How Youth Sport Harms Mental Health

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how youth sport harms mental health

Motivating Your Children Into Physical Activities

How Youth Sport Harms Mental Health reviews the damaging effects of sport on the youth athlete, including physical and mental effects. While sport is a positive source for youth mental wellbeing development. Then again, there is evidence of how youth sport harms mental health. That is when the benefits of sports on mental wellbeing turns into mental ill-being. So, how does youth sport harm mental health? And to avoid mental ill-being from youth sport, this review suggests useful mental, physical, and safety tips for youth athletes.

How Does Youth Sport Harm Mental Mealth?

Mental health in the youth population has been of growing concern in the past three decades. Likewise, mental health in competitive and elite sports is getting public and media attention than before. For instance, Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open citing mental health issues. She also withdrew from Wimbledon, to “spent time with family and friends”. Similarly, Simone Biles dropped out temporarily from the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games for mental health concerns. Aside from these two sports superstars, there are several cases of mental health concerns that reveal the darker side of organised sporting experiences.

The following sub-sections delve into reasons on how youth sport harms mental health. These reasons include the impact of COVID-19, too much sport, alcohol, and substance abuse, burnout, dropout, and the pressure to “win at all costs”.

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Impact of COVID-19

As COVID-19 continues to change the way young people engage in organised sport, a study showed there is a decline in mental wellbeing and physical activity of youth athletes.

Too much sport

how youth sport harms mental health

Studies have reliably shown that while organised sport can promote optimal development in youth, too much sport is harmful to wellbeing. One study found that after 14 hours per week of sport participation, well-being began to decline in youth athletes. In other words, while some participation in sport is good for well-being, too much can have a harmful effect.

Alcohol and drug abuse

Studies revealed that the use of drugs and alcohol has negative physical effects on youth athletes. Sports such as ice hockey, soccer, or football have greater increases in alcohol use. But lesser alcohol use in endurance sports such as running, speed-skating, tennis, or swimming. Or in strength and power sports such as boxing, wrestling, or gymnastics.

In addition to alcohol use, youth sport participation is linked to the use of substances, such as marijuana, tobacco, and steroids. For example, male athletes had higher rates of marijuana use and lower rates of alcohol use over time. But female athletes had higher rates of alcohol use over time.

Athlete burnout and dropout

how youth sport harms mental health

Burnout is a harmful condition that includes over-reaching and overtraining. Burnout often goes with a loss of motivation, lack of enjoyment, poor coping skills, high stress and anxiety, and poor recovery.  At the end of it all, there is emotional exhaustion and poor performance. And most times, burnout can lead to a dropout from a sport or activity previously enjoyed.

So, what can be done to prevent burnout? Typically, positive identity, empowerment, and support are key elements of focus for youth sports. Since development in these areas will reduce burnout symptoms and enhance overall enjoyment.

Dropout is closely related to burnout. Athletes who specialise early in a sport that is not enjoyable, are more likely to drop out.  This is because the most common reason youth play sports is to “have fun”. But when the sport is no longer fun, dropout is often the result.

Pressure to “win at all costs”

Youth athletes are often pressured by parents, coaches, and social media to “win at all costs”. The result is increased stress on mental wellbeing and reduced enjoyment in youth sport.

Mental, Physical And Safety Tips for Youth Athletes

how youth sport harms mental health

Changing the future of youth sports is a joint effort between parents, coaches, teachers, health professionals, and community leaders. Find below tips on mental, physical, and safety for youth athletes:

Provide safe training during COVID-19

how youth sport harms mental health

Provide additional resources and tools to families, sporting clubs, and sporting organisations. For example, support for parents to facilitate their children’s training at home during the lockdown.

Motivate, encourage and appreaciate efforts

There is higher enjoyment, vitality, self-esteem, and lower anxiety when efforts are motivated, encouraged and appreciated. But in the absence of these basic needs, negative outcomes are eating disorders, depression, and troubled physical abilities. These harmful effects finally end in poor mental health, burnout, and dropout.

Parents should get informed

As parents, before enrolling your children in sport, get informed about the benefits and dangers related to different sports participation. Hence the creation of educational opportunities for athletes, parents, and coaches is useful in two ways: useful information on youth safety and proper nutrition.

Implement PPE

Implementation of preparticipation physical evaluation (PPE) will physically protect youth athletes. The aim of PPE is to reduce injuries and provide athlete education. Furthermore, PPE helps to identify serious health problems which may be beneficial in keeping you safer while participating in sports.

Assess readiness

how youth sport hurts mental wellbeing

An assessment of readiness should be done to define if your child is prepared to enroll in a sport, and at which level of competition. It is therefore essential to assess the physical, emotional, and psychological readiness of youth to involve in sport.

Set up active prevention methods

how youth sport harms mental health

Setting up active prevention measures for therapy and training programs of young athletes will help decrease the rates of injury and re-injury.  

Develop education program on weight control

Weight control in sport is an ongoing issue for some youth athletes. Studies show that eating disorders are most common during adolescence, among athletes. And mainly in weight-reduction sports like wrestling, gymnastics, and boxing. In view of this, an education program is necessary when dealing with individuals who fall into these demographics.

Similarly, parents, coaches, and athletes who are involved in endurance, or aesthetic sports, should be educated on safe and healthy methods of dealing with the weigh-ins. This is in addition to other pressures that can arise in these environments.

Reevaluate sports training hours

how youth sport harms mental health

Competitive youth sport often requires many hours of training each week which places a strain on young athletes. Hence, a re-evaluation of sports training hours may be required.  This means when scheduling youth sporting events, activity volume and intensity should be considered over a 48-hour period to optimise safety. This 48-hour period should include recovery time between training and competition bouts. As well as the time between competition and sleep.

Take one or two days off per week

Youth athletes should take one or two days off per week from their competitive or sport-specific training to allow for adequate physical and mental recovery. One research found that well-being declined in youth athletes when participating in more than 14 hours of sport per week. Therefore, practices and competitions of youth athletes should not exceed 14 hours per week.

On a wider scale, all youth athletes should participate in a few recreational sports at an early age for variation. And keep in mind not to exceed 14 hours of sport per week.


How youth sport harms mental wellbeing shows that while sport promotes positive outcomes in youth, it can also have harmful effects on their mental health. So, before you enroll your child in a sport, it is vital that you are informed about the benefits and the dangers related to sport participation.

But, for the time being, young athletes participating in sports should worry less, focus on the moment, and avoid social media during competitive sports.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons

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