The correlation between sports and mental health is a complicated one. There’s no clear answer on whether on not sports helps or worsens mental health, and an even more blurred line in relation to student-athletes at the high school and college levels. While there are multiple studies out there saying whether sports help or damage mental wellness, these reports differ in both methods, questions, and outside factors.
Studies that say playing a sport improves or doesn’t affect one’s mental health observe changes in a controlled environment in groups of a smaller representation of the population, such as psychiatric hospital inmates or those in low-income areas. A lot of these studies also look at the chemical side of things or only one outcome of the experiment. Play to the Whistle: A Pilot Investigation of a Sports-Based Intervention for Traumatized Girls in Residential Treatment is a very specific study that’s looking at very specific results, and ultimately doesn’t answer the overarching question, “How do sports affect mental health?”.
The studies that say playing a sport negatively affects mental health are on a more broad, societal scope. They do say that it affects student-athletes negatively, but there is much quantitative research done to support this, mainly qualitative comments or quotes from student-athletes and a look at recent rises in stress and expectations within the American school system. Even though it’s more qualitative data and research, it could apply better to the question asking if sports affect student-athletes’ mental health, because that in itself is more of an individual subject that looks at how student-athletes feel and think rather than what is physically going on in their brains. Looking at these results instead of quantitive data can provide more well-rounded results because everyone’s brains work differently and body makeup is different, so what’s a chart that tells you how much seritonin was produced during a workout going to do in the long run compared to an in-depth analysis on why student-athletes feel the way they do and what sports do for them.
So what does this all mean? It means that the context behind the individual plays a large role in whether or not sports improve or worsen their mental health. For most high school and college students, they cope with high pressure, high stress, high expectations, family life, financial issues, and possibly more every day. Sports would just be another stressor on top of everything they are already dealing with. An inmate at a psychiatric hospital might benefit from playing a sport because they don’t have much else to worry about other than their own wellbeing and future wellness. Sports is great for community building and self-confidence, but can further seclude a student with the right context.
Sports are meant for those who have the time to cope and keep up with the high expectations, rigor, and time-commitments. Students can benefit from playing a sport, and they have in the past, but in the present, it’s incredibly difficult to balance that with the rest of your life at those ages. Especially with how competitive it can be and the ideals of perfection are ingrained into the community.