VERO BEACH, Fla. -- An athlete can only go as far as their mental health takes them.
Mental health is as important as it has ever been for young athletes. Without the necessary resources or people to talk to, a negative impact can go beyond the field. Even professional athletes can struggle.
At the recently completed Nike RBI World Series, players’ mental health moved to the forefront. MLB held its first mental wellness activity day for the eight participating teams.
The activities included a petting zoo, MLB The Show on Xbox, Jenga, and cornhole. The athletes also created vision boards based on Jackie Robinson’s values, including courage, determination and commitment.
For April Brown, MLB’s senior vice president of social responsibility, activities to help athletes foster mental wellness have become especially important on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The league saw that our young players were really suffering,” Brown said. “Rates of anxiety and depression were very high, and a lot of teens were diagnosed with poor mental health. We wanted to make sure that we used the power of baseball [and softball] off the field and on the field to help our athletes and help youth around the country.”
Other services include MLB partnering with Crisis Text Line. Players can text MLB to 741-741 to be connected with a trained volunteer crisis counselor to receive support in English or Spanish.
“That’s the way that we can use the power of our sport to give back to our young people,” Brown said. “It’s incredibly important to the league.”
“It’s a great idea, especially with how we’ve grown up,” said Karley Clark, a 17-year-old catcher for the Cincinnati Reds Nike RBI team. “We have all this stuff that’s more piled on us than our parents had when they were young. I think it’s a really good idea, and it really helps broaden what MLB does and gives us a better opportunity of stuff that we can use in the real world and not just on the softball field.”
Along with the activities -- designed as examples of how to incorporate positive, fun distractions to help destress -- players in the Nike RBI World Series viewed a video from Angels center fielder Mike Trout, Staten Island FerryHawks pitcher Kelsie Whitmore (the first woman to play in the Atlantic League) and professional softball player and MLB Network personality A.J. Andrews. The video set the tone as to why the athletes were participating and send a message that it’s OK -- and very common -- to feel stress.
Krystal Martinez, a 16-year-old first baseman for the Miami Marlins Nike RBI team, said seeing those players showed her that she and her teammates aren’t the only ones who struggle with pressure.
“We’re not alone,” she said. “Even Major League players and adults struggle with mental health as well, not just us.”
Martinez also spoke about the importance of she and her teammates having healthy outlets to tap into after the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Individually, it also showed her the importance of self-worth.
“My biggest takeaway from today was to have courage and believe in myself,” Martinez said. “I’ve been struggling with that a lot. I’ve been stressing out, and I haven’t been relaxed while playing the game that I love. I’m glad that we had this here, and that we got to bond with our teammates.”
Mackenzie Mercado, a second baseman for the Cleveland Guardians Nike RBI team, said her biggest lesson reminded her of why people play sports in the first place.
“Have fun,” Mercado said. “It’s a game. Everybody’s playing the same game with the same competition. If you just get down on yourself, you’re not going to have fun. You’re not going to enjoy yourself.
“So just have fun.”