Opinion: The impact of sports on American children’s mental health

The Stanford women’s soccer team dons warmup jerseys with “Mental Health Matters” on their backs as well as a green butterfly patch on their sleeves to remember late goalie Katie Meyers earlier this year.

The Stanford women’s soccer team dons warmup jerseys with “Mental Health Matters” on their backs as well as a green butterfly patch on their sleeves to remember late goalie Katie Meyers earlier this year.

File photo

In the 1960s, I played on a successful college soccer team that steadily improved its record, winning all but one game my senior year. It was a low-key, pleasant experience without too much attention to emotional or tactical challenges. My distinct feeling is that no teammates, including the most talented, had even a fleeting sense of gaining fame or fortune — overall, a distinctly different reality from the prevailing one.

While occasionally I’m nostalgic about my college athletic experience, its easy-going approach seems unrealistic in today’s hyped-up atmosphere. Since 2010 participation in American youth sports has exploded, becoming a huge business involving about 60 million American youths aged 6 to 18 in organized programs worth $19 billion.

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

A destructive duo: sports and stress

These days, there’s a glut of media information about the effect playing sports has on youth. A survey of over 11,000 Americans between 9 and 13 revealed a significant distinction .

Parents and guardians indicated that the youngsters engaged in team sports tended to display lower levels of anxiety and depression, less trouble paying attention, and fewer social problems than peers who didn’t engage in sports. In contrast, the athletes involved in individual sports showed a reversed pattern, suffering more mental-health issues than the nonparticipants.

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

These days influential adults often contribute to young players’ personal struggles. A sports psychiatrist lamented that Americans “frequently observe media portrayals, social media commentary, coaches, and even parents who view mental health difficulties as a sign of weakness.” She added that “[c]hanging the dialogue around mental illness and being more open about challenges” can significantly reduce people’s stigmatizing beliefs.

While team participants are often mentally healthier than those in individual sports, some find themselves facing the type of debilitating reality just described. Recently an offensive lineman on Ohio State’s football team abruptly retired, indicating that he’d contemplated suicide following the 2021 season. He told the coach, who immediately got him professional assistance. The player was grateful, saying that he’d been hopelessly confused. “At the time, I would rather be dead than a coward. I’d rather be nothing at all, than have to explain everything that was wrong.”

Soon afterwards the goalie and captain for the Stanford women’s soccer team died by suicide. Her mother said, “There’s so much pressure I think on athletes … especially at that high level balancing academics and a high competitive environment. And there is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be number 1.”

During the pandemic , student-athletes’ levels of mental exhaustion, depression and anxiety rose. The groups most vulnerable to elevated distress rates were women, people of color, individuals identifying themselves as LGBTQ, and financially burdened families.

One interviewee said, “I think that it is really tough not being able to live life regularly. Anything I do, I feel like I am at risk of getting sick and risking other people. This creates more self isolation than I am used to which leaves me with too much time to think and worry about many different things.”

Like the sports’ psychiatrist cited earlier, a clinical counselor who coordinates DePaul University’s mental-health services for student-athletes called for a mobilization supporting endangered athletes — in this instance campus groups “using their voice to help reduce the stigma.”

He added that when such programs develop, players often seek therapy, appreciating that “taking care of yourself mentally can ease the apprehension of student-athletes seeking help.” It’s a straightforward, critically important step.

Chris Doob is an emeritus professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and the author of a variety of books involving sociology and sports.