A Touchdown for Paradigm: Helping Young Athletes

by Samantha Henschel


Creating a New Game Plan for Young Athletes

On a cloudy December morning, Alex* came into Paradigm for treatment. He was battling anxiety and depression and engaging in substance abuse. In that way, he was like other kids at Paradigm. But Alex was different in a big way, too—he played football, and he wasn’t just a high school kid with a love for the game; he had a rare talent as a placekicker that put him on the radar of Division I recruiters. Alex found himself in what felt like a hopeless situation. If he put football on the back burner to come to treatment, he risked giving up his dream. But if he ignored his emotional and mental health, he would be unable to manage his performance.


When Alex walked through the door two years ago, Paradigm didn’t have a program for young athletes to help him maintain his athletic training while receiving treatment. But they recognized his needs and came up with a game plan. They rallied a team of sports professionals to work with him, including a former kicker from the L.A. Rams. This creative response to one young man’s unique needs gave birth to what is now a thriving Teen Athletes Treatment Program at Paradigm Treatment.


Today, about one fifth of the residents at Paradigm Treatment is in the Teen Athletes Program. Young players range from average players on their high school or club teams to gifted athletes looking at college or professional recruitment, to some high schoolers who are already pros in their sport of choice. Others may have once enjoyed the mastery of a sport, only to watch it slip away due to emotional health issues and negative coping styles.


What These Young Athletes are Facing

The physical pressures of an aspiring teen athlete are clear—because most professional athletes retire by their mid-thirties, there’s an urgency to capitalize on youth. But while their bodies may be at their peak, emotional health may not be. Young people are dealing with their identity formation and the individuation process, on top of any emotional or behavioral health challenges that may exist.

The youth who come to Paradigm are most often dealing with significant issues, in addition to the normal emotional rollercoaster that is the life of a teenager. Then, add pressure from parents, coaches, teammates, peers, and possibly recruiters. These adolescents often times find themselves in need of specialized psychological and physical support to achieve their full potential as athletes and as people approaching adulthood.

Carl Lewis, head of the Board of Advisers for the Teen Athletes Treatment Program at Paradigm, and Dr. Michael Graham, clinical psychologist, and Coordinator of the Teen Athletes Program board, agree that the biggest contributor to young athletes’ issues is external pressure from coaches, parents, or other well-meaning adults. “It’s one of the reasons the family work is so important. What some devoted parents may see as support, may feel unbearable pressure to a young person,” Michael explains. Through individual family therapy, Multi-Family therapy, and parenting classes, families learn how to support their child in a healthy way that ultimately allows them to perform at the top of their game.

Coaches also play a crucial role in the evolution of a young athlete’s life. “My coach saved me,” admits Carl, who is now a father and coach himself. “Young athletes need structure, and a good coach gives that to them.” He also emphasizes the value of parents and coaches being on the same page so that one is not undermining the other. “Coaches are welcome to participate in the program as long as family members of the youth and the youth are in agreement. It’s all about working together to help the young person who is struggling,” Carl says.


The Support They Need

“At Paradigm, we want to make sure that youth have access to all that they will need to achieve their full potential,” explains Dr. Graham. “We do so by providing state of the art mental health treatment and access to accomplished athletes who can provide invaluable guidance,” adds Dr. Graham. Much of this guidance comes from members of the program’s advisory board.

Ten-time Olympic Medalist and World Champion, Carl Lewis, is joined by a wide range of Olympic and professional athletes who devote time and energy to the youth, including, but not limited to:

  • Gold Medalists
  • Greg Louganis and Janet Evans
  • volleyball legend Gabrielle Reece
  • former NFL player Rodney Peete
  • Former NBA player and CSUN head coach, Reggie Theus
  • Brian McGrattan of the NHL
  • Jim Hill of CBS Sports

“When athletes see the quality of the work being done, and they meet the young people, they want to get involved. We have an amazing advisory board and I think it’s going to continue to grow exponentially,” Michael states.
Clients couple this effort with daily individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy and psychiatric support services from Paradigm’s accomplished staff.


How Paradigm is Changing the Game

Far from the punitive, compliance-based “recovery” model from which most adolescent treatment centers still operate, Paradigm believes there is no reason to unplug the aspects of a person’s life that are working. “Until recently, treatment has been about turning off the rest of the world and going internally, which is important, but sometimes you can’t or shouldn’t walk away from your life,” says Dr. Jeff Nalin, Co-Founder and Clinical Director of Paradigm. Being a young athlete, where less than one percent of competitors actually make it to an elite level, is a perfect example of that.
There is another situation that Paradigm considers when treating athletes. Most of these teenagers’ lives have revolved around their sport since the time they could walk. But sometimes there is a need for a young adult to reevaluate their future in sports. “We’re often subject to other people’s narratives,” says Michael. “Part of growing up is deciding what we want our own narrative to be, and having the courage, to be honest with ourselves. We want kids to find out what their purpose and passions are, and then we are ultimately here to support that.”


Expanding the Endzone

Paradigm is devoted to helping young athletes reclaim their lives, change their trajectories and achieve their full potential. Through comprehensive care, including traditional modalities, alternative therapies, and state of the art training, young people are supported in becoming the best versions of themselves.
In addition to impacting sports, one life at a time, Paradigm is working to change the negative perception and stigma in the athletic world around getting treatment. “We’d like to help coaches and recruiters shift the thinking in sports culture away from, ‘I’ve got a kid with a problem on my hands,’ to ‘this young person deals with their mental health as rigorously as they approach their sport. I’ve got a winner on my hands,'” says Jeff. Paradigm is impacting attitudes not only through the work they do with youth but through conferences and training they sponsor for parents, coaches, recruiters, educators and mental health professionals throughout the United States and Europe. Paradigm’s most recent efforts span from local school outreach to sponsoring an international conference on sports and mental health in Austria. According to Jeff, this is only the beginning of what Paradigm hopes to do. “What ever is needed, where ever it is needed, we plan to be there for young athletes.”


*Not his real name