Why Today’s Athletes Are Lonely & What to Do About It

I’m not sure what you think NBA players do between games, but my guess is, it’s wrong. Those young players are not merely signing autographs, attending parties in their honor and soaking up culture and society.

According to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, many of them are lonely. In fact, Silver plainly said that supporting players’ mental health is an ongoing initiative; too many of those players are “truly unhappy people.”

What? With all the money and fame? Are you kidding?

No one is kidding about this matter. Silver commented that when he’s with players, the young men are not talking to each other; they have headphones on. They are alone, even in a crowd. Unlike the camaraderie that took place on the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s when Michael Jordan led the team, today’s players often act like free agents who pay more attention to what’s being said about them on social media than working on bonding with their teammates. It’s not that they don’t like each other, although many are jealous of each other. It’s that today’s 20-somethings grew up in very different times. Being “social” in today’s world is something you learn to do “in solitude” on your smart phone. Too often, today’s players are isolated, with their heads down, looking at their phones.

In an interview with MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Silver said, “Things are different now.” Referencing a conversation he had with a superstar player earlier this season, Silver said the player’s unhappiness and isolation were “to the point where it’s almost pathologic.’’

“He said to me, ‘From the time I get on the plane to when I show up in the arena for the game, I won’t see a single person,’” Silver relayed. “There was a deep sadness around him.’’

Four Steps Coaches Can Take

By the way, it’s not just basketball players. When I speak to coaches and athletes from many sports, both college and professional players relay the same thing. Most have never been taught to “master” social media and to simply be “social.”

So, let me offer some leadership thoughts to consider.

1. Begin with the data.

Most players have likely not read the research on what social media does to our brains. Dr. Jean Twenge has collated the data from the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) and noted the rise in anxiety among teens and young adults over the decades. It won’t surprise you that anxiety and depression have increased sharply in the last decade, and it directly parallels the rise in social media. She found that when people spend more than two hours a day on social media platforms, they become vulnerable to anxiety, sadness and depression. Under two hours, doesn’t seem to affect users as much. This is insightful. When young athletes accumulate too much time on portable devices, they’re apt to see “armchair quarterbacks” insulting them or photos of someone having a better day than they are, and they experience FOMO. Why not talk about building discipline to keep their time under two hours daily.

2. Set boundaries when together.

As a coach, you can’t govern every moment of their personal lives. You can, however, lead them when they are together as a team—in the locker room and on the court, field or pool. I suggest you have a basket to store phones inside the locker room for practices, halftime and team time. Make it an NPZ: No Phone Zone. Recently, I spoke to some NFL football coaches who said their players are checking what viewers and fans say after games and it’s causing them to spiral into angst or depression. Another coach said during halftime, his professional players are on their phones in the locker room instead of connecting with teammates and collaborating on what happened in the first half. While waiting for their coach’s direction—they’re alone with a phone. We need healthy boundaries to be present in order to experience peace of mind.

3. Foster camaraderie.

Because anyone under 25-years old has probably had a phone since they were a young teen, they’ve learned to be social on a portable device, but perhaps not face- to-face. I believe coaches will get better teamwork and collaboration by planning times for relationships to form. Plan time, apart from practices and drills, for games (outside of their sport) and for emotional transparency where they get real and personal. Leaders must model this before teammates will participate. The teams that win championships usually build genuine friendships along the way. Have players over to your house; take a short trip for fun; attend a wedding or a funeral and talk about it afterward. This is the “stuff” that fosters reflection on what really matters. Humans are social creatures and are happiest in real communities, not artificial ones. 

4. Teach them self-leadership.

The first person every one of us must lead is ourselves: the man or woman in the mirror. Unfortunately, this is the toughest person in the world to lead. We can always talk ourselves into or out of decisions. We often lead ourselves with our “heart” and we lead others with our “head.” By this, I mean we are harder on others than we are ourselves because we know what a tough day we just had. Here are some simple rules for self-leadership:

  • We Must Overcome Self-Deception

We must tell ourselves the truth about ourselves—even when we don’t like it. Because no one enjoys “feeling bad about me,” we often lie to ourselves.

  • We Must Overcome Impulsive Behavior

We must choose what we want most over what we want now; to recognize and defeat our appetites; to talk to ourselves instead of listen to ourselves.

  • We Must Overcome Isolation

We must never try to lead ourselves by ourselves. We need accountability from peers who we trust and respect. We always do better when watched.

The fact is, we need “authentic community” not “virtual community.” And this takes discipline. One of our Habitudes® is called, “The Discipline Bridge.” It simply reminds us that any goal we hope to reach in life, we’ll likely have to cross a bridge called “discipline.” Luck won’t get us there; winning the lottery won’t get us there; leaving friendships to chance usually can’t get us there. Let’s choose to put down our phones and build some genuine, anxiety-free relationships.

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Why Today’s Athletes Are Lonely & What to Do About It