The PCA Blog - New England

Healthy Athletes: Body + Mind


Physical and mental health are intertwined. Developing healthy athletes requires an understanding of young athletes’ physical, mental, social, and emotional health--that was the consensus of the four experts PCA gathered for an in-depth conversation in the Murr Center Varsity Room overlooking Harvard Stadium, on July 11 before PCA’s annual Harvard Stadium Stampede.

Sports medicine, strength, conditioning, pliability, injury prevention, coach education, and the mental side of the game were all topics in a lively, engaging conversation led by PCA Board Member and Managing Director of Porchlight Equity, David Krauser, a former Amherst College baseball player and now a sports parent and youth coach. Joining David were:

Dr. John McCarthy, Boston University, Institute for Athletic Coach Education, who focuses on coaching and how to develop young athletes both physically and in social, emotional skills through sports.

Dr. Jessica Flynn, Sports Medicine Physician at Lahey Hospital, seeks to prevent athletic injuries and treats the whole athlete. She works with athletes of all ages, especially adolescents, and the mental, social and emotional issues that come with injuries.

James Castrello, CAT, CSCS, The TB12 Head Body Coach, helps athletes age 4 to 80+, and has a passion for working with kids, developing a relationship with them to help teach them what they need to become their best selves.

Seitu Smith, M. Ed., Brown University, Assistant Coach, Quarterbacks, grew up playing football in South Florida, is a former Harvard football player, and now coaches football at Brown University. Seitu appreciates the challenges facing kids on the road to college athletics.

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Click below to see highlights from the 2019 Harvard Stadium Stampede.


Here are a few highlights of moments from the conversation, captured in the full-length video.


Dr. Flynn:

  • “Every major medical society that deals with treating either athletes or children has come out and said that early sport specialization is not a good thing . . . what we are really talking about is taking a break from that sport for at least two months, ideally three/four months off from their sport.”
  • Overuse injuries like Sever’s and other growth plate injuries have become so common that they are almost considered acceptable or part of the process.
  • The emotional toll early specialization, meaning before age 12 or 13, causes some athletes to burn out before reaching college.

Dr. McCarthy:

  • “What is crazy about our sports system as it exists, we are deselecting kids before they reach puberty. We are deciding at ages 8, 9, 10, 11 you are good enough to go to the next level . . . creating enormous pressure.”
  • At the same time “children are trying to form their identities” they are being expected to specialize, and narrow their identities unrealistically.
  • The emotional cost of specialization is real, Dr. McCarthy sees it in the BU hockey players he works with, even when they achieve success in the form of an NHL contract.
  • Many college athletes find that the narrowness of their activities makes them anxious.  Performance anxiety has increased and is being treated with mindfulness and other approaches.
  • “College athletes, particularly from big time football and basketball programs, are a new category of socially vulnerable group.”

Seitu Smith:

  • Starting football at age 5, identified as a Division I player by age 7, and being told what he needed to do to get there, there is very real pressure growing up in the NFL proving ground of South Florida. “When you get there, there is no better feeling, like when you finally realize ‘I am that.’ But, I can only imagine what it is like for kids that don’t end up getting there.”
  • There is increased anxiety and depression in young athletes who face the challenges presented by contemporary culture, social media, and an environment in which coaches are offering scholarships to kids in 6th and 7th graders.


James Castrello:

  • All athletes, especially young athletes need to learn to “balance the time spent strength training with soft tissue mobilization before and after training.”
  • Depending on the athletes’ age and individual circumstances, young athletes can be trained in functional movement using resistance bands, body weight, and weights, and trainers should be mindful of the importance of avoiding overloading bones, joints, and growth plate.

Dr. McCarthy: 

  • We need to think about how we encourage work and weight training for kids, rather than play and “climbing trees.”
  • There is a “psychological cost of rigorous training, and the need to keep it fun.”
  • The Canadian group Sport for Life has published helpful guidelines on when kids are ready to train, and for what.


James Castrello:

  • “Tom, TB12, and I are all of the opinion that recovery is the most undervalued and underappreciated component to sports performance.”
  • Preparation is critical—start the day by drinking half your body weight in fluid ounces, eat a balanced diet, get consistent sleep, and focus on pliability.
  • Embrace the famous “No Days Off” mantra and do “active recovery,” like low resistance band work and more.

Dr. McCarthy and Seitu Smith: 

  • One big problem in recovery is that “we practice too long.”
  • The best coaches, John Gagliardi and Jack Parker for example, were successful not because they hit longer and harder but because they ran “tight, crisp 90 minute practices.”
  • Most coaches don’t stop, they make practices longer and longer, and play gets sloppy, then what happens? Seitu knows: “Coach says ‘Everybody on the line.’” Sprints are not the answer, a shorter, smarter practice is—at any age.

Dr. Flynn:

  • For many young athletes “sports are what gets them through the day” making mental recovery from injuries even more essential.


Dr. Flynn:

  • As a doctor and as a parent, in the “need to prioritize social activities” and to recognize the importance of social and emotional learning.

Seitu Smith:

  • In college, at Harvard and elsewhere, you learn the most “when sitting around the dinner table or lunch, or in a classroom with other students, without adults around, just talking about social issues, how you grew up, where you came from, and what your plans are going forward.”

Dr. McCarthy:

  • “Coaches play an incredible role in kids’ lives.”
  • “The most important thing coaches can do is create an environment where kids can belong to a social group, where they feel like they belong.”
  • Done right, that sports environment should be a strong, inclusionary positive culture—like the positive culture PCA advocates.

With that, the group headed out to Harvard Stadium to join a very positive group of 250+ people for PCA’s STADIUM STAMPEDE, a work out and celebration of the power of sports done right to build the character, resilience, grit, leadership and so much more that kids need to succeed on the field, and in life.


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