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The Impact of Sports on a Student Athlete’s Mental Health

Most high school students participate on a sports team, whether to complete school requirements or to maintain their appreciation for their sport. 7% of high school athletes continue to play a sport through college. Physical activity is very important for our wellbeing and most students are encouraged to partake in sports and physical activity. In addition to staying in shape, sports often provide team support and the lesson of sportsmanship. However, do sports negatively impact the mental health of student athletes?

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The likelihood of student athletes developing a mental illness continues to increase. The pressure of success and constant training places students in difficult positions as they begin to adjust their schedules and lives around their sport. Soon, the sport becomes a large part of a student’s identity, and can even lead to the point of obsession. As an athlete’s goals continue to grow, their willingness to to do nearly anything to achieve those goals will also grow. 

A widely perceived stereotype regarding athletes, is the standard body types. Athletes are most commonly thought of to be very muscular and lean, and are most often portrayed that way in the media. This standard has created an understanding that in order to be successful at a sport, an athlete’s body must represent the idolized body type. The pressure of looking a certain way or performing a certain way has led to an increase in eating disorders among athletes. Many athletes will diet or overwork themselves in order to achieve the favored body type, or even because they believe it will dramatically improve their performance. In addition to the harmful behavior, many coaches or teammates won’t find anything wrong with the change in habits. In fact, an athlete who changes their diet and spends more time in the gym or working at their sport is often seen as more dedicated, and the harmful behavior is then praised. 

Immense amounts of pressure are often put on student athletes. Not only is there an expectation to succeed at their sport, but there is also an expectation to do well with their schoolwork. High school athletes face hours of school, hours of practice, and hours of homework before they repeat the process again. These pressures often take a toll on the athlete. Anxiety and depression are popular in student athletes, as they struggle with achieving their goals and meeting expectations. The NCAA found that 10-15% of student athletes will show signs of mental illness severe enough to warrant counseling. 

MY RESPONSE: WHAT CAN WE DO?

Many colleges across America are beginning to recognize the importance of acknowledging mental health issues among their student athletes. Treatment for mental illness has become more accessible, and colleges are working to de-stigmatize mental illness in order to prevent students from turning away help due to appearance.

Important Steps:

  • De-stigmatizing mental illness among student athletes
  • Providing easier access to psychological help and/or support groups
  • Supporting yourself and your teammates and creating a welcoming environment
  • Raising awareness in order to make recognizing symptoms of a mental illness easier

I want to be able to make mental health support more accessible among high school teams. De-stigmatizing mental illness and allowing people to accept the normalcy of developing a mental illness is just as important as providing help. Supporting yourself and your teammates is one of the most important parts of participating in a sport. Not only do you want to maintain good physical health, but you also want to maintain good mental health. 

HOW WILL YOU HELP?

Please help give me feedback by answering the following questions in the comments:

  • Do you participate in a sport, and have you ever noticed a change in behavior among yourself or a teammate while in season versus not?
  • If you do play a sport, how often do you practice, and for how long? Do you feel as though you should be practicing more or less?
  • Do you feel as though you have easy access to psychological help, should you need it?

Works Cited

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COMMENTS: 28
  1. April 23, 2020 by Emily

    Hey Sophia, I play a spring sport that has practices 6/7 days a week, and there’s a huge difference in my behavior from first semester and second semester due to the spring semester. I really liked your research and your claim that mental health support needs to be more accessible for high schoolers because that was a part of my project as well. I will definitely keep your research in mind next time I’m doing a sport and notice my mental health suffering. One factor I found interesting was how women display more depressive symptoms than males, so I think that’s something interesting to think about. Great job!

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey, Emily! I also found it interesting that women tend to show more depressive symptoms than men, and I’m hoping to do more research to see if I can figure out why. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  2. April 24, 2020 by Samantha

    Sophia, great work! In response to your questions, I play a school sport in the fall and club sports the rest of the year. In the fall and winter, I generally will be practicing 5-6 days a week, and I definitely think I am a lot more stressed and I put more pressure on myself to perform better. Sometimes I feel as if I have to practice more to prove I’m good enough to be on the team. I also do feel as if I have easy access to psychological help! I really enjoyed reading your presentation — I really only just started learning about mental health in sports in the past few years, which I feel is too late. Awesome work!

