Trae Young and the mental game

Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young opens up about the importance of mental health and how he uplifts communities through the power of positivity. 

Professional athletes exist in the public eye like no other.

They become heroes for their athletic prowess; revered for being able to do what few humans can.

Michael could fly. Kobe was unflinching in the face of opponents. Magic tested the limits of reality. Trae flows downcourt with ice in his veins.

Athletes are deified for their bodies, but in commodifying their tangible dimensions, their minds are often overlooked.

The reality is that sport is defined by game, and game is conquered by strategy. Every great athlete requires an equally great mind that can visualize the game before them and strike in advance. The best coaches create dynasties, but the best players absorb their wisdom and revolutionize the sport.

Athletes have opinions, thoughts, ideas. They are activists, innovators, writers, entrepreneurs, chefs, doctors, virtually every doctrine under the sun. Enviably, they excel in these areas too, yet they often do not see the same recognition.

It’s as if athletes cannot be recognized for mind and body simultaneously, and it’s created a contentious conversation in the sports world. Athletes are pushing back more than ever against narrative, expectation and pressure, insisting that they be viewed wholly, their mental and physical health treated with dignity.

“For athletes, people look at us like we’re superhumans: people who are very gifted in what they do and what they have,” describes Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young. “But people don’t also understand that we’re still human at the end of the day.”

That’s why The Trae Young Family Foundation matters.

A year after he was drafted into the league, Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young set out to do something about the mental health crisis that exists throughout the United States.

There are a multitude of ways in which “mental health” is central to addressing societal problems. Since 2020, there has been a drastic increase in hate crimes against the AAPI and Black communities, creating an environment in which many minority groups feel unsafe. LGBTQ+ individuals continue a fight to have their respective identities recognized and protected, both legally and in the public space. Police brutality and mass shootings have been tragic, harrowing occurrences that devastate communities, yet they continue to take place all over the nation.

There are many, many symptoms of how neglecting mental health can erupt in violent, destructive ways — sometimes on others; sometimes on oneself. The solution to the root cause of it all — having empathy and understanding for mental health issues and allowing people to connect to the right remedies — is something that Young has focused on as his NBA career flourishes.

The Trae Young Family Foundation was formed in 2019 “with the goal of continuing education for mental health problems, particularly cyber and social media bullying,” according to the foundation’s website. “Children and adults on a daily basis deal with depression, anxiety and PTSD, among other issues that are caused by cyber and social media bullying.”

Social media has been proven to cause low self-esteem; cyberbullying is a pervasive threat that has been the cause of self-harm and suicide; Americans are beginning to understand how PTSD inflicts mental wounds that can take years to heal. Trae cares deeply about these issues, which is why he was chosen as a finalist for the NBA Cares Award.

In February, Trae was honored with the NBA Community Assist Award “in recognition of ongoing efforts to normalize the conversation around mental health and promote overall well-being in Atlanta and Oklahoma.” Trae was recognized for his partnership with Silence the Shame, an organization that promotes awareness to combat stigma against mental health issues, and Active Minds, a group for teens and young adults that offers support for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ youth.

During Mental Health Awareness Month, Trident Gum announced a $200,000 donation to The Trae Young Family Foundation to support the Young Family Athletic Center. The athletic center, which is based in Trae’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, intends to “establish Norman as a hub in the sports tourism market,” according to the Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture firm designing the center.

“The 122,000 square foot facility will feature a gym with eight basketball courts and 12 overlaying volleyball courts and two pools – an eight-lane, 25-meter competition pool and a 4-lane, 25-meter warmup pool,” the description continues.

The Trae Young Family Foundation offers further context on what this center means to Trae, his family, and the Norman community.

“Growing up in Norman, Oklahoma, Trae Young sought out every opportunity to play sports and perfect his craft. Oftentimes, that forced his family to take long car trips to put him in position to succeed. Now that he’s made it to the NBA, Trae and his family want to make sure that the kids that follow his path through Norman — and their families — don’t have to look far for that kind of outlet.”

Young knows just how transformative sports can be for a person’s self-esteem and development, and as a professional athlete, he also understands an often misunderstood and misrepresented community: that of professional athletes. Trae has been subject to criticism from media, fans, and what seems to be the entire city of New York, but he’s taken everything in stride.

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 23: Atlanta Hawks’ Trae Young reacts during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks on May 23, 2021 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Seth Wenig – Pool/Getty Images)

Trae is masterful at silencing the noise and focusing on his game. When the NBA world was stunned by a deep Hawks run into the 2021 NBA Finals, Young and his teammates were not. For the 23-year-old point guard to give back to the kids like him in Norman so early in his career is a testament to the fact that he gets it: he isn’t so far removed from the kid who grew up admiring Steve Nash and chasing hoop dreams.

