Sport and Mental Health: a HUGE Opportunity!

Every human on the planet has at least one BIG thing in common: we are embodied. And these bodies were built to move.

We are both body and brain, and we have been since the first squirm of our species. When we try to soothe concerns of the mind (especially in the context of mental health), we must consider the body as well.

As Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett said, “our brains did not evolve for us to think and feel and see, it actually evolved to control your body. And everything else we do we do in service to the body.”

“When we try to soothe concerns of the mind (especially in the context of mental health), we must consider the body as well.” #TeamEmbrace #MentalHealth

This should bring great hope to anyone operating in the athletics space. Over the course of history, sport/play/physical activity has helped us stay healthy, keep fit, and develop skills that we can use throughout our lives. Beyond the many physical benefits, sport can also help prevent mental health issues in teens and adolescents. From connecting with others to developing a sense of purpose, there are countless ways that sport can benefit mental health.

Understand the Issue (and the opportunity)

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety and depression are among the most common mental health disorders in the US, with an estimated 31% of adolescents experiencing anxiety and 14% experiencing a major depressive episode. Furthermore, suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the US, with approximately 3,041 deaths in 2019 alone. While there are many different factors that contribute to these issues, sport can play a critical role in reducing their impact.

One of the most important benefits of sport is its ability to foster connections and social bonds. By playing team sports or joining clubs, teens can develop meaningful relationships with others who share their interests and values. This type of social support is critical, especially for teens who may be struggling with mental health issues.

“31% of adolescents have #anxiety and 14% experience a major depressive episode every year… suicide is the second leading cause of death among adolescents in the US,” Can sports offer support??

For example, research has shown that social isolation is closely linked to depression and anxiety, (Zadeh et al, 2021). By participating in sport, teens have a chance to connect with others in a meaningful way, which can help combat feelings of loneliness and isolation. Plus, being part of a team or group can be a source of accountability and motivation, making it easier to stick to healthy habits.

Another key benefit of sport is the mentorship that comes from coaches and other leaders. In addition to providing guidance on technical skills, coaches can also serve as role models and sources of inspiration for young athletes. They can help instill discipline, teamwork, and resilience, all of which are important traits for healthy self-esteem and mental wellbeing.

Perhaps one of the most underrated benefits of sport is the value of play and healthy competition. These activities can provide a sense of purpose and achievement, helping young people feel more confident and motivated. They can also provide an outlet for negative emotions, such as anger or frustration, helping participants learn to cope with difficult feelings in a healthy way.

Furthermore, physical fitness and mental health are closely aligned, (Sharma et al, 2006). Exercise is known to release endorphins, which can improve mood and reduce anxiety. In fact, research has shown that exercise can be as effective as medication for treating depression and anxiety in some cases, (Dishman et al, 2020). By promoting physical fitness through sport, we are also promoting mental wellbeing.

In addition to these benefits, participation in sport can also help teens develop important skills such as decision-making, problem-solving, communication, and leadership. These skills can be applied in other areas of life, such as school, work, and relationships, helping young people become more well-rounded and confident adults.

It Won’t Happen Automatically…

Of course, it’s important to note that sport is not a silver bullet for mental health issues. There are many different factors that can contribute to anxiety, depression, and other disorders, and each person’s journey to recovery will be unique. However, sport can be a powerful tool in preventing and managing these issues, especially when paired with other forms of treatment such as therapy or medication.

And not all sports environments are created equal. As the Good Athlete Project always suggests, “Sports don’t teach life lessons… coaches do, cultures do, but it has to be intentional.” Sports offer a fantastic benefit within the greater conversation of mental health, but it is the leaders in the space who bring it home.

The value of sport in preventing mental health issues in teens and adolescents cannot be overstated. From fostering social connections to providing mentorship and teaching valuable life skills, sport has countless benefits that can help young people lead happier, healthier lives. By promoting physical fitness and healthy competition, we are also promoting mental wellbeing. While there is still much work to be done in addressing mental health issues, sport can be an important part of the solution.

From here, it’s up to YOU, coach. Embrace the conversation of Mental Health in Athletics. And let us know how we can support.