A handful of fun questions and answers – with a couple more serious inquiries sprinkled in – went a long way for youth at the Children’s Minnesota Specialty Center last week.
Four young people, along with clinic staff members and a therapist, joined a Microsoft Teams call with Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks and his fiancée, Ally Courtnall.
Courtnall and Kendricks spent nearly an hour engaging with the youth who are part of the adolescent day services program for mental health. According to Jamie Winter, Director of Mental Health Services at Children's Minnesota, a majority of patients (ages 12-18) participate in the programming for a period of 2-3 weeks before returning to their typical daily routines.
Questions posed by the teens included go-to Chipotle order, whether or not pineapple belongs on pizza (the couple is vehemently against the topping), favorite letter of the alphabet (Kendricks tabbed "F") and favorite animal.
Courtnall especially loves elephants, she explained, while Kendricks is a reptile enthusiast.
Though he's been known to own chameleons and bearded dragons as pets, though, those days are now behind the All-Pro.
"I have a fiancée who's scared of snakes, reptiles," Kendricks ribbed good-naturedly. "So there's no more lizards."
"There are no lizards allowed in our household," she laughed. "One time he went outside in our backyard [in California] and caught a lizard, and he came inside to try to show it to me, and then he lost it in our house – and had to recapture it to put it back outside."
Kendricks clarified: "I didn't lose it. It ran under the couch. But we found it."
In addition to questions that generated some friendly banter, Kendricks also fielded a number of inquiries about his NFL career:
Do you have any pregame routines?
How often do you work out during the offseason?
Do you like playing for the Vikings and the Vikings fan base?
One young man asked Kendricks a question he especially appreciated: How do you deal with pregame anxiety?
"That's a good question," he told the young man. "It always comes at me differently. Sometimes I feel like I may need to listen to a little bit of music – I know music calms down a lot of people pre-game – but sometimes don't need music at all. I actually enjoy tuning people out and being a little bit to myself."
He noted that he doesn't entirely isolate, though, as letting loose and having fun with teammates can be equally helpful.
"Obviously I have to be super focused during the game," Kendricks explained, "but the hour or two before, [I'll] get into a little bit of laughter or just try to relax as much as possible – because I sometimes get really, really tense – and I don't want to waste any energy. I really have to use my energy.
"Recently, right before kickoff I've been doing these breathing exercises: I take a few deep breaths in and let them out quickly, and I do those for about 2-3 minutes. Then I alternate taking deep breaths in and exhaling slowly," he added. "It usually makes me really focused, it calms me down completely, and I'm ready to play after that."
Kendricks and Courtnall share a passion for raising awareness around mental illness and suicide, and they both have been active in the mental health space.
Courtnall and Kendricks were asked about self-care practices they implement into their everyday life, and they even offered skin-care tips as an added bonus.
Kendricks said there's no "one size fits all" self-care formula, especially considering techniques can focus on mental or physical wellbeing or a combination of both.
"For me, some of the things I like to lean into are exercise – just being outside and going on walks," Courtnall said. "I feel peace in the fresh air, and [I'll listen to] podcasts," Courtnall said. "Another thing I like to do is meditation – that's a big thing [for me]. Like Eric was saying, breath work – just practicing being still and slowing your breathing.
"Those are the big things," Courtnall added. "And I also go to therapy once in a while, as well. Just depending on where I'm at in life and where I'm going to, but I try to stay as consistent as I can with that."
Courtnall encouraged the young people to embrace the idea of therapy and also to be patient in finding a therapist that's a good fit for them.
Winter emphasized the impact Courtnall and Kendricks made on the youth they spent time with.
"The partnership with the Minnesota Vikings and Children's Minnesota means so much to our organization and the kids and families we serve," Winter said. "In the Partial Hospitalization Program, we care for teens that are struggling with anxiety, depression or are coping with other mental health concerns.
"Having Eric and Ally take time out of their day to meet with the kids and answer their questions helps to eliminate the stigma around mental illness," Winter added. "Their willingness to talk about the importance of self-care and promoting positive coping mechanisms is so valuable and normalizes the experiences and feelings of the kids we care for every day."
Courtnall and Kendricks are grateful for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of youth, especially when it comes to encouraging mental health awareness.
"Eric and I had the best time with Children's Minnesota. I love when we get to do things like this together," Courtnall said. "He's shown me the importance of giving back, especially to the youth. He's so dedicated to helping others, and it only pushes me to do the same."
She noted that it was "really cool to see" the young people open up and become more comfortable conversationally throughout their time with Courtnall and Kendricks.
"These types of meetups continue to inspire me to get more involved in the mental health community – and push me to keep opening up about my own struggle. Honestly, it's another reminder that we all struggle," Courtnall said. "I'm so grateful for the staff at Children's and for the work that they do. It is extremely needed, and I can't wait to go back and continue having conversations like the one we had last Tuesday."