For the NBA and companies like Trident to buy into Trae’s positive messaging is powerful, especially in a time when recognizing mental welfare is a must.

“This partnership is great,” Young told FanSided. “It’s amazing to have a partner that supports what you’re fighting for and is just spreading the message of mental health.”

“And with my foundation, they’re donating $200,000 and helping build this big facility here in Oklahoma for young kids that they can go and use that not only for basketball but a big swimming pool for swimming and other sports that they can really help with their mental health and their well-being and just making sure that they’re on the right track. And I think that’s a big stepping point.”

Young was once one of those kids in Norman, but there was no such facility. While local recreation centers and the nearby YMCA were able to host some of their sporting events, Trae and his sisters, Caitlyn and Camryn, had to travel hours just to play basketball. This is personal for Trae.

SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 24: Trae Young (Center) and his family attend the NBA Awards at Barker Hangar on June 24, 2019 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Cassy Athena/Getty Images)

“I think having a great surrounding system in what you’re doing on a day-to-day basis can help you with your mental health,” Young said. “And I think having this facility where kids can go and have after-school programs or go have certain gym time and just get away from maybe negative things that are going on in their life, I think is… I mean, it was a way for me to help with my mental health, and if I wanted things like that for me, I think it would help other kids, too.”

Deandre Ayton, the Phoenix Suns center who was drafted alongside Young in the 2018 NBA Draft, recently opened up to ESPN’s Maya A. Jones about how video games and basketball helped him through times in his youth when he felt isolated and depressed.

“I really only got serious with basketball because I ain’t had nobody. I ain’t had nothing, and playing basketball was like really my own outlet to really have fun,” Ayton told ESPN.

To this day, playing basketball continues to be therapeutic for Young, a place to come home to after a bad day.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s still to this day,” Young said. “I mean, obviously there’s times when, if I’m not doing anything, if I’m having bad days or whatever, I want to get in the gym by myself, and I will. And I remember doing that as a kid with my dad. And so it’s always been that way, so bad days, sometimes you can get in the gym by yourself and just put on some music and just work out or shoot. I think it was good for me.”

While basketball can be a refuge, NBA celebrity can also be pressurizing. Players are critiqued for their game incessantly, with everyone on the outside speculating on everything from a player’s satisfaction with their team to mocking players when they underperform or remain injured. Making it all the way to the NBA takes talent, but it also takes confidence. Even though Young was drafted No. 5 overall in 2018 and is already a two-time NBA All-Star, he has faced his fair share of criticism.

But they call him “Ice Trae” for a reason.

“That’s a great question,” Young said of whether or not he’s faced immense pressure in his NBA career. “I don’t think I’ve had a moment in my career where it’s stood out to me. There’s so many moments that I feel like you’re under pressure in games and you feel it. But not one that just really sticks out to me, but I always feel that we got to focus on that, but no, there’s not one [moment] that really sticks out to me though.”

The playful moniker for Young is derived from the steps he takes to protect his mental space throughout the season.

“I guess I really just try to focus on positive things in the games and moments,” Young continued. “I don’t try to get too down. There’s this long season, so you’re gonna have losses, but you try to focus on the positive things, and I’ve had to learn that. It’s not something that was with me since day one, but I’ve had people that I’ve talked to that have helped me with this.”

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 06: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks reacts against the Washington Wizards during the second half at State Farm Arena on April 06, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Young is not the only athlete who has worked on how to approach career fluctuations. Sports psychologists specialize in how athletes cope with depression induced by losses and anxiety that comes for performance expectations. In an illustration of how mind connects to body, decorated U.S. gymnast Simone Biles got the “twisties” during Tokyo 2020 and had to withdraw from subsequent competitions. Last May, celebrated U.S. tennis champion Naomi Osaka withdrew from press conferences before the 2021 French Open, stressing the relationship between media scrutiny and athlete mental health.

“I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health and this rings very true whenever I see a press conference or partake in one,” Osaka wrote in an Instagram post. “We’re often sat there and asked questions that we’ve been asked multiple times before or asked questions that bring doubt into our minds and I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me.”

In his trademark way, Trae has transparently fought against bullying throughout his career. Sure, he playfully antagonizes Knicks fans when he shushes them in MSG, but Young’s banter reinforces the positive message of his foundation: fight back against bullying, no matter the form. Young has said in the past that while social media is a part of life for his generation, he’s not one to put stock in negative comments. As much as Trae plays villain in New York, he’s a hero against bullies and trolls. When a Hawks reporter called a Hawks fan “broke” for being unwilling to pay for a subscription to The Athletic, Young blasted him on Twitter.

Young’s intolerance for bullying embodies the mission of his foundation, but his foundation’s goals are far-reaching in the hopes of improving overall mental health. The Young Family Foundation focuses on depression, anxiety and trauma because these realities exist for those who are diagnosed with mental illness as well as those who have experienced difficult life events. In offering resources to cope with these issues, Trae is able to address “the base of it all.”

