possible is a great opportunity because particularly at MGH sports psychology, my mentor Dr. Steve Durant, always has this idea of every game is a gift. And so if you had the opportunity to step on the field or to compete, or to show off your talents, that’s a gift because one day you won’t be able to do it. And so even if it doesn’t happen on the team or in the environment that you want it to, you’re playing in a consolation round, you’re playing in the quote unquote losers bracket kid, you’re playing on JV when you thought you’re going to be on varsity, taking up the opportunity to be a healthy body, to be able to move in space, to be able to play with your friends, to be able to accomplish this goal and have fun. There’s so much of life that we take, that’s not fun. But to really remind yourself about the opportunities that sport is supposed to bring you this feeling of euphoria, this feeling of togetherness, connectedness, and we really need to tap into that. I also would not call the coach.

Gene  25:28

I think I think what’s what Steve and Richard Ginsburg, have taught us at MGH, in sports psychology is exactly what you’re saying. And that is that, you know, it’s a game. You’re supposed to have fun, you want to learn skills, you want to be a member of a team, but you want to make the most of it, you want to really have fun. I mean, sports are about yes, it’s about winning, it’s about competition. But But if the fun element isn’t a part of it, then it’s what’s the point?

Jonathan  25:59

Right, right. And to take Steve as an example, in terms of the experiences he’s had and experiences that I have, and I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this. But he’s a he’s a teddy bear at heart. Even though he’s from Dorchester, he’s a teddy bear at heart. And so his ability to have such a kind, gentle soul while playing a violent sport, like rugby, and I did three amateur boxing fights. So for me to have a kind, teddy bear type soul, but to punch somebody in the face repeatedly. That ability to have that dichotomy comes from an understanding and appreciation for self, the gratitude of the situation, and being able to toe the line of doing something inherently that your mind wouldn’t want you to do. But being able to do it in a way that’s controlled, that acknowledges the person who’s in the ring with you, or for Steve, the person who’s on the rugby field with you, but still be able to perform to the best of your abilities, and to give yourself and your opponent, the best of yourself so that in that competition, you are honoring the competition, not only the people who for me, not only the people who will box after me, but the people who have boxxed before me, and also honoring myself that if I’m going to train this hard, if I’m going to do this type of strict dieting, if I’m going to allow other people to hit me in my face, then I’m going to hit back with a level of ferocity that is appropriate. And that speaks to what I’m capable of doing. And I think that that is something particularly for young people, young people may shy away from being that assertive in sports allows you that opportunity to be able to go there, but also learn how to go back. Me learning how to box made me better at de-escalating my aggression, when I get super angry. I’m sure Steve learned playing rugby for however long he played, that helped him better get to that aggressive place, but also come down from that aggressive place. And building that that better sense of self awareness is really important for anybody of any age, but particularly for young people, as they work on trying to control and understand their impulsivity and their relationship with anger.

Gene  28:00

I won’t I won’t get I won’t get too political here. But what you’re saying is that I we don’t see enough up today is to love and respect your opponent.

Jonathan  28:12


Gene  28:12

You know, I mean, what a beautiful concept that is. And I wish we saw more of that. That’s just a comment. Khadijah, I interrupted you. I’m sorry.

Khadijah  28:22

No, no, I think it’s a great segue to talk about the gift of sports and the the honor and privilege to be able to play because they’ll come a time where maybe you won’t be able to play and thinking about kids who are so tightly connected, their identities and their self esteem is so tightly connected to the sports that they play, and how do we support athletes, young athletes when they get hurt, because it is sometimes pretty devastating. They might be out for a couple of games, or they might be out for an entire season, or in the most extreme circumstances, they might not be able to play the sport again. So how do we support these young people, when they face injuries and help them to be able to approach it and look at it through the lens of gratitude?

