Can Playing Team Sports Improve Teens’ Mental Health?
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In today’s fast-paced world, teenagers are grappling with unprecedented mental health challenges. Studies have revealed a troubling trend that’s resulting in a mental health crisis for teens. Approximately 1 in 7 adolescents aged 10 to 19 experience a mental health disorder. The most common mental health conditions faced are anxiety and depression. Factors that contribute to the mental health struggles for teens include academic pressure, social media influence and a continued stigma surrounding mental health. Adding more fuel to the fire exacerbating mental health concerns was the COVID-19 pandemic. Teens have been dealing with intensified feelings of isolation, stress and uncertainty since the beginning of the pandemic. As the number of teens struggling continues to rise, it becomes even more crucial to address their mental health needs. 

Teens who can face additional mental health challenges include athletes. Despite the obstacles, it can be a relief that a beacon shines in the dark. Awareness of mental health challenges that can be faced by athletes has increased significantly in recent years. Several high-profile athletes have even spoken about their own struggles. This awareness on the mental health struggles of athletes is encouraging. It can help reduce the shame and stigma that can surround mental health. It can also help normalize asking for help in times of struggle. Research also shows that team sports can have an enormous positive impact on teens’ mental health. 

Mental health benefits of team sports: It’s never just been about winning

The physical health benefits of team sports are well known. Participating in team sports can have a significant impact on a teen’s mental health. The physical activity alone of being on a team can help reduce a teen’s symptoms of anxiety and depression, improve mood, and boost a teen’s overall psychological well-being. Physical activity can do this through a variety of ways including:

  • Stress relief — Team sports can give teens a healthy outlet to release pent-up stress and tension. The physical activity involved in team sports can help reduce levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Reducing cortisol levels can promote a sense of relaxation and well-being. If teens are facing academic pressures and social challenges, they can benefit greatly from this stress-relieving aspect of team sports.
  • Endorphin release — Doing physical activity, like that done by participating in team sports, triggers the release of endorphins in a teen’s brain. Endorphins are the body’s natural mood boosters. They can help boost mood, alleviate anxiety, and contribute to feelings of happiness and relaxation. For teens dealing with stress and pressures, the endorphin release from participating in team sports can be just what they need to help them decompress and recharge. 
  • Cognitive boost — Team sports can also help teens develop their brains. Participating in a team sport requires planning, decision-making, problem-solving and goal setting. These can all help improve a teen’s executive functioning skills. Playing a sport also involves concentration and focus. It can involve tracking a soccer ball or coordinating plays on the basketball court. Having sustained attention can help teens develop concentration skills that can also help them in their academics. To be a contributing member of a team, a teen has to be able to learn and recall plays, strategies and rules. These can help improve their memory skills — how to do certain things and remembering facts and information. This can help boost their overall memory capacity.
  • Self-esteem boost — Participating in team sports gives teens the chance to build their confidence and self-esteem. They can gain a sense of accomplishment and pride in their abilities as they work to develop skills and achieve their goals. Studies have shown that teens who are involved in sports can have higher levels of self-esteem and confidence in their body image compared to their nonathletic peers. A study by the Women’s Sports Foundation has found that girls who participate in sports have higher self-esteem and feel better about themselves. 
  • Better sleep — Team sports can involve a lot of physical activity. This activity can help lead to a teen having physical exhaustion in a good way. When teens participate in the vigorous activity of team sports, it wears their body out and it can be easier for them to fall asleep and have a more restorative sleep. It can also help regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, promoting wakefulness and alertness during the day and signaling the brain that it’s time to wind down at night. 

In addition to the physical impact on a teen’s mental health, team sports can provide teens with the opportunity to boost their social mental health. Team sports provide teens opportunities for social interaction, teamwork and leadership development. It can also give teens ways to have:

  • Social connection — Being part of a sports team can give teens a sense of belonging and camaraderie. They have an instant supportive social network where they can also develop meaningful relationships. 
  • Resilience building — Team sports can help teach teens valuable lessons in resilience, perseverance and coping with challenges. Teen athletes learn to navigate setbacks, failures and how to handle competition on the field. This can help teens develop a mental toughness and adaptability that will help them manage stress and overcome obstacles in various areas throughout their lives. 
  • Emotional regulation — You win some and you lose some. In the heat of competition, team sports can help teenagers learn to manage their emotions effectively. They can learn how to stay calm and focused during intense moments. Self-control and a positive mindset can help them regulate their emotions in everyday life and take the wins and losses in stride. 
  • Sense of purpose — Being a part of a team can give teens a sense of purpose and an identity at a time when their identity can straddle childhood and adulthood, leaving them feeling adrift. They can also feel valued and supported as they work toward a common goal with their teammates. This can boost their self-esteem and motivation, which can encourage them to strive for excellence on and off the field. 

