When health is mentioned in regards to sports, the first thing that registers in many people’s minds is the physical aspect of it. Preventing injury, combating illness and doing everything possible to limit levels of pain and soreness. This is completely understandable, as many athletes have practices, meets, competitions and games every week that can cause immense stress on the body. However, one equally important thing that isn’t discussed on as large of a scale is the impact sports can have on athletes’ mental health.
In the same way sports can be both beneficial and detrimental to one’s physical health, sports can impact the mental side of an athlete’s well being in both positive and negative ways as well. When looking at how mental health affects women in sports specifically, a study by Eric Lindberg found that over a quarter of collegiate female athletes experienced debilitating levels of depression, over half experienced anxiety and almost a third reported feeling mentally overwhelmed. Another study by the Women’s Sports Foundation found that girls, starting at age 14, leave sports at twice the rate of boys due to internal and external forces that diminish their levels of self-belief; by 17, over half of girls will have given up their sport entirely. With more awareness being spread about the topic of mental health among athletes, how have female athletes been dealing with this issue personally?
For some female athletes, stepping away from sports for a brief amount of time is the best route to take. Naomi Osaka, a renowned Japanese-American tennis player, withdrew from the French Open due to mental health issues back in May of this year; this sparked many conversations in the sports community, with both empathetic and condemnatory responses emerging from fans. These conversations continued when Simone Biles, a world and Olympic champion, withdrew from the team gymnastics competition at the Tokyo Olympics this past summer for mental health reasons. More recently, Christen Press, a two-time world champion with the United States women’s national soccer team, announced that she would be taking a few months away from both club and international soccer due to the mental toll that competing had taken on her. As the attention people direct towards women’s sports rises, pressure, expectations and even past trauma can all compile and make even the sports these women love feel burdensome. For these reasons, taking time away from major competitions is the path that certain female athletes opt to choose.
Other female athletes may have to take the time to re-strengthen their levels of mental fortitude and confidence after having to step away from the game due to a physical injury. Dealing with the mental side of injury recovery can be an extremely strenuous task; sometimes, recovering mentally is more exhausting than recovering mentally. Mackenzie Butler, a freshman on the Meredith College soccer team, had to deal with not only recovering from multiple injuries, but also the taxing mental process of returning from those injuries. “I’ve had about three orthopedic surgeries that have all resulted in me not being able to play,” said Butler. “I’m really competitive, so not being able to play was really hard for me, especially because I had to sit on the side lines for years knowing that I wasn’t able to step on the field and play with my teammates.”
In retrospect, sports can be beneficial for female athletes and their mental health. When given the right team and coach, female athletes can experience a boost in confidence, happiness and courage; they can also form lifelong friendships and experience a sense of community like no other. A sophomore athlete at Meredith, who wished to remain anonymous, said that her sport is an outlet that helps uplift her even when she’s feeling low. “My team has always been supportive of my mental health when I needed it the most,” she explained. “They serve as a second family away from home and they always make me feel better! I use my sport as an outlet if I am stressed or anxious and it never fails to make me feel better.” A second sophomore athlete at Meredith agreed with this sentiment, explaining how her teammates are some of her closest friends both on and off the field. “Balancing school, lacrosse, family and friends can be difficult but I have so much support and help from my coaches and teammates,” she stated. “My friends on the team have been so nice and helpful. Being a part of a team is an incredible experience. My Big, [who’s] on my team, and I hang out all the time. I also hang out with lots of my teammates and it’s so great having those friendships and support.”
A constant that can be seen through all the ways in which female athletes manage their mental well-being is having a strong support system. Ultimately, strong support systems are created when women are allowed to grow and empower themselves around other dedicated women; this is especially essential at the elite level where pressure levels are at their highest. More research compiled by the Aspen Institute found that only 27% of youth sports coaches are women. A survey conducted by the the Girls and Sports Impact Report found girls’ confidence levels actually grow, and their levels of sadness and depression deplete, when they play sports with other girls and female coaches who help them handle distressing situations. Encouraging the implementation of more women-based sporting environments could be an important step in combating mental health issues in female athletes. Whatever the next step may be, opening up this discussion about mental health and sports, specifically women’s sports, is a step that could improve mental health not only for athletes, but for people in every job and trade across the globe.
By Rachel Johnson, Contributing Writer