Communicating with Adolescent Minds

summarized by David DeWinter
YouTube player



Michael Nerney – Consultant, Substance Abuse Prevention and Education

The 3-Sentence Summary

Teenagers experience emotions at 2 to 4 times the intensity of the average adult, so coaches can reach them more effectively by creating an emotionally safe environment for them to grow. Part of this effort is to be a role model to athletes on how to behave, which includes course-correcting athletes, coaches, and other adults who disparage others based on their appearance or other aspects of their identity, which can have lasting harm. Athlete-centric coaches know this and encourage athletes to grow by investing in their own skills, seeing their improvement, and being recognized by their peers and coaches for that improvement.



2:54 Michael is an athlete and former soccer and wrestling coach. He studied young brains for a long time as the Director of the Training Institute of Narcotic and Drug Research.

4:09 Today’s goal is to talk through how research guides us to maximize the quality of our communication with them to increase the potential for their growth and development.

Adolescent Differences from Adults

6:05 Adolescents go through huge changes:

  • The hormone kisspeptin signals the start of puberty.
  • Pituitary growth hormone (PGH) starts growth. Skeletal growth tends to outpace muscular growth.
  • Testosterone and estrogen precipitate primary and secondary sex characteristics.

7:43 At some times, adolescents can have up to twice the amount of cellular matter as adults have in their brain.

  • Twice as much gray matter as there is white matter–this plays a huge role in their growth from 12 to 22.

9:32 Central to the brain, in the limbic system, there is a twin-almond shaped section of the brain called the amygdala: adolescents experience every emotion (positive and negative) with two to four times the intensity that adults do.

12:23 No indication that females are more emotionally volatile than males.

14:41 This intensity of emotion is normal. Making comments diminishing or dismissing those emotions is not helpful.

16:20 Adolescents also have 5x more activity in AA sites (appearance-attractiveness sites)

  • These are self-reflective loops in the brain that tell us about how we look
    • What do I think about how I look?
    • How do I feel about how I look?
    • Their brain is compelled to look at themselves.
  • Some people will feel undervalued or underappreciated if they don’t look as beautiful/good, etc.

18:18 Nobody should make any disparaging comment about looks, because it will linger in that person’s mind! This is about creating emotional safety at the boathouse.

19:24 At around 13, brains create sites that reward risk-taking, which is compounded by peer pressure. (Think of the risks of vaping, nicotine, and other alcohol/drug use.)

Can you create opportunities for risk-taking in your practice? e.g. Whoever wins this competition gets to ______ (pick the boathouse music for a week…)

Some people join rowing initially to be able to put themselves out there.


21:48 How does suffering from trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) impact adolescents from this perspective?

It changes normal developmental processes. For example, from 10 to 14 they don’t have the same potential for social, emotional, and cognitive development. The trauma has redirected energy toward being aware of the risks of being abused or victimized in every situation. Alcohol makes this worse.

24:15 How does this manifest in trans or gender-fluid youth?

If a parent rejects or otherwise denounces a child’s sexual orientation or gender identification (which is likely compounded by public shaming and peer rejection), that has the same impact on brain development as other ACEs.

26:01 Because of the limbic system regulation that happens in rowing, can rowing be therapeutic for kids with ACEs?

What is therapeutic is

  • Acquisition of skills in which you can notice your improvement
  • An adult whom you trust and whom you identify with noticing your improvement and giving you a chance to display it
  • Increased self-esteem from your improvement, how well you meld with the team

But we don’t know if a sport can re-energize that process from 10 to 14.

28:15 The adolescent brain is light years ahead in its flexibility to learn new things.

Mental Health

29:42 When adults have crises, the chemical THP regulates our anxiety and prefrontal cortex activity increases, heightening our focus and our ability to process the environment and take action. If you’re a teenager, the exact opposite happens in a crisis: anxiety increases and prefrontal cortex activity decreases. They operate on emotion, not on logic.

Kids in crisis are not drama kings or queens.

33:45 70% of teenagers said that they’re worried about depression and anxiety in their friends. Instagram is dramatically more likely to increase depression and anxiety in teenage girls. Serotonin is a key chemical in determining depression. (The more serotonin, the less at risk you are.)

34:23 Males make serotonin 30% more effectively than females at 13. Female teenagers suffer depression at 3x the rate of their male peers.

Knowing when your athletes are struggling can give you insight into how to better support them at the boathouse.

37:36 Don’t be fooled by appearances. Teenagers reach physical maturation 4-6 years ahead of emotional maturation.

40:08 Let them learn by making mistakes. Don’t get frustrated or punitive about them. (Zero-tolerance policies are not effective.)

Good Habits and Sleep

41:54 Requirements for athlete success:

  • High-quality food
  • Enough high-quality sleep
  • Positive outlook; optimism

42:55 Likelihood of injury based on average hours of sleep for adolescents

5 hours 60%
6 hours 73%
7 hours 62%
8 hours 34%
9 hours 18%

Sleep deficits are linked to accompanying drops in memory, problem-solving, increases in attention deficits and hostility, lower class participation, and a higher rate of skipping practice.

Fewer than 20% of kids get enough sleep.

44:51 Artificial lights from screens delay our sleep cycles by up to an hour and a half. Night mode is a big help, but even alerts/notifications at night can really mess up sleep.

Can you help them avoid distractions from their phone at night?

46:28 Check in on your athletes’ sleep and their cell phone usage if you notice anomalies in their behavior.

Coaching Communication

48:25 Course correct adults who make negative comments in public about athletes. If you don’t say anything, athletes will believe you agree with the statement.

Compliment on attitude, improvement, and behavior, not on appearance.

49:58 Yelling critical things at kids is not helpful; they put up with it because they love the sport and their teammates, not because it helps them grow.

50:55 Crying is a way to manage physical, social, and emotional pain. Don’t try to “manage” your athletes when they cry. Give them privacy and let them do it.

52:33 About 25% of kids will make fun of others based on sexual orientation or gender identification. Keep an eye out for it.

53:48 How to put into practice? Example cell phone contract

  • No cell phone zones at practice and competition.
  • Forbidding negative comments about teammates, coaches, or opponents on social media.

55:08 Kids look to the people who are critical to their lives to learn how to behave (including coaches!)

56:07 The complexity of gender identity. Respect pronouns!

57:20 Athlete-centric coaches

  • Balance the goal of winning with the goal of improving
  • Improving self, improving teammates, improving sport => self-esteem growth


  • Winning is more important than the individual athlete
  • I will punish you for mistakes

59:32 How to talk to athletes when you need to correct or support a kid who’s struggling

  • Make eye contact – but not too much because it intensifies emotion. Too much means they won’t learn.
  • Sit side by side
  • “I” stories are more important than “you” stories
  • Be precise, respectful, and inclusive in your language

1:02:39 Male Athlete of the Year Award for Nick Mead


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