As a facilitator of behavioral health resources for the sports community, we find ourselves constantly responding to queries about mental health disorders connected to athletics. It’s only logical given that our counsellors specialize in their treatment and therapy. Yes, there are real concerns over the mental health toll of athletic competition. Yes, gambling problems have also stemmed from sport among those who are predisposed to gambling disorder. That’s all true. However, we’d be remiss to leave out one glaring fact – sports has an exceedingly positive impact on mental health for most of the population.
Participation just requires balance. Our goal is to ensure that athletes find that balance so that they enjoy the benefits of a career in sport, and mitigate any risk of mental health complications. Below is a breakdown regarding the positive impact of sport on mental health, along with concluding advice on where to turn should there be any concern over behavioral well-being.
3 Key Positive Mental Health Outcomes to Come from Finding Balance in Competitive Sports
Sense of Belonging and Inclusion
This is one of the primary reasons that sports are introduced in elementary educational settings. From early childhood to middle adolescence, being a part of a team has allowed youth who have had trouble connecting socially to find a sense of belonging and inclusion. Conversely, isolation leads to anxiety, stress, and depression. In discovering one’s place amongst teammates in a healthy athletic environment, the risk of these disorders is greatly reduced.
Finding belonging and inclusion through sports begins in youth, carries over into the collegiate environment, persists for those who make sport their career, and maintains into retirement where camaraderie often perseveres. One needs to look no further than organizations such as the NFLPA Professional Athletes Foundation which has pledged to provide mental health support for its former players.
While we must move to the sidelines one day as our bodies age, the belonging and inclusion we enjoyed/enjoy by participating in sport stays with us until the very end.
Physiological Releases to Alleviate Anxiety and Stress
Speaking of anxiety and stress (above) there is a physiological reasoning for the positive impact of sports on mental health.
For one, the physical activity that comes from regular participation in sports releases “feel-good” neurotransmitters known as endorphins. Endorphins are our body’s way of naturally enhancing mood. Some people turn to pharmaceuticals to fight anxiety and stress, but well-balanced athletes understand that they can get their high by doing what they already love to do. Furthermore, data shows that sport reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Athletics also positively impacts serotonin levels. Serotonin is a chemical that helps regulate mental health, and stimulates the mood-boosting neurotransmitter norepinephrine.
Healthy Body = Healthy Mind?
While there are certainly caveats to this equation, a healthy body generally supports positive mental health. Athletes know that to stay on top of their game they must eat nutritious foods and frequently exercise and practice to prepare for their next event. As a result, they typically feel physically better than those who do not regularly participate in sport, and have a better self-image. Numerous studies suggest an association between obesity and depression, with a 55% increased risk of developing the mental health disorder when compared against the rest of the population. Regular participation in sports removes this particular risk.
Simply put (and caveats aside) studies show that body image is significantly positively correlated with self-efficacy, self-esteem, and sports participation.
If you don’t experience any of the positive effects above, there may be an underlying issue that could be preventing you from finding the required balance. Moreover, you could be succumbing to the pressures (self-imposed or otherwise) of competing that have been equally felt by the elite athletes you may look up to. If so, continuing on your current path can lead you further away from the activities that you would otherwise enjoy. In addition, unattended mental health issues could be impacting your athletic performance which can compound the issue.
If unsure about how sports is impacting your mental health, let’s find out together. Meet with your online therapist today and once again reap the holistic reward of sport.