Opinion: Sports might save San Diego youth from the pandemic blues. Here’s how we can help them.

Tuohey is founder of Intellectual Athlete, a fitness company focused on sport, play and mindfulness. He also founded PeacePlayers, which uses basketball for peacebuilding. He lives in Solana Beach.

Driving to work the other day, I heard a story on NPR about the mental health crisis in Colorado. The leading children’s hospital there had declared a pediatric mental health emergency. A local doctor explained that the youth in Colorado have run out of resilience — tapped out, the doctor said, with “nothing left in their tanks.” Students interviewed were demanding safe spaces in schools to decompress and asked that mental health be a top priority as early as in elementary school.

As a father of two school-age children, it broke my heart to hear about those kids struggling. But the irony of the situation was not lost on me either. I was headed to an elementary school to pilot a mental health intervention.

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Schools across the United States have Cares Act funding available to them, which is earmarked for things like social emotional learning and trauma-informed care. The funding helps schools to hire more counselors, invest in better screening tools and deploy mindfulness apps to prepare for the upcoming school year. The need is there, but not all schools know this funding is available to them, or have staff devoted to obtaining these resources.

The approach of Intellectual Athlete, the fitness company I founded, is physiological rather than clinical. We harness the therapeutic core of sport and play to help young people learn how to self-regulate. Sport and play get the kids amped, breathing techniques bring them back down. A lot of programs use sport and then try to layer on things that make it what they want it to be. We want to capitalize on moments where kids can take a time-out, a deep breath, and calm their bodies and minds.

Our instructors are performance coaches, and as such they operate more like lifeguards than traditional youth sport coaches. The model allows space for children to negotiate disputes and learn to solve problems while encouraging them to test their limits. A central part of the process is our focus on breathing techniques which have been proven effective in strengthening resilience in children. We name this process for the kids, and we repeat it, until awareness and breathing become their instinctive response when stressed.

We first piloted Intellectual Athlete back in February 2020 at Ibarra Elementary in City Heights, a time when there was collective anxiety around bullying, school shootings and social media pressures. Then came the pandemic. When schools opened back up this April, Principal MC Patton invited us back to continue our pilot with the added focus: to combat the long psychological tail of COVID-19.

Cultural barriers can add to the complications of deploying mental health programming in schools. For example, our program did not have interviewers who spoke Korean, Burmese or Farsi, and struggled with these populations because of it. And, of course, necessary precautions for COVID-19 also impact the effectiveness of our programs. Pre-interviews with teachers were limited by the fact that these teachers had only been working with the kids in person for about a week when we started. I personally struggled with learning all the kids’ names and using their names as much as possible during the practice session followed by a compliment. A comment like “Great shot, Sira!” is like giving these kids gold; but creating a personal connection through masks and social distance remains difficult.

Even with all these hurdles, the program showed evidence of success. The level of gratitude our kids showed up with every day for practice and play makes me believe that the youth of San Diego are not tapped out like those in Colorado. Maybe it is the sunshine and water, or maybe we are witnessing a collective level of resilience that will shape our future. This is in no way meant to minimize the situation with youth in Colorado. But for the youth of San Diego County, a reframing might be appropriate.

In Chinese, the word crisis consists of two brush strokes, one represents danger and the other opportunity, and this duality may be the type of reframing we need. COVID-19 provided acute danger and risk for our generation of youth, forcing them to isolate at a time though they are wired to be social. Through effective interventions, there may also be opportunities for young people to grow significantly because of this crisis and be better prepared to meet the challenges that lie ahead.