By Rodney Wilson

I’m a ham man. I could eat slices of spiral ham until the proverbial cows come home. My wife does up a lovely goose on occasion, but it’s not the same. I surround said ham with all the usual fixings and get at it. I often question the weight capacity of the fancy plates that we bring out for family dinners as I travel from kitchen to table. They seem to hold up well.

I’m a full plate person in life too. I can’t take up the entire blog with the list of things that I do in a normal day, suffice to say that if I ate the equivalent in food, I’d be in the grave already.

I have often remarked to young athletes that they need to look at everything that is on their ‘plate’ in life and understand what that does to body, mind, and performance. A plate full of wonderful activities, people, and past times is absolutely fantastic, but the give and take that is necessary to make room on the plate needs to be understood. For example, if you are sacrificing practice for PlayStation, you need to understand that your performance may not be at its peak. The same can be said for homework versus socializing, sleep versus movies, the list continues.

One of the major issues that needs to be addressed in our youth athlete culture is mental health – the tiny green pea on the plate of life for many of our young athletes. A positive state of mental health for young athletes needs to be supported by adequate rest, sleep, nutrition and coping skills. How many of those factors do we address on a daily, weekly, monthly or even annual basis? Does the typical hockey or basketball team practice coping skills during the week? Do coaches send their kids home with ‘rest’ homework?

In my sessions, I take the first few minutes to ask my kids about their day, homework, assignments, practices etc., and have a conversation with them if something is particularly troublesome. It’s an open forum for the most part, so I know that there will be issues that will not be broached in such a setting. But it’s important for kids to be able to talk openly with their peers about the daily grind. I often ask the athletes about their sleep patterns and usually end up shaking my head at the answers. I haven’t stayed up until midnight on purpose for years!

If I add up the items on the plate for these kids, it’s overwhelming: school, daily practice, daily workouts, boy/girlfriend, homework, family time, social time, tournaments, games, part time work and any other number of things. Balancing the relative size of each of the items on the plate makes things jump out even more. When sports take up half the plate, all the other parts of life have to shrink or disappear. Just imagine trying to stuff some form of mental relaxation training or yoga into the mix. Then we end up with an all you can eat buffet style plate that gets layer upon layer of good things to the point that you can’t even tell what’s on the bottom.

So why can’t we keep piling enjoyable things on the plate? What’s the problem? Well, the plate of a child or teenager is made of paper, not fine china. It is susceptible to weakness and can buckle if the weight gets to be too much. Remember, we don’t teach coping skills as a foundation of our educational system. We don’t arm our children with stress reduction techniques, social skills development, or mental skills training from an early age. In fact, most adults are blissfully ignorant of these aspects of successful life. That often makes me question the medicated state of our society. Would anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications be the most commonly prescribed drugs that hinge a multi-billion dollar industry if we were all taught the importance of mental health from an early age? But I digress.

What to do?

We need to make our young athletes aware of whatever analogy we can that covers the ‘full plate’ scenario. They need to understand that as the pile gets bigger, heavier and more demanding, even though it’s all good food, the plate can only handle so much. We need to teach them that it’s OK to shift the items on the plate from time to time and that we can prioritize new parts of the plate when we need to.

As many young athletes enter high school, the balance needs to shift to school. For that to happen, some part of the full plate needs to take a cut. That could mean one less practice per week or perhaps better use of a spare period during school. That’s OK.

Big picture, you will be a more successful athlete if you strike a balance instead of buckling your paper plate.

Rodney Wilson is a conditioning coach at Conquer Training (Kingston, ON) and former Head Strength Coach at Queen’s University, with years of experience developing complete athletes. In his free time Rodney trains for ultra marathons and drives his daughters to every activity under the sun.

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