“I mean, it all deals with mental health,” Young said of his foundation’s focus. “I mean, it all deals with the mental side of things, and I think I think that’s just the base of it all. And I think that’s why this partnership with Trident is great, because we’re both supporting the same thing, and I think that’s the focus of all this.”

Although the YFAC won’t be completed until 2023, Young has already seen the way its presence is uplifting to the Norman community.

“I mean, I’ve seen it — I’ve actually heard it, too — people tell me how excited they are with everything coming,” Young said. “If I see fans here in Oklahoma City…When I came back, people were telling me about that stuff and how they’re excited for it to open up and how they’re already signing their kids up for certain events there. I think that’s a good thing, when you can see people smiling and happy for things like this. That’s the thing about everything — I just wanted to see people smile and be happy and just think positively.”

Trae has been recognized for his ability to score and create opportunities for his teammates, which is a major part of why the Hawks advanced through a contested Finals series in 2021.

“No one in the NBA is scoring as much and as efficiently as Young, while also setting up teammates to score so often. He’s the league’s fourth-leading scorer with an efficiency that ranks second only to Steph Curry among lead guards,” wrote AJC’s Michael Cunningham this February.

As national NBA coverage demonstrates time and time again, much of the focus remains on teams with sizable fan bases and superstar squads. Often, those sectors overlap. On a young, underestimated Hawks team, Young and his teammates collaborated as contenders, and their tenure is far from over.

ATLANTA, GEORGIA – APRIL 22: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks celebrates after making a floater with 5.5 seconds remaining during the fourth quarter against the Miami Heat in Game Three of the Eastern Conference First Round at State Farm Arena on April 22, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Young is in the company of Curry, and it’s a frequent comparison — but Trae doesn’t like those. He prefers to view himself as an individual, which highlights an important part of maintaining positive self-esteem. It may seem insignificant for fans, but for a player looking to define their own legacy, being constantly compared to another great player implies a lesser game. Steph has an easy case for being the game’s best three-point shooter, but that means everyone compared to him is left to grab his coattails. The best players demand comparison, but Trae is young, and he’s not the only one who holds his game in high esteem.

“I love [that] you’re talking about comparisons: I’m actually a person that really just doesn’t like comparing,” Young said. “I think everybody brings something different and special to the game, so I like to compare myself to a lot of different guys that I feel like I tried to look up to when I was a kid. Obviously, those two guys you named [Steve Nash and Steph Curry] were two guys that inspired me in some of the things that they did, but I mean Chris Paul, Russell [Westbrook], there’s a lot of guys… KD. There’s a lot of guys that inspired me. I tried to take the different parts from a lot of people’s games, and hopefully I’m not compared to just one person and I’m unique to myself.”

Being in the company of many of the players he grew up admiring remains surreal for Young. Now, Young is that guy for the Hawks, transforming the Atlanta franchise and giving a sports city chasing championships genuine hope for a future ring.

“It’s still surreal sometimes to me,” Young said. “I mean, just growing up a fan of some of these players, and then now having a similar situation to some of these guys, just for my own team, it’s crazy. And it’s just surreal sometimes, but I know I’m supposed to be here, and I’ve been blessed. And I’m just gonna continue to work and try to do my part.”

In a moment when many are ready to bump Chris Paul III out of their Top 5 point guard lineup, Young maintains respect for CP3’s decades of excellence. Young’s Top 5 NBA point guards of all time are:

“Steve Nash, No. 1, just because he’s my favorite player. Chris Paul’s in there, Steph’s in there… There’s a lot. Isiah Thomas. And then… Magic, for sure. I’m tripping.”

Young has spoken in the past about how he’s an avid moviegoer, using film to unwind and destress as he practices self-care. When thinking about his favorite hoops movie of all time, the answer is simple: “He Got Game.”

“Oh, it’s easy for me. ‘He Got Game’ is my favorite movie of all time,” Young said. “That’s my movie. Just the storyline of father and son, I think, had a lot of stuff with me and my dad as far as just being around basketball. So it’s always been my favorite movie since I was a kid.”

Trae Young embodies the power of positivity: supported by his family, Young pursued his love of the game, turning to basketball to nourish his well-being. Today, he’s using his platform as a professional athlete — not only to speak on the importance of mental health for NBA stars, but he’s creating a place so that kids like him can seek sports as a refuge, a comfort, and an exhilarating joy.

Every passionate cause speaks to the player behind it, and for “Ice Trae” Young, keeping calm, carrying on, and uplifting others is inseparable from what he’s accomplished in Atlanta.

You can support Trae and Trident’s mission by buying his limited-edition Trident pack at Walmart. Trae will also be going live on TikTok on May 20 to continue creating a safe space for mental health discussions.

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