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Samantha! I’m so happy to hear that you have easy access to psychological help. In regards to what you said about learning about mental health in sports, it’s never too late to start learning something new and I’m happy I could contribute to your understanding. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  3. April 24, 2020 by Sofia

    Hey Sophia! Your work was really interesting and well done. For your questions, I play 2 sports, one year round as well as a separate spring sport. In the fall, I will usually have 3-4 practices a week, in the winter I will have around 5 practices a week, and in the spring I double up and will be attending a sports event almost every day of the week. Although I enjoy my sports, I do put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself, putting myself down and feeling upset when I am not performing the way I want. My school work has also been affected because I get home late. I think your presentation really opened my eyes up to the possibility that a lot of my stress may come from my “obsession” with my sports. Great job capturing this problem!

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Sofia! I’m so impressed with your sports schedule, especially in the spring. I totally understand how you feel about feeling upset when you don’t perform the way you want to and I think just feeling like that impacts my performance even more. I’m so happy that I was able to provide you a possible insight to a cause of your stress, and I hope the information I provided will be able to help you lessen it a bit. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  4. April 24, 2020 by Anna

    Hey Sophia,
    During high school i have been on the track and field team, field hockey team, and lacrosse team. I think while sports can be stressful in my experience myself and teammates tend to be happier during season on the whole. i think there are always weeks and practices that are frustrating but i know i’m happier and work better during sports seasons. I typically practice 5-6 days a week for 2 hours. I don’t think this needs to be less because for me it’s a nic get away. Running and playing sports gives me a break from school and homework. I think i do with the school conseiller. I think that of I were a college athlete these answers would be very different, but as a high school athlete i think the pressure is very manageable.

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Anna! I used to participate in field hockey and track too! Unfortunately I have taken up rowing which I participate in year round so I can no longer participate in other sports, but I do miss them. I understand what you said about practice being a type of get away and break from school. I tend to try to only focus on my sport while at practice so that I don’t overwhelm myself with all of the schoolwork I have to do when I get home. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  5. April 24, 2020 by Rory

    Hi Sophia! I love that you did this topic. I was a competitive swimmer for 7 years. There were times where I would be practicing twice a day six days a week for 2-3 hours each practice. I finally quit and noticed that there wasn’t that pressure over my head anymore or guilt for not going to practice or a shameful experience with my body. My attitude to something I loved became sour because it made me sad and stressed instead of how it used to make me feel happy when I was younger. I definitely noticed a change from elementary to high school. I still loved swimming but the social environment got super oppressive and my worth was based off my speed. I still think about going back to swimming because I miss it, but the attitude is something I do not miss and do not want to experience again. I think this is just such a wonderful topic that you did I really feel it!

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Rory! I totally understand how the sport you loved turned into something less desirable because of the stress associated with it. There are days where I contemplate why I still participate in my sport because of all of the stress and pressure that comes with it. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  6. April 24, 2020 by Elaine

    Hi Sophia! I played volleyball and softball (and did a bit of track). During the school season we had practice everyday for two hours; for club volleyball I had practice twice a week. Honestly, just like any extracurricular activity, it can cause stress simply because you’re adding something to your plate. However, overall, I’d say participating in sports was more beneficial than anything. One example I can give is that during finals week, some people skip some of the practices to study. I found that going to practice actually helped because I was able to let my brain take a break from look at books and screens. Another benefit I think is that it gives students another community to surround themselves with. For example, I have had teammates that were stressed from school but were able to feel better because they were at practice with their friends. I don’t think my sports schedule was too demanding, so it was a good balance of not taking up too much of my time but still forcing me to manage my time. Our high school does not really offer easy access to psychological help for athletes; however, I do think that would be beneficial. I know that that’s more common on college and professional teams, but I’d say that that can make a huge difference in the team dynamic as well as performance.

