For decades, youth sports in the United States has been an avenue for kids of all ages to make friends, be physically active, challenge themselves, and learn skills such as teamwork, sportsmanship, and the value of hard work—all of which can provide great stepping stones towards personal growth and achievement later in life. When it comes to mental health, sports can be an immensely positive experience for many participants. Simultaneously, being an athlete may present unique challenges to an individual’s mental health. It is important for parents, family members, coaches, and teammates to understand both the mental health risks and benefits to ensure youth athletes have the greatest opportunity for success and enjoy participating in sports.
According to a 2018 Project Play report, an initiative by the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program that analyzes data gathered by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) on youth sports, around 83% of children age 6 to 12 engage in a physical activity like team or individual sports at some point throughout the year. The physical benefits of being active in sports, whether they be team-based or individual, are widely accepted and discussed as a key factor in parents’ decision to enroll their children—whether that includes lacing up their cleats to hit the field or carefully tying a pair of ballet slippers. Another important potential benefit of participating in athletics is the relationship of sports and physical activity to mental health for youth. Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 while nearly 20 percent of kids in the United States between the ages of 13 and 18 live with a mental health condition. Introducing young people to athletics during this critical period may reinforce the positive behaviors, thought processes, and emotions that promote mental and physical wellness.
The Mental Health Benefits of Athletics
A recent study proposes a biological mechanism for the correlation between participation in youth sports and a decrease in rates of depression, although further research is needed. In 2017-2018, there were nearly 8 million high school athletes according to a report by the National Federation of State High School Association. Additionally, athletic competition can provide several benefits to mental health.
Creating Active Living Habits
Research shows that cardiovascular exercise and strength training have been proven to improve mood and aid in management of anxiety. These forms of exercise are inherent in most athletic endeavors. Introducing children and teens to sports can help establish healthy habits that stretch long into the future and form the foundation for an active lifestyle.
From winning a championship or improving from previous performances to simply trying one’s best, sports naturally encourage athletes to set and work towards goals. Establishing goals is a great way for athletes to be mindful about the reason they choose to participate in the first place. Having a clear path forward helps limit distractions, develop a sense of personal responsibility, and promotes a healthy sense of pride in an accomplishment.
Particularly in team sports, comradery between teammates can build strong, lasting friendships based on mutual support. Not only do sports teach the skill of being receptive to support from peers, but they also generate many opportunities for individuals to both learn and practice empathy. When someone is struggling with their mental health or a mental illness, access to a support system greatly increases their odds of recovery. Even individual sports can create strong support networks through the shared experiences between competitors, coaches, trainers, and fans. From signing the cast of a teammate’s broken arm to enjoying a slice of pizza or ice cream cone together after an event, the social aspect of sports reaches far beyond the field of play.
Healthy living, goal setting, and showing support for friends and loved ones helps develop lifelong values for young athletes. Ask any athlete and they will tell you that sports helped them better understand what is important in life. Sports teach the necessity of hard work and perseverance while simultaneously fostering sportsmanship, honesty, integrity, compassion, and character building.
Youth Sports and Practicing Mindfulness
“Athletes have an uncommonly powerful venue to access mindfulness,” says Dr. Ben Hunter, a former All-American collegiate pitcher selected in the 2008 MLB Draft and current psychiatrist and Medical Director of Outpatient Services at Skyland Trail. “Time spent in practice and mindful activities lead to growth—from breaking down free throw form to perfecting a curveball. That time spent presently engaged is so similar to the various forms of mindfulness that we emphasize to our clients.”
Mindfulness, which Skyland Trail includes as a key aspect of both Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) programs for clients in its residential psychiatric treatment program, focuses on being intentionally aware of the present moment without judgment, rejection, or attachment. Through various forms of meditation, movement, sensory engagement, emotional observation, and contemplative reflection, mindfulness helps individuals who may be experiencing symptoms of mental illness maintain moment-to-moment cognizance.
