Dew glistens atop the grass on a Saturday morning at Xcel Energy Mountain Bike Park in Shakopee. While most are asleep, Dr. Erin Ayala and Alex Wulbecker-Smith are in mid-season form…setting up four cherry-glossed canopy tents and fifteen vibrant pseudo-recliners that rival a La-Z-Boy chair and inflatable pool seat crossover. 

Simple, yet meaningful beyond what one would ever know. 

It’s the first weekend of the Minnesota Cycling Association’s fall mountain bike league. With a middle school race on Saturday and high school race on Sunday, around 1,200 racers will hit the course south of the Twin Cities metro. Hit copy paste for nine race weekends throughout the fall spanning the entire state, featuring over 3,000 student-athletes and  1,500 coaches from across the Midwest. 

This year’s different though.

In a unique and awkward back to normal time, mental health concerns are at all time highs for populations across the board…and student-athletes are no exception, prompting MCA Executive Director Josh Kleve and Premier Sport Psychology’s Dr. Ayala to take action. 

A space for student-athletes to decompress, relax, and chill before and after races. No parents, coaches, or officials allowed; a sanctuary for student-athletes to come as they are and let go of all the stressors, anxieties, and pressures that come with being a youth athlete in today’s world.

The Premier Chill Zone. 

A great idea..if done right.

After nearly a decade at the helm of the MCA, Kleve reached out to Ayala midway through last year’s season after observing an increase in mental health concerns among student-athletes at races.

“Josh noted that there had been a really big increase in student-athlete mental health concerns, especially anxiety,” Ayala, who heads Premier’s Research team and is a competitive cyclist, said. “He’s a really big advocate for mental health education and he genuinely wants kids to live their best lives.”

The conversation started around coaching. With coaches already trained in mental health first aid, Kleve wanted something deeper. How can MCA’s coaches be best equipped to deal with the needs of their student-athletes when those anxieties arise?

“We were talking about how to help our coaches help our athletes, because this should be fun, it shouldn’t be filled with anxiety,” Kleve said. 

There was a craving to go beyond the tip of the iceberg. A need for answers that applied to real situations. 

“The coaches needed the nitty gritty details of What do I say when a kid freezes up at the starting line? What do I say when a kid collapses after a race and is really upset? What do we say when we know that they’re really sad or depressed?,” Ayala recalled.

That led to Ayala and Premier’s Youth Sports Coordinator Wulbecker-Smith leading a 90 minute session at the MCA’s yearly summit for coaches on how to work with GenZ athletes and some of the things they’ve struggled with in the past few years. 

The conversation was fruitful, yet there was still more to be untapped. 

Following the workshop, Kleve approached Ayala with the idea of fostering a Chill Zone; an area strictly for student-athletes that serves as a place to decompress and escape before and after races, regardless of results. 

“This is something that we’ve had on our radar for a number of years and have just tried to figure out how we could get it done,” Kleve said. “We know that kids need a place to decompress where they can just go to have a minute to themselves, the hard part is that on race day there’s all these other things going on and if we do something like this, we want to do it right.”

To Kleve right meant knowledgeable and neutral staff that could monitor the space but also be an attentive ear for student-athletes to talk to.

Insert Premier’s team of world-class sport psychologists and mental performance coaches. 

“With Premier as an independent partner, it’s great because it’s not parents, coaches, or officials, who may be causing some of that anxiety to begin with,”  Kleve said. 

“He said if we do it, it needs to be repeatable, sustainable and it needs to be high quality. I said, “Josh, you’re speaking my language.” Ayala added.

The Root..Why the Chill Zone is Needed

Nestled just off the finish line, the Chill Zone will be a staple at each race this fall. Staffed by two Premier team members each weekend, the space serves as a small safe-haven for a generation faced with a myriad of pressure and anxiety. 

Pressure has always been there for youth athletes, but the Covid-19 pandemic only heightened things. 

“Before Covid times there was always a lot of pressure to do well, but then when everything was taken from them, it gave people a lot of time to think,” Wulbecker-Smith said. “When student-athletes came back there was a lot of pressure of ‘Now that I’ve rested and thought about it, I don’t want to take it for granted, I want to come out and reach these goals.’ There’s a lot of internal pressure with that.”

Internal pressure can take a toll on student-athletes…so can external.

“That external pressure of  “I’ve been out for a number of months and years and now is my time, I feel like I’m expected to perform perfectly” is a lot,” Wulbecker-Smith said. “We saw that at every level, high school, college, pro. Sport is their outlet, and it can feel like their universe.”

That concept of being perfect can stem from internal and external pressures, but also a societal environment that feeds comparison.

“Everyone is posting on social media and it’s usually their best moments, their highlight reel,” Wulbecker-Smith said. “That creates a pressure of ‘not only do I have to do well for the people that support me, but because I’m comparing myself to everyone else.”

For those who see the highs and lows of their athletes on a daily basis, the need for increased support as athletes return to competition has been recognized. 

“Giving young athletes the tools needed to cope with stress is essential for their everyday success, on and off the bike,” said Levon Kalemkiarian, who has coached youth cycling for 12 seasons and has led the Stillwater Mountain Bike team for the last three.

A Home for Those Searching 

Whether it be tennis tournaments, track meets, or baseball tourneys, concepts like the Chill Zone serve as an important vehicle in furthering the conversation around mental health in student-athletes. Yet the population served by the Chill Zone at MCA races is a unique group. 

“It’s really important to identify that we’re different from most youth sports,” Kleve said. “There’s no bench players or tryouts, every athlete gets to participate and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if they win the race or finish dead last, they have the opportunity to support their team.”

Some of the cyclists racing this fall have been riding bikes before they could walk. Yet almost 70% of the 3,000+ student-athletes don’t come from a cycling background.  

“We have a lot of athletes who have drifted from sport to sport looking to find a home,” Kleve said. “Being that we have such a diverse group of individuals, everyone has different needs and everyone processes those things differently. So that’s why the Chill Zone is another avenue for those individuals to process those experiences, both good and bad.”

That’s the beauty of the Chill Zone. Regardless of background or needs, athletes can come as they are to a safe space. 

“Some athletes need to learn to pump themselves up for competition, but a lot more student athletes these days come into competition with way too much arousal and anxiety and that can lead to mistakes,” Ayala said. “The Chill Zone allows them a space to turn down that dial physically and mentally to get back to the course with a clear and calm mind.”

An organization grounded in developing stronger minds, bodies, and character through cycling, Kleve hopes that the Chill Zone will continue to serve as a way to bring enjoyment back into a lifelong sport. 

“Our goal isn’t to develop the next Olympian (although the organization has produced them), it’s to get kids on bikes and develop a lifelong love of the sport,” Kleve said. “That’s why we’re always trying to find those non-standard things that can help further and support our riders.”

The excitement isn’t just exclusive to Kleve and the MCA. 

“I’m super excited to have experts such as Premier Sport Psychology here to help and guide these young athletes,” Kalemkiarian said. 

For Premier, it’s an incredible way to showcase to student-athletes that their worth is not defined by results and that it’s okay to take some time to yourself.

“Having that space for whether you crushed your race or biffed it is so important,” Wulbecker-Smith said. “You can come here and we’re not going to be all over you asking questions unless you want it. We’ll give you the space to decompress.”