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Elaine! I really like the point you made about finals week. My teachers and coaches actually encourage students to go to practice during exam weeks, just so that they aren’t constantly immersed in school work and studying. I also like the point you made about having another community because of sports. I’m part of a team that isn’t affiliated with a school, so for me it’s really nice to leave school at the end of the day and spend time with an entirely new group of people. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  7. April 26, 2020 by sarah

    Hi Sophia! Throughout high school I have both played lacrosse for school and for club. I had practice typically 5 days a week with two games mixed in to the days for my school. My club team I would have 2-3 practices a week and tournaments almost every weekend. I certainly know from my self experience that when the spring season comes around I am much more motivated, productive and happy. I found that going to sports was sort of my outlet for any school/social stuff that was going on in my life. I am not sure that I would go as far as saying that I have “easy” access to psychological help but I think if I really needed it I would be able to work something out.

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Sarah! I definitely relate to using sports as an outlet. When I’m at practice I try to only focus on my responsibilities there and avoid thinking about the school and social stuff I’ll have to face when I’m out of practice. I think sports can provide a really nice break from life sometimes. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  8. April 26, 2020 by sam

    Hi Sophia! For most of the years that I have been in school, I have always played a sport mainly volleyball, basketball, and soccer more than the others. During those times I would always find my schedule to be jam-packed and not find much time for me to relax. Practices starting in the early morning, going to school, and then coming home and immediately moving into another practice. After so many years of this, I started to realize that these sports that I loved to play were becoming very taxing on my mental health. My stress and anxiety levels were going through the roof on most occasions because of the time I was spending trying to perfect my sport rather than my time in school. So, this year I finally decided to slow down the amount of pressure that I put on myself and focus on mainly soccer but still fit in my other sports when I felt like I could. Mental health is something that athletes often push to the side because we are all told that physical activity is supposed to lessen these issues, but this is why I thank you for choosing this topic because it can be hard for many athletes going through the same things to understand when they need to take a break and care for themselves.

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Sam! I really appreciate what you said about how athletes tend to push mental health to the side in order to prioritize physical health. I really hope mental health becomes more normalized among sports so that athletes don’t have to feel ashamed when they take deserved time off to focus on their mental health. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  9. April 26, 2020 by Michaela

    Hi Sophia! I have played many sports competitively in my life but as I approached high school, I decided to drop many of them so I could focus more on my favourite one, volleyball. I definitely notice a change in behaviour during my club volleyball season and beach volleyball season. I feel happier, healthier, and my best during these times. I think this is because I am getting loads of exercise, seeing my friends regularly, and spending lots of time doing my favourite thing (volleyball). I currently practice volleyball three times a week for two hours and do weight training once a week for an hour. I feel as though am practicing enough. Although my team does not have a sports psychologist on hand, I know there are many adults in my life I could reach out to if I were to need help. I love your project, great job!

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Michaela! I’m so happy to hear the your sport has such a positive impact on you! Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  10. April 26, 2020 by Kennedy

    Hey Sophia! I loved your video from the Michigan gymnast, I think he definitely highlighted some important points for your project. I play basketball and usually have practice 5 times a week. During my season I actually have noticed that my mental health gets better because it becomes a time for me to release stress, and I do not have as much time to think. However, I have noticed that some of my teammates experience the opposite effect. If me or my teammates were in need of psychological help, we would be able to access it, but it is definitely not something that in advertised.

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Kennedy! I’m happy to hear the sports have such a positive impact on you, and I get what you mean about releasing stress while in season. I think in addition to acknowledging the importance of mental health among athletes, it is also important to note that some athletes use their sports almost like therapy, and it’s an important part of maintaining their mental health. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  11. April 26, 2020 by Matt

    Great project, I never thought sports could have a negative impact on mental health. Everyone around me has said that sports is one of the best things for the mind and you should play sports for as long as you’re able to and whatnot. To hear that sport life can become a source of anxiety and illness is quite something.

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Hey Matt! I’m glad I was able to provide you with more information about the relationship between sports and mental health. Thank you so much for your feedback, I really appreciate it!

