The changes seen in youth hockey over a generation have been significant.

Social media, early specialization, personalized instruction, endless offseason teams and training opportunities, along with more involved parents, have created a climate whose effect on young athletes psychological development is still being understood.

Expectations are different, as is training, both in hours spent and in its efficiency.

But along with the higher stakes of youth hockey and its new challenges comes a new and emerging mindset about caring for and nurturing the mental side of player development, along with a growing quiver of available tools that are becoming more needed and more utilized.

More and more, the message is sent that it’s OK not to be OK. Needing to talk about a personal difficulty or feelings is not weakness or complaining. It’s more like processing, an essential part of human development, though it has not always been viewed that way.

“For me, growing up as a hockey player, that was always the toughest thing,” said Elk River native and former Gopher, NHLer and U.S. Olympian Paul Martin. “You want to be tough and don’t want to talk about your feelings or express your emotions; you just battle through it. Over time, that really wore me out in terms of my mental, physical and emotional health. By the end of my career, I was really, really spent.”

Speaking Up

Nearly a decade ago, towards the end of a decorated career that put him in 870 NHL games and three Olympics, Martin founded the Shine A Ligh7 Foundation. The group is big on raising awareness, music therapy, anti-bullying, and, above all, talking about it. It also stemmed from a place of loss, as Martin saw two cousins and a close friend all lose their battle to mental illness in a short span, and he became committed to speaking up and acting on the matter.

With Shine a Ligh7 and other groups like Sophie’s Squad, Martin is a part of a new movement in hockey and youth sports where discussion on mental fitness is normalized. It’s the local voices in a bigger movement.

“When you see athletes like Michael Phelps and Naomi Osaka speaking up with their struggles and saying that they are not in the right mindframe to compete right now, it begins to normalize this thing called life that we are all going through and all trying to do our best to manage it,” Martin said.

Talking about it and seeking help can be difficult for athletes, says Hans Skulstad, a sports psychotherapist who does work with Minnesota Hockey, the Hobey Baker Foundation, and athletes of all levels at his Center for Sports and the Mind.

“It’s hard for athletes to wrap their heads around because they want to think they were born in a log cabin they built themselves,” Skulstad says. “So (Phelps and other professional athletes) talking about it greatly helps to reduce that stigma.”

Unchecked anxiety and depression can manifest in athletic performance, often preventing a player from reaching his or her full potential. But that’s just one part of it.

“It can keep you from being consistent, and the worst-case scenario is that you act out on the ice and it comes out sideways somehow or in a crisis,” Skulstad says of players. “But where I’m more concerned about it is with coaches. If left unchecked, they end up doing hurtful or abusive things without really being aware.”

For youth players and adults, it is important to talk through challenges and not just keep them bottled up.

“Talk about it, and talk about what’s going on with you,” Skulstad says. “Educate yourself on the myths and the stigma, and be open-minded. There are losses and traumas that will happen to you throughout your life that will trigger a grief or a depressive response. So, it’s important to talk about it, educate yourself about it, and learn how to have those conversations with people.”

The Mind Is a Muscle

Skulstad says a lot of the stigma stems from the way we originally treated mental health. Primitive attitudes and doctors who did not know how to treat mental illness resulted in mistreatment. And though we’ve come a long way from the dark ages of studying mental health, myths linger like it is untreatable, ‘you either have mental health or you don’t,’ or that if you struggle with it, you are broken or weak somehow. 

Barriers still exist besides the stigma attached. Though growing, there is a lack of trained practitioners available, and support and resources at schools vary from district to district. But perhaps the biggest barrier for some people is the willingness to be open to the idea that they or a loved one needs some help, as well as the willingness to find that out on your own and experiment with our own tools to find what works for you.

“It takes a willingness to try new things,” Martin says. “Maybe not something they have taken seriously until they do it for a while and begin to see the benefits for themselves.”

Mental fitness takes effort. Mental fitness means staying active with movement, being outside, and regular exercise, along with getting enough sleep and eating well. There are other self-regulation tools Martin likes to use, such as yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and journaling to get thoughts out, and he keeps a gratitude journal of three things to be thankful for every day.

“The mind is a muscle, and to be physically fit, you have to train and work out. If something is damaged or a muscle is torn, that is going to affect your performance,” Martin said. “The way that we prepare our mind and the tools we use to stay sharp…it’s mental fitness and what you are doing to improve your mindset and your health.”