Managing Mental Health Risks Associated with Sports

Sport not only improves physical fitness, it often has a positive impact on the mental well-being of many people. Engaging in regular activity can lead to improved mood, increased self-esteem, and reduced stress, anxiety and depression. It provides meaning, belonging and a sense of purpose. 

But, despite these positive aspects, sport can sometimes have negative effects on the mental health of both athletes and non-athletes. 

While everyone who participates in sport may experience mental health issues from time to time, professional athletes are more prone to ongoing psychological problems because their whole lives are dedicated to success and the pressure that brings. 

Below is a breakdown of the negative effects of sport on mental health and where to get help if you, or a loved one, need professional support.

5 Potentially Negative Outcomes of Sport on Mental Health and Where to Get Support to Mitigate the Risks

1. Bullying, Toxicity and Abuse

Although sport can foster positive relationships, it can also be an environment where bullying and abuse are rife. Toxicity can come from all angles including other team members, coaches, fans, and mainstream and social media. Triggers can range from poor individual performance, which can be perceived as letting the team down, to an athlete’s race, gender or sexuality. Sometimes the taunting and bullying is face to face, but it is increasingly done anonymously on social platforms. Trolling and offensive online comments can take a heavy toll on athletes’ mental health and well-being, causing stress and anxiety. Aggressive behavior from coaches is particularly damaging for vulnerable young sportspeople where there is an imbalance of power. Repeated criticism can have long-lasting effects on their social and emotional development.

2. Exercise Addiction 

Sometimes, a dedication to sport can spiral out of control to the point that an amateur or professional athlete becomes addicted to exercising. Exercise addiction is different from going to the gym every day to work out. Sufferers have a compulsive need to constantly exercise and experience withdrawal symptoms if they try to cut down or stop. Exercise addiction can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health in a number of ways. They are more prone to injury due to the number of hours spent exercising – even when they are exhausted or injured. And, they are more at risk of mental health problems than people who have a healthy relationship with exercise. Research has found they more likely to have experienced depression, ADHD and childhood trauma.

3. Eating Disorders

For athletes at all levels, the pressure to win and an emphasis on body image and weight can lead to disordered eating or eating disorders. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, although most athletes with eating disorders are female (a study found that over one-third of Division 1 NCAA athletes were at risk of developing anorexia nervosa) male athletes are also susceptible. The risk is heightened in sports where there is a focus on diet, appearance and weight, such as wrestling, bodybuilding, cycling and running. As well as the physical health implications of disordered eating, it can have a devastating impact on mental health and well-being. These negative effects include distorted thoughts, obsessive behaviors, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide ideation.

4. Stress and Sleep Disorders 

Research into the Sleep and Mental Health Issues in Current and Former Athletes has found that elite sportspeople are susceptible to sleep disorders. A gruelling combination of training, competition and travel can contribute to inadequate sleep and poor sleep quality. The stress associated with the pressures of performing at a high level can also cause sleep problems. And, it can turn into a vicious circle – with stress affecting the quality of sleep, but lack of sleep making it more difficult to handle stress. This can lead to greater stress and even less sleep.

5. Anxiety and Depression

People participating in sport at all levels of competition want to do their best, but professional athletes are under particular pressure to perform. Olympians spend four years in preparation and the slightest mishap can jeopardize the thousands of hours they have dedicated to training. Michael Phelps is the most successful Olympian of all time, but that has not made him immune to mental health issues. He has battled anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts: “I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore”.

Get Fast and Effective Help for a Mental Health Problem

If you, or a loved one, are finding it difficult to strike a healthy balance between the positive and negative effects of sport and don’t know where to turn, professional mental health care is available. 

At Kindbridge, we understand that taking the first step can be daunting, but we are here to support you through treatment and recovery. Our online counselors can offer personalized therapy wherever you are located with no waiting list.

If you are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression or any other mental health problem, call +1 (877) 426-4258 or email [email protected] to speak to our care co-ordinator.