Building Resilience Through Teen Athletics
In team and individual sports, as well as life, failure is a universal experience. Whether it’s making an error on routine groundball in baseball, hitting a golf ball into the trees on a par 3, getting picked last in gym class, not landing your dream job, or struggling in a relationship, failure provides the opportunity for reflection, perseverance, and growth. Team sports are a potent antidote for “me-first” orientation and improve communication and social interaction, while individual sports may be beneficial for athletes who need to work on their own self-confidence or the anxiety of being in the spotlight.
“Recognizing and managing adversity is really where sports have their value,” said Dr. Hunter. “There are multiple ways to reward athletes who may not have been crowned champions. We might consider honoring the ‘most improved player’ or ‘best display of sportsmanship’. Sending the message that everyone is equal and winning isn’t important is not helpful or realistic. “We need to teach young people that there are many ways to define success. We are not necessarily in control of the outcome, but we are always in control of our effort and attitude. Coming to terms with this reality is an incredibly powerful step towards developing resilience, and that’s what mental health is all about.” added Dr. Hunter. He notes that these values are directly in line with the treatment philosophy of the evidence-based psychotherapies utilized at Skyland Trail.
Teaching kids to deal with minor setbacks like losses or injuries early in life is the best way to prepare them for the inherent challenges that will arise later, when the stakes are higher. As Michael Jordan once famously said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The Mental Health Risks of Athletics
While the potential benefits of athletic participation are numerous, sports can present various risks to the mental health of athletes and participants young and old. Some reports suggest that while sports present many opportunities for growth, the number of youth athletes with mental illnesses has been on the rise.
Traumatic Brain Injuries and Mental Health
Not surprisingly, damage to the brain from collisions has been shown to cause greater instances of mental illnesses such as depression and psychosis. Through repeated blows, or even one substantial head injury, the connections between brain neurons can be profoundly disrupted. While there is less available research on younger athletes and concussions, the evidence and links between conditions like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy and mental illness are clear. This is particularly concerning in high-contact sports like football and boxing.
“Every parent should carefully consider the risks of their kids playing football with the current safety equipment technology,” says Dr. Hunter, who suggests that parents and children have a frank discussion about the short and long-term risks as well as the benefits of participation. “In some cases, when young people cannot appreciate the risks of participation, substituted judgment may be required. That’s an essential element of parenting. We do not need to sacrifice our kids’ hands to teach them the burner is hot.” At the same time, Dr. Hunter encourages collaborative problem solving, saying that parents must demonstrate respect for the feelings and opinions of their children. “They deserve to contribute to decisions that affect them. It’s an evolving partnership with parents exercising the deciding vote until kids prove themselves capable of doing so. ”
Over Scheduling and Teen Mental Health
Another factor that could contribute to young athletes developing a mental illness like depression or anxiety is over-involvement. Sports offer many unique opportunities for personal development, but kids also need time to complete schoolwork, socialize, rest, and recover. In other words, they still need to be kids. How far and to what level are kids willing to dedicate themselves? How will they prioritize sports in comparison to other enriching activities? Do they have a reasonable amount of time and energy to contribute to their schoolwork? Are 30 hours per week of practices and games cutting into their sleep, relaxation, and self-care? Time spent in athletic pursuit should be carefully rationed, just like screen time.
Achievement versus Value Driven
“We love it when our kids’ activity choices match our own interests, but we need to check in regularly to make sure they’re still enjoying it,” Dr. Hunter says. “If kids play sports to live out a parent’s dream rather than pursue their own, that’s a recipe for dissatisfaction. We can easily and unintentionally get caught up in the spirit of competition and neglect our kids’ needs.”
Dr. Hunter recommends having regular conversations with young athletes to ensure they’re still enjoying the sports in which they’re participating. This is one way to improve overall communication between kids and their parents. But, parents need to convey the appropriate message when having these conversations with their kids.
“Parental expectations can give mixed messages if not carefully crafted,” warns Dr. Hunter. “Linking success with support and love is never going to be sustainable. Give them positive reinforcement for how hard they work and how well they handle adversity, and by all means celebrate their victories with them, but be very careful not to predicate love and affection on athletic accomplishment. Remember that even though parents may not intend it, kids might feel it.”