Jonathan  29:05

Yeah, I agree with that. I think one of the things that we forget, but we know but we forget, we have to remember is that injuries are traumatic, right? Injuries, follow the definition of a trauma, everything’s going all right. And then something happens which radically changes your day, your life, your week, whatever. And so we have to deal with the physical trauma of an injury. You turn one way you experience tremendous pain, discomfort, loss of consciousness, whatever it might be. And now you’re in panic mode, your body’s in panic mode, your mind is in panic mode, because you don’t know what happened. And you may have done that move a million times. You may have played your sport a million times, but that one time you did it, there was a negative outcome that is traumatic. We get we the 24 hour news cycle just helps us with injury updates, so and so got an injury so so got an injury, so and so got an injury. So we treat it as a commonality. And I think we lose attachment to what an injury actually is. An injury is physical harm perpetrated on the body. So when a young person is injured, we don’t initially we don’t need to care about how long they’re going to be out, we need to deal with the pain management and, and the trauma and the sadness of just being in pain, not being able to move and being bewildered about what just happened. Because for most of the times, people don’t know they’re about to get injured, they just end up getting injured. And so we need to address that first. And so when it’s particularly at MGH, we take more of a trauma focused approach to injury recovery, where we work through that stuff first, help the person understand what happened from a journalistic standpoint, what happened from a medical standpoint, so the force you put on your knee, and when you twist it this way, cause this to break or this to rupture. And then we start talking about getting back. But we do it in a developmental approach where the day after the surgery, we’re not necessarily talking about playing, we’re talking about, okay, let’s hit these steps, let’s hit these incremental goals so that not only hopefully you can play later on, but we want you to be healthy. We want you to be able to use your body for the rest of your life in as much of an appropriate or similar way you could be for the injury. And so when we take that approach, we acknowledge the whole person as opposed to just the athlete. And we find that that’s better. Excuse me, when a person’s injured, we kind of think about, okay, we’re going to reduce the amount of the pie chart that’s focused on sports. Now there’s a vacuum of free space available. What do we want to use for that free space, because you may have dedicated, particularly a professional athlete, they dedicate so many hours to their craft every week, or every day. Now they have to dedicate less because they physically are unable to compete, or they’re injured. So what can we do with that time? Hey, do you want to get your college degree? Hey, do you want to spend more time with your kids? Hey, do you want to work on your finances or work on some of your marketing opportunities? Do you want to learn your position better? Do you have time to dedicate to your teammates, so figuring out what’s of interest to them, and then getting enthusiastic about it just like we would get enthusiastic about them playing on the field or them playing on the floor. And then also get them to understand that your injury, particularly for professional athletes, is a preview of what it’s going to be like when you are no longer physically able to play anymore when you’re retiring. So let’s use some of this time to preview what comes up for you what thoughts, feelings, emotions, what behaviors come up good or bad? And how do we prepare for that eventual day because we have, we’re fortunate to kind of have a preview of it while you’re dealing with this, let’s say a month long, week long, or months long injury,

Khadijah  32:48

That that’s an awesome way to approach it. Because when you see an athlete been injured on TV, the focus is purely about how long will they be out, when they when will they be able to return to the game. And we do know, for so many that when they leave the sport that is such a difficult challenging period for them. But but just going back to the younger people, how do we help them to develop a sense of identity, and to build their sense of self worth that’s not so tightly connected to the sport.

Jonathan  33:15

I mean, I think I think that starts pre injury, I’ve always been a supporter of the idea of trying to build Renaissance youth. So the person who can run, catch, throw but also can doodle a little bit, can you know hum a few bars of a song, can give us public talk. So really kind of getting a 360 view of the capabilities of the person so that when Plan A hits a dead end or the doors locked or whatever there’s Plan B and Plan C that the person also feels confident and comfortable in. When we find is when a child specializes in a sport too early. And then for whatever reason they experienced a roadblock in it. So in tennis for me, I was going to not go to college if I’m just going to either go for tennis or not go to college, which was a tough conversation in my household. Then I broke my toe and I couldn’t play hardcore sports for a while. If I didn’t have other things that I could rely upon from a confidence standpoint and a this still makes me me standpoint, I would have been in big trouble. But because I was born and developed and raised in that way of thinking of being a renaissance person, I had other things to fall back on and so, when a young person is first adopting or getting involved in sports, we want to encourage the parents too to say find some non sports activities for this person to get involved with. Find some non sport friends for this person to get connected with, find some non sports, physical activities for them to do so that they can just remain healthy and not only have the only relationship they have with health and wellness be playing their sports or not the only relationship they have with social relationships be the teammates that they play with.