Further benefits can be specifically found in teen girls with ADHD on sports teams. Regular physical activity can help improve attention, impulse control and executive functioning. This can help the teens develop essential life skills and thrive within a supportive community.

Team sports mental health challenges 

While team sports can boast a number of benefits for the mental health of teens, like improved physical health, social connections and a sense of achievement, there can also be some challenges. Factors like intense training schedules, juggling academics, competition stress and the desire to meet expectations can lead to increased stress and mental health issues among student-athletes. 

Some sports have characteristics that can make them potentially challenging for a teen athlete’s mental health. These characteristics can be more risky if they aren’t managed properly. Sports that have high risks of head injuries, like football or boxing, can have long-term brain health issues. Concussions can bring an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression or other mental health challenges. Sports that have an emphasis on weight loss or strict weight requirements can pose a challenge for athletes’ mental health. Athletes in these kinds of sports, which can include gymnastics, wrestling, and certain types of dance, can be at an increased risk of developing eating disorders or body image issues. These struggles can have an impact on their overall well-being. 

Some mental health conditions can be more common in athletes who play an individual sport than those who play team sports. Athletes who participate in individual sports, like swimming or tennis, may struggle more with their mental health. This could be due to only having themselves to rely on whereas athletes on a team have a whole team around them to support them. 

Benefits and risks to a teen athlete’s mental health can also vary between teen boy athletes and teen girl athletes. All genders can experience positive effects from team sports; however, some differences to consider can include:

  • Body image — Girls may face more pressure regarding body image in certain sports. This pressure can contribute to them developing a negative body image or an eating disorder. Boys may also face body image pressures, but they may manifest differently.
  • Risk of injury — Boys can tend to play sports that have higher risks of injury. If injuries happen frequently or are severe, they can have a significant impact on a boy’s mental health. Girls aren’t immune from injuries, though. Girls often face injuries in sports like soccer and basketball. 
  • Social factors — Boys and girls may experience social pressures differently within their sports teams or from societal expectations related to athletics. These pressures can affect their relationships and mental health in unique ways. 
  • Coping mechanisms — Boys and girls may develop different coping mechanisms through sports. Boys can be inadvertently taught to “tough it out” or suppress their emotions. Girls may be encouraged to express their feelings.

Fortunately, many high school and middle school coaches are acknowledging and addressing the challenges team sports can present. They are also becoming more aware of the importance of mental health and self-care. Due to this growing awareness for student-athlete mental health, more school districts and coaches are integrating mental health education and support into their programs. In 2023, Ohio became the first state to mandate mental health training for all high school coaches. Implementing steps to improve student-athlete mental health can boost their athletic performance as well as their overall well-being and can help teen athletes have a positive and supportive athletic experience. 

The risks of team sports don’t have to outweigh the benefits teens can gain. If a teen is struggling with their mental health due to the challenges of team sports, working with a mental health professional can help.

Therapy for teenage athletes

At Lightfully, we use a unique approach called process-based therapy (PBT). This approach allows us to integrate the best parts of evidence-based techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to provide whole-person-centered care. PBT can help equip teen athletes with the tools they need to embrace the benefits of team sports while overcoming the challenges they can also face. PBT can help athletes:

  • Embrace their strengths on and off the field
  • Learn stress management skills to cope with pressure effectively
  • Develop a more positive self-image and self-esteem
  • Enhance relationships by improving communication skills and making positive connections
  • Find a balance to prioritize self-care, set boundaries and establish healthy routines

Lightfully Teen can help teen athletes thrive 

At Lightfully Teen, we understand the value of team sports for teenagers. The challenges that can also be associated with sports can be a concern, but our holistic and personalized approach to care can help empower teens to overcome those challenges. We can guide teens to embrace the benefits of team sports while also equipping them with the tools they need to leap over the obstacles they may face. 

Change is possible. When they’re ready to take the first step, reach out to us. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of your teen.

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