Developing an identity is a key psychological milestone for adolescents and young adults, and participation in athletics can play a critical role in sense of self. However, this can yield both positive and negative results.
“We have to be really careful with activities that require maintenance of a certain weight or body image like wrestling, gymnastics, ballet, or dance,” says Dr. Hunter. “When a person links their value to their weight or appearance, that’s where mental health issues arise.”
Cultural norms and the concept of gender conformity can be highly problematic. Serena Williams, arguably one of the greatest athletes of all time regardless of sex or sport, has been a victim of body-shaming. Detractors claim the powerfully-built Williams is too muscular, too athletic, and not feminine enough. Williams has also been open about her struggles with depression, telling the Telegraph that she “cried all the time” following an injury in 2011. She was also very vocal about her own battles with postpartum depression following the birth of her daughter in 2017.
While sports may be deeply embedded in an athlete’s identity, having a self-image that revolves around this role may also be troubling. No matter how talented an athlete may be, at some point or another, their athletic career will end.
“The more an individual’s sense of self is centered on their role as an athlete, the more likely they experience a significant sense of loss when career transitions occur,” says Dr. Hunter.
Tiger Woods is a prime example. According to media reports and even his peers, Woods was so competitive and wrapped up in the idea of dominating golf early in his career, that he often appeared unfriendly and unapproachable. Following his well-documented personal struggles and physical health issues, Woods appears to have turned a corner mentally.
“Judging solely on what we can see on television, Tiger Woods is enjoying the game of golf more than ever. He laughs, he smiles, he tears up at times. He has dropped the air of invincibility; he speaks openly about his struggles. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s winning despite being far from his physical peak,” reflects Dr. Hunter, a golfer himself who closely followed Tiger’s recent wins at East Lake and the 2019 Masters. “You get the sense that his happiness is no longer hinged on perfection. That must be incredibly liberating.”
Mental Health Warning Signs and When to Seek Help
Given the emotional highs and lows inherent in sports, it is important to understand when it may be time for an athlete to seek help from a mental health professional. While an abundance of resources exists for professional athletes—teams commonly employ sports psychologists and refer athletes to physicians like psychiatrists when warranted—younger athletes typically don’t receive the same level of access to professional care.
“Creating a culture where every athlete has access to a therapist—not just to address issues, but to analyze successes as well—can really benefit everyone,” adds Dr. Hunter. “This could contribute significantly to stigma reduction as well.”
A major warning sign for mental illness is when an individual’s functioning becomes impaired. This does not just pertain to functioning in the arena of athletics, but in life’s other domains as well, such as school, work, or interpersonal relationships. It’s natural to experience a rollercoaster of emotions after a particularly difficult loss, but when that mood lingers for considerable time afterwards, or when mental health symptoms begin to affect a person’s ability to function at their fullest capacity, it may be time to re-evaluate participation and seek out a mental health assessment.
When it comes to anxiety, a certain amount of nervousness is to be expected in sports.. In fact, performance-related anxiety can be highly beneficial, heightening physical arousal and preparing an individual for intense competition. However, when anxiety begins to seriously impair performance or spill over into other areas of life, coaches and parents should take note. Signs of troublesome anxiety in a child or teenager might include negative self-talk, chronic physical symptoms like digestive distress or headaches, increased anger or irritability, isolation or social withdrawal, or drug or alcohol abuse. Presence of any of these symptoms suggests that an athlete’s anxiety is likely to benefit from the services of a mental health professional.
“At the end of the day, the most important message for parents and young people is to reach out for help early. There’s never a wrong time to see a professional, and if the thought has crossed your mind, I’d encourage you to take that step. There is so much inherent benefit to working with a mental health professional, whether you have a diagnosable issue or not. The greatest athletes in the world will tell you it’s critical to their success,” concludes Dr. Hunter.
Skyland Trail offers evidence-based psychiatric treatment for adults ages 18 and up and for adolescents ages 14-17. Skyland Trail’s holistic and integrated approach to mental wellness includes mental, medical, and social models that help clients improve physical and mental health, independence, and relationships with family and friends.