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McLean tennis coach inspires new DC tournament aimed at mental health awareness

Rock Creek Park’s main tennis stadium during the Citi Open in August 2021 (Photo via USTA Mid-Atlantic Section, Inc.)

A junior tennis tournament series is coming to the nation’s capital this weekend, bearing the name of McLean tennis coach Matt Stevenson, who died at age 32 in 2017.

Launched in San Diego, California, in September, coinciding with National Suicide Awareness Month, the Matt Stevenson Junior Tennis Tournament Series takes place in D.C. this Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 2-3) at the Rock Creek Tennis Center, which hosted professional players for the Citi Open in August.

It’s the first and only junior tennis tournament event series to promote the importance of mental health for adolescents, according to the nonprofit U.S. Tennis Association’s Mid-Atlantic Section.

“The inspiration behind the MSJTT Series came from the late Matt Stevenson, a young tennis professional who lived and ran successful junior tennis programs in McLean and the DC region,” USTA Mid-Atlantic said. “Before tragically taking his own life in 2017 at the age of 32, he had written extensively about his own mental health issues and had asked that kids be made aware of the importance of staying mentally healthy and to seek help if they needed it.”

The tournament first started in 2019 in San Diego and expanded to D.C. and New York City last month as a collaboration between the nonprofit ProtoStar Foundation and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

It seeks to “address the national teen depression, anxiety, and suicide crisis by engaging adolescents through a sport they love and promoting dialogue and understanding of these issues,” according to the Sept. 8 press release.

Talking to Tysons Reporter, Judith Stevenson recalled how her son came up with tennis games to entertain kids and teach them the basics of the game.

One game, King of the Court, involved players trying to get the ball past the instructor. When they scored a point against him, they would run around and get on top of him while he did push-ups.

“The fun that they were having was great,” she said. “He loved teaching the sport.”

Stevenson attended high school in Alexandria and college at Marymount University, coached young players and adults at McLean Racquet and Health Club, and served as the tennis director at Langley Club. He chose coaching as his profession.

Matthew Stevenson’s struggles with depression started in his early teens, with bouts of depression beginning in high school, his mother said.

Judith noted that it can be difficult for parents and coaches to figure out how to support a player who is experiencing challenges without becoming intrusive. However, she said it’s important to be willing to listen and to show respect by supporting a young person when they take charge of their own treatment.

She hopes events like the junior tennis tournament can help make talking about mental challenges akin to physical problems, such as sports injuries.

ProtoStar president and founder Gary Poon remarked that Stevenson built tennis programs from the ground up and was well loved in the community.

USTA Mid-Atlantic shared more details on the event, saying:

Mental health awareness among adolescents is crucial today as the youth mental health crisis continues to grow in the U.S., exacerbated most recently by the pandemic. The USTA Mid-Atlantic Section is emphasizing the important of mental health wellness among youth tennis players and has deemed Oct. 2-3 a mental health weekend featuring this and only one other sanctioned tournament that players may participate in the region, or they can choose to have a quiet weekend to rest, reset and focus on mental health. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and National Institute of Mental Health will have practical information available for parents and players in the tournament.

Matt Stevenson also wrote nearly 2,000 articles for the Mad in America (MIA) Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to rethink and change how the psychiatric community uses medications, particularly over the long term.

Judith Stevenson said her son expressed concerns about the names of mental health disorders as well as the stigma attached to them, taking issue with language describing different conditions that he saw as pejorative.

Following Stevenson’s death by suicide in 2017, the MIA Foundation posted a tribute to his work interviewing experts and writing about mental health issues online, highlighting his efforts to read scientific literature on borderline personality disorder and books criticizing the validity of psychiatric disorders.

“The theme he sounded most often was about the spurious nature of psychiatric diagnoses and the harm such labels could cause,” the organization said.

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