Growing up, Nick Lee struggled with his mental health from a young age, and his mood was often dictated by his performance on the tennis court.
Now a graduate student studying sport psychology at Boston University, Lee is better at coping with his anxiety. His goal is to pass on those skills to other young athletes, which he’ll be doing over the upcoming weekend at the Matt Stevenson Junior Tennis Tournament, the only junior tennis tournament in the country that promotes the importance of youth mental health.
“I didn’t have an open conversation about my mental health until I was 17,” Lee told Outsports. “Why did this take six years is the question? Why could I not communicate anything during those six years, and why did it have to get to that level? So that’s where I’m coming from.”
The tournament is sponsored by the ProtoStar Group, a California-based organization that funds projects and foundations with social missions. ProtoStar’s president, Gary Poon, is a lifelong tennis player who trained at the same academy as John and Patrick McEnroe.
As an adult, Poon met a young player at his local club, Matt Stevenson, with whom he became close. Stevenson went on to run successful junior tennis programs in the D.C. area, but suffered from mental health issues, and wrote extensively about his struggles. He took his own life in 2017 when he was just 32 years old.
Poon considered writing a book about Stevenson, but determined that wouldn’t be the best way to reach vulnerable young athletes dealing with the same issues. He figured some sort of athletic event was a better way to carry on Stevenson’s legacy.
Two years later, the Matt Stevenson Junior Tennis Tournament was born.
“No one is going to pick up a book about someone they don’t know,” said Poon. “I thought the better way to reach kids was through a tennis tournament.”
It’s been a rousing success so far. Last year, about 580 kids kids participated in all three tournament venues, which were held in San Diego, D.C. and New York. The tournament in New York attracted 207 junior players alone.
This year, the event will be held over two weekends in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. — Sept. 17-19 and Sept. 24-26 — and is open to players ages 12 to 18. Information covering mental health, such as depression, anxiety, and suicide prevention, will be available from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
New this year is the addition of sport psychology materials on mental performance, including workbook exercises, perfectionism, and body image issues. The central theme of the tournament is to help the junior players understand the interconnection between mental performance on the tennis court and mental health off the tennis court.
Lee, who played men’s varsity tennis at Vassar College and wrote his excellent coming-out story for Outsports in 2018, spearheaded efforts on the workbook, which has mental performance exercises that are tennis-specific.
“Mental health is already a problem, and you’re playing this sport where it’s all you. It’s so intense. It’s brutal,” he said. “To actually bring some resources, ‘Hey, this is a way to address the mental side of the sport, and enjoy the sport more’ is [important].”
Brian Bradley, an out gay tennis player and coach, completed one of the book’s exercises. He says being closeted as a kid only compounded his mental health issues.
For Bradley, tennis was an escape.
“It can be tough when you’re closeted, and you have this sport that’s individual, it can feel double-lonely,” he said. “But for me, I always took it as a place where I can prove myself regardless of my [sexual] orientation.”
One of Lee’s foremost goals is to explain how exercise can be restful and replenishing. It’s an epiphany that he arrived at later in life, and one that’s especially important to share with junior players who have taken part in highly competitive events from a young age.
“People say exercise is people’s escape, but there’s a huge misconception around that,” said Lee. “The escape is just when I get to rally and hit a tennis ball and just flow. But when it gets really competitive, that is not restful whatsoever. It’s important to understand there are ways to exercise and enjoy exercise that’s not just competition.”
The Matt Stevenson Junior Tennis Tournament is a great place to start.
If you are LGBTQ and considering suicide, The Trevor Project is there to help. You can visit their Web site or call their hotline at 866-488-7386.
Nick Lee is a second-year graduate student pursuing a Master of Education in Counseling with a Specialization in Sport Psychology at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. He graduated from Vassar College in 2019 where he was a member of the men’s varsity tennis team. He can be reached by email at email@example.com, on Facebook as Nicholas Lee, or on Instagram @nicklee.aka.licknee.