Youth sports come with many benefits, and recent studies show that sports participation has a positive effect on wellbeing, as long as a child’s maturity level is considered, and their training load is appropriate for their age and abilities. While sports can teach important life skills, such as discipline, commitment, and work ethic, there can be a downside to sports participation. When parents and coaches have reasonable expectations, athletics can boost youth mental health, but on the other hand, unreasonable demands and overtraining can damage psychological wellbeing.
Mental Health Benefits of Youth Sports
Before diving into the potential risks associated with youth athletics, it’s important to highlight the benefits of sports participation. One recent study found that joining a sports team was associated with improved mental health functioning in youth. The mental health benefits of sports were found to be explained by a higher sense of belonging with peers. What can be concluded is that feelings of belongingness that come from being part of a team can boost mental health for children and teens.
Additional research has shown that team sports participation can have a protective effect on mental health. For instance, children and teens who participate in team sports experience the following benefits when compared to those who do not play team sports:
- 10% reduction in anxiousness/depression
- 19% lower scores in withdrawal/depression
- 17% reduction in social problems
- 12% lower scores for attention problems
- 17% reduction in thinking problems
Based upon these results, being part of a team can improve social skills and reduce the risk of mental health problems related to anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
The Mental Health Risks Linked to Sports
While youth sports participation can come with mental health benefits, there is also a downside to athletics for some youth. The same study noted above found that individual sports participation is associated with the following mental health risks:
- 16% increased risk of anxiety/depression
- 14% higher risk of withdrawal/depression
- 12% higher score on social problems
- 14% increased risk of attention problems
Additional research has confirmed the above findings. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that 16.9% of elite youth athletes report at least one current mental health problem, and 25.1% report that they’ve experienced a mental health problem at some point during their lifetimes. In line with the study noted above, young athletes in individual sports were found to be more likely to experience depression when compared to those in team sports, and girls were more likely to have mental health problems when compared to boys.
Causes of Mental Health Problems in Young Athletes
Youth sports can be a positive experience for many athletes, and athletic participation may even protect from mental health problems. However, it cannot be denied that a significant portion of child and teen athletes struggle with mental health challenges. This fact has prompted researchers and advocates to explore the reasons underlying poor mental health in young athletes.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to poor mental health in these athletes:
- High pressure: The pressure to perform and win every game, meet, or match can take a toll on the mental health of young athletes. Youth who begin participating in sports for camaraderie, exercise, and character development may find that the joy of the game is lost when they’re under constant pressure to outperform every other team.
- Burnout: Schedules that are packed with team practices, training, and tournaments can quickly lead to burnout. What began as a hobby can become a full-time job, especially for young athletes who travel around the country to play in high-level tournaments. With no time to explore other hobbies or simply rest and recover, the effects of burnout can negatively impact mental health.
- Abuse: Coaches and parents who are focused on winning may turn to abusive tactics to force athletes to comply with their demands, or as punishment for underperformance. For example, a coach or parent who is upset with an athlete’s performance may use name-calling or excessive put downs to express their displeasure.
- Perfectionism: Young athletes who feel pressure to succeed are at risk of struggling with feelings of shame when they do not live up to expectations. This can lead to perfectionistic attitudes, which can be maladaptive and lead to mental health problems.
- The effects of injury: High-stress, competitive sporting environments may lead athletes to overtrain, which places them at risk of injury. Injuries that sideline an athlete can cause isolation and damage self-esteem, both of which can be harmful for mental health.
Protecting the Mental Health of Young Athletes
Unfortunately, when athletes develop mental health problems, they are likely to experience a decline in performance, even if perfectionism, shame, and high stakes environments lead them to spend hours training. They may even drop out of their sport if the stress and anxiety become too much to bear.
So, what can parents and coaches do to support athletes’ mental health? First, it’s important for parents and coaches to keep an open door policy with athletes. Adults must communicate that it’s okay for athletes to reach out when they’re struggling with mental health. Since youth may be reluctant to ask for help when they need it, it’s also good practice to check in from time-to-time.
It can also be helpful to teach athletes about healthy coping skills, and to help them correct any unrealistic beliefs, such as the belief that they are a failure if they make one mistake or have a bad game. Beyond this, it’s helpful to encourage young athletes to develop hobbies and interests outside of their sport, so that their entire identity is not tied to their sports performance.
Finally, adults must be mindful of their word choices. Telling an athlete, “Don’t let your team down!” may make them feel as if they are responsible for the wellbeing of the entire team, whereas encouraging them to, “Put forth full effort” can be a healthier approach.
Despite parents’ and coaches’ best efforts, some athletes may need professional mental health support. An athlete who seems withdrawn or overly anxious, or who begins to develop a negative attitude toward themself or the sport as a whole, may benefit from talking with a counselor or therapist. A mental health professional can diagnose and treat clinical conditions like depression or anxiety, and help a young athlete to develop healthy coping and stress management skills.
Mission Harbor Behavioral Health provides outpatient mental health services in the Southern California region, with office locations in both Los Angeles or Santa Barbara. We have programming specifically for teens, and we involve parents in the process, so you can learn how to best support your child. Contact us today to learn more or to schedule an appointment.