Khadijah  34:56

So as they’re finding and develop these non sports activities and connection which I think is super important. How do we or is there a way for them to also stay connected to the game or to their teammates, even if they can’t play due to injury?

Jonathan  35:08

I think it’s a great opportunity to see the game from another perspective. I think a lot of people are used to seeing it on the field, on the ice, on the court. But when you are on the bench, and you’re, you’re taken away from it, and you can watch it from that vantage point of, again, physiologically, your heart rates lower, your body’s not moving, you’re able to hear and see things a little bit differently if you have those abilities. And so it provides people with the opportunity to experience the game differently. And that could give them the sense of Hmm, maybe I really like coaching the sport, or maybe I’d love to work in this industry, when I’m done playing with a sport. And so getting other senses of the communities around that support the team as opposed to just, I’m an athlete, because, you know, I never knew I’d be working with professional sports, you know, after college and after grad school, but that’s where I am. And so I think for a lot of people who are athletes, very few of them are going to be professional athletes. But there are so many jobs within sports, and even in non sport environments, where the skills and the traits that you have to cultivate to be a good athlete are praised and are sought highly in those fields and in those environments.

Khadijah  36:24

So as we wrap up, you gave us some really great tips about how we can begin to expand kids exposures, help them develop their identity outside of sports and build up their self esteem and self worth, is there anything else that you would give in terms of tips to parents about how they can create a more positive relationship between sports and mental health?

Jonathan  36:44

I think if parents haven’t experienced playing sports, or in their past, really just sharing that with young people, I think young people, including myself, when I was young, I thought my parents were perfect when it came to sports just because I knew they played sports, but being able to kind of talk to them about some of the trials and tribulations that they had while playing maybe challenges with a coach or challenges with teammates or challenges, managing loss kind of normalizes things and then may make that young person more willing to get help either from their parent or from a provider like myself when they encounter those situations. So again, reducing the expectation for your young person that you expect them to be perfect. And acknowledge the fact that sports requires some element of error so that you can learn and develop and grow.

Gene  37:28

Awesome. All right. Well, thanks, JJ. We hope this has been informative and helpful conversation. I certainly have learned quite a bit. To wrap up on a positive note. JJ, what’s something you’re looking forward to over the next week or so?

Jonathan  37:48

It’s a great question. I’m actually working right now on a project to support underrepresented groups in Gulf. And so I’m going to be working more on that project. And it’s exciting because I think we’re going to try to not only get more underrepresented people in golf, so that includes right now, female golfers and golfers of color, but we’re also going to give them a platform to tell their stories and, and really get excited about building that community. So that’s something that I’m working on this next week, and also spending time with my little guy. We call him Bubba, but his name is Ford is always always a pleasure. So I love doing that and hopefully I’ll get more and more opportunity to do that this week.

Gene  38:29

Well, thanks, everybody. Don’t forget that episodes will be airing every third Thursday of the month. Make sure to subscribe so that you never miss an episode. And we hope that our conversation helps you have yours. I’m Gene Beresin.

Khadijah  38:45

And I’m Khadijah Booth Watkins. That’s all folks.


Jonathan  39:05

And it’s only going to be about like 20 minutes right? Total? After probably

Gene  39:09

We’ll probably talk for about

Khadijah  39:10

You know, it depends on it all depends on Gene.

Gene  39:15

Why you mean I talk to are you saying I talked too much?

Khadijah  39:17

I didn’t that’s not what I said.

Gene  39:21


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Khadijah Booth Watkins

Khadijah Booth Watkins, Associate Director

Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH, is associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and the Associate Director of the Child and...

To learn more about Khadijah, or to contact her directly, please see Our Team.

Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.