The impact of sports on the mental health of American children

In the 1960s, I played on a successful college football team that steadily improved its record, winning all but one game in my senior year. It was a low-key, enjoyable experience without too much focus on emotional or tactical challenges. My specific feeling is that none of the teammates, including the most talented, had a fleeting sense of achieving fame or fortune—altogether, a different reality from the prevailing reality.

While sometimes I am nostalgic about my college athletic experience, the easy way out of it seems unrealistic in today’s hyped-up environment. Participation in American youth sports has exploded since 2010, with $19 billion of organized events becoming a big business involving approximately 60 million American youths ages 6 to 18.

The massive growth has increased the emphasis on children’s athletic performance, especially in an era where athletic scholarships increasingly ease the burden of skyrocketing college costs. For our young compatriots, it can be a painful, even dangerous experience.

A Destructive Pair: Sports and Stress

These days, the media is awash with information about the impact of sports on youth. A survey of more than 11,000 Americans between the ages of 9 and 13 revealed a significant difference.

Parents and guardians indicated that youth engaged in team sports had lower levels of anxiety and depression, less trouble paying attention, and fewer social problems than peers who did not participate in sports. In contrast, athletes involved in individual sports showed the inverse pattern, suffering from more mental-health problems than non-participants.

In some cases, athletes have been emphatically clear about their preference. For example, Andre Agassi became a tennis superstar because his father forced him to focus on the sport instead of soccer, which the boy found much less stressful. In his autobiography, Agassi recalled the feelings of his youth. “I get to play three times a week at school, and I love running across the football field, with the wind in my hair, calling for the ball, knowing the world won’t end if I don’t score. Father’s, my family’s, planet Earth’s fate is not on my shoulders. … Team sports, I decide, is the way to go.

Influential adults these days often contribute to the personal struggles of young players. One sports psychologist lamented that Americans “too often observe media portrayals, social media commentary, coaches, and even parents that view mental health difficulties as a sign of weakness.” he said that “[c]”Hanging the conversation around mental illness and being more open about the challenges” can significantly reduce people’s stigmatizing beliefs.

While team participants are often mentally healthier than in individual sports, some find themselves facing the type of debilitating reality just described. Recently, an offensive lineman on Ohio State’s football team suddenly retired, indicating he had contemplated suicide after the 2021 season. He told the coach, who immediately got him professional help. The player was grateful, adding that he had been hopelessly confused. “At that point, I would rather be dead than a coward. I would rather be nothing than explain what was wrong.

Shortly thereafter the goalkeeper and captain of the Stanford women’s soccer team committed suicide.

Her mother said, “I think there’s a lot of pressure on athletes … especially with that high level of academics and a highly competitive environment. And there’s anxiety and there’s stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be No. 1.” Is.

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The student-athletes’ levels of mental exhaustion, depression, and anxiety increased. The groups most vulnerable to higher distress rates were women, people of color, individuals who self-identify as LGBTQ, and financially burdened families.

One interviewee said, “I find it really hard not being able to live life regularly. No matter what I do, I feel like I’m at risk of getting sick and putting other people at risk.” It creates more self-isolation than I’m used to, leaving me a lot more time to think and worry about many different things.

Like the sports psychologist cited earlier, a clinical consultant who coordinates DePaul University’s mental-health services for student-athletes, called for support for endangered athletes—in this instance the campus group “Stigma”. Let’s use your voice to help reduce that.”

He added that when such programs develop, players often seek therapy, believing that “taking care of themselves mentally can make student-athletes less likely to seek help.” This is a straightforward, critically important step.

Chris Dobbs is professor emeritus of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and author of several books on sociology and sports.

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