  12. April 27, 2020 by Conner

    Do you participate in a sport, and have you ever noticed a change in behavior among yourself or a teammate while in season versus not?
    I participate in three sports and I have noticed a change in behavior amongst my teammates in and out of season. However, I have also noticed such changes mid-season even if they encounter injuries or health problems.
    If you do play a sport, how often do you practice, and for how long? Do you feel as though you should be practicing more or less?
    I practice about 2-3 hours a day, 6 times a week depending on the season. I think I should probably be practicing the same amount of time, however, it can sometimes cause stress on my normal academic and extracurricular life.
    Do you feel as though you have easy access to psychological help, should you need it?
    If my teammates or I were in need of psychological help, we would be able to access it, but it is definitely not something that is well advertised in my school or community.

  13. April 27, 2020 by Annabelle

    Do you participate in a sport, and have you ever noticed a change in behavior among yourself or a teammate while in season versus not?
    – I play a fall and spring sport and I definitely can feel a difference in myself. During season I get a lot of anxiety about my upcoming games to the point where it is hard for me to focus in class.
    If you do play a sport, how often do you practice, and for how long? Do you feel as though you should be practicing more or less?
    – Typically practice is 5 days a week for two hours. I think that this is a good amount. If I’m not feel too tired I might go out on my own and play, but I never force myself to.
    Do you feel as though you have easy access to psychological help, should you need it?
    – Yes! I’m playing a college sport next year and I made sure that there were sufficient mental health resources before I joined the team.

  14. April 27, 2020 by Sebastian

    Hey Sophia! First of all, props for a topic that I had honestly never even considered. Like it is all new to me, which totally took me by surprise and made your project feel fresh and new. I also loved the organization, the infographics helped, as they often do. The inclusion of “Important Steps” was a cool addition, really concreting and formalizing the goals of your project in an easily-understood way. I guess I wish that there was a little more guidance in the what-to-be-done department. I would have loved to see some real concrete things that everyday people can do. But overall, great project.

  15. April 27, 2020 by Emma McDermott

    Hey Sofia! I really loved reading about this topic because I think it is definitely not talked about as much as it should be. I work on the yearbook team at my school, and I recently had to interview a lot of student athletes for the sports pages. One of the most touching things that an athlete said to me was that she enjoyed playing her sport because she felt like her teammates could lean on each other each day and blow off steam together after school/during meets/etc. I personally do not play a sport, but I really admire the students who take on the task of perfecting a sport and keeping up with their schoolwork. Do you play a sport, and what is your personal experience with mental health and sports?

  16. April 27, 2020 by Chauncey Hill

    Hi! I completely agree with the idea that sports are so important to student’s mental health. Not only does it bring a sense of teamwork and support to someone’s life, but it also keeps students much more motivated for their school work. I have played sports throughout high school and thought that it was the best thing for my mental health because it kept me on top of everything since I was always busy.

  17. April 27, 2020 by Kalissa F

    Do you participate in a sport, and have you ever noticed a change in behavior among yourself or a teammate while in season versus not?

    Yes I play lots of sports but currently I play Lacrosse Volleyball and Fencing. I focus most on Lacrosse and notice the most behavior in myself when it comes to staying fit. Lacrosse is the reason I stay fit and volleyball is just for fun and so is fencing. The reason for that is how serious our team is and to keep up our school’s reputation of being the best. That’s where the mental toll of my teammates come from. Volleyball I’ve just been on JV so it’s just enjoyable and Fencing although it’s alot, it’s full of middle and high schoolers who aren’t a fan of running sports and still want to participate in something so there’s not a push for a certain body, just fit your gear.

    If you do play a sport, how often do you practice, and for how long? Do you feel as though you should be practicing more or less?

    With coronavirus, not much at all, maybe 20-40 minutes a week. For lacrosse about an hour and a half each day 6 days a week. For fencing about 3 hours but only 3 times a week and maybe a tournament on the weekend. Volleyball was about 2 hours or so but 5 days a week.

    Do you feel as though you have easy access to psychological help, should you need it?

    I’ve never really thought of it before, but probably no.

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