Youth and Mental Health: The Positive and Negative Effects of Sport.

By: Nicola S

Mental health has become a major issue among youth impacting their development. From class lectures, researchers have proclaimed that between 10-20% of youth are effected by mental illness such as anxiety, depression, bi-polar, and schizophrenia. This number continues to grow with the external pressures youth entail of social media, peers, school, sports, etc. The scariest part of mental disorders and youth is that only 1 in 5 children who need mental health services actually receives them. Mental health is not always obvious, especially among youth. They will hide it in order to feel “the same” as their peers, but this unfortunately can lead to one of the leading causes of death; suicide. Sport is known to help foster positive youth development, but what people don’t know is that it can also have negative correlations with regards to youth’s mental health when used incorrectly.

Positive impacts of sport on youth’s mental health:

There is evidence that suicide and sport have a strong enough connection among youth. Tatz (2012) explains the positive relationship between sport and Aboriginal youth. He proclaims, “Sport is a major element in contemporary Aboriginal life: it provides meaning, a sense of purpose and belonging; it is inclusive and embracing in a world where most Aboriginal youth feel alienated, disempowered, rejected and excluded” (p. 922). Youth who feel this sense of alienation or the feeling of being “different” often look to team sports to provide them with an identity and many other benefits. Youth may use sport to bond with peers, to pursue an interest, for the physical benefits, or even just for a distraction. In my own personal experience, growing up involved in numerous team sports and having different groups of friends from each team, I used sport as my happy place when I was feeling pressures from school. It was, and still is, a place to clear my head when necessary. Scully et al. (1998) defends my beliefs by stating, “The psychological explanations of why exercise enhances psychological well-being include the following: enhanced feelings of control, improved self-concept, self-esteem, self-efficacy and more positive social interactions.” It was hard growing up seeing other youth who didn’t find an interest in sport feeling bored on weekends when they didn’t have any games. Personally, I believe this boredom can lead to youth having too much time to think or engage in activities that may have a negative impact on their mental health as well as their development. When used properly, sport is a beneficial technique to reduce mental health issues regarding youth.

Negative impacts of sport on youth’s mental health:

Although there are many positive aspects with regards to youth and sport, there can be some negative outcomes if sport is used incorrectly with youth. Children and adolescents may face enormous risks from sports due to their incomplete physical and emotional developments. For example, McMullen (2014) states that, “Hard training and healthy eating can cross the line to exhaustion and eating disorders, encouraging players to do their best can slip into pushing players to the point of injury and harm, and attempts at team bonding can morph into bullying or hazing” (p.181). It is easy to see that these positive components of sport can lead to negative correlations for a youth’s fragile developing mental health. For example, throughout my teenage years I witnessed several cases of youth, girls in particular, with an “addiction” to working out. They were addicted to eating “healthy” and exercising constantly to the point where they were overly self-conscious and had self-esteem issues. In this case, these youth used exercise incorrectly which reflected negatively on their mental health. An activity done in class explains youth’s emotional development. It suggests that the emotional brain centers are developing earlier than other brain regions, which can result in erratic, dramatic or challenging behavior. Sport has its ups and downs and can leave youth feeling upset over an individual performance or a team loss for example. As these brain centers are in the process of developing, youth struggle with accepting these challenges and it can impact their self-confidence resulting in possible mental heath issues.

In summary, there is a challenge in balancing the positive and negative impact sport has on youth’s mental health so that maximum benefits can be produced. With supportive adults, peers, and interests, youth can form an identity through sport and resist the effects of mental illnesses.


McMullen, J., G., Addressing Abusive Conduct in Youth Sports. Marquette Sports Law Review. 25.1 (2014): 181-206.

Scully, D., Kremer, J., Meade, M.M., Graham, R., Dudgeon, K., Physical exercise and psychological well-being: A critical review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 32 (1998), p. 111-120.

Tatz, C., Aborigines, sport and suicide. Sport in Society, 15 (7) (2012), p. 922-935

This entry was posted in Positive Youth Development and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Youth and Mental Health: The Positive and Negative Effects of Sport.

  1. Meghan says:

    I completely agree with you Nicola on the effects sport has on mental health. I thought it was very important that you touched on the fact that mental health can be negatively impacted on sport and recreation. A lot of parents force their children into playing sports because they think it will unquestionably have benefits. Like Nicola mentions this is not always the case. There are a lot of aspects to sport which can harm mental health. Nicola touches on the addiction factor regarding sports and fitness. I think this is a really good point and I myself have also witness this. I also think an important point was brought up in the documentary “Lost Adventures of Childhood.” In the documentary they mentioned that only 5% of children excel in sport. This leaves me to believe that there are a lot of children who are not enjoying themselves in sport as much because they are not doing as well. By not being very good at sport, it can create a lot of self-esteem and self-worth issues. Overall, I think Nicola did a great job touching on the different aspects of mental health and their implications. Great job Nicola!

  2. fitzy08 says:

    First of all, great post Nicola! Your views on the impacts of mental health in sport for youth are very important. You are absolutely right about sport being a huge beneficial technique to reduce mental health issues pertaining to youth. As we have learned in this class already, positive team environments for youth can lead to reduction in depression and anxiety levels so it is extremely important that mentors, peers, parents and coaches continue to address that and foster a safe, positive and inclusive environment for youth. I agree with you about young girls in particular becoming “obsessed” with their image and to have to constantly look lean and exercising repeatedly. It is scary to think that they feel that they need to do that in order to create a certain image of themselves. But, as you alluded to in your article it only leads to self-efficacy and self-esteem issues as a result. This ultimately reflects poorly on their mental health and can lead to serious individual complexes they may experience and in some cases potentially suicide. It is important for us as future mentors and leaders of these youth to ensure that none of these negative impacts that you illustrated in the article will occur to youth moving forward. I thought you did an excellent job highlighting the impacts of mental health issues in sport and their implications. As someone who currently suffers from PTSD and Major Depressive Disorder, I can tell you first hand that exercise and physical activity is extremely important not just for youth, but for everyone and is probably the best medicine to help with any mental illness. So it is certainly something we should all keep in mind! Great work Nicola!!!!

    – Terry F.

  3. kepo00157 says:

    Great post Nicola! I feel like you really nailed the link between of mental health and exercise/sports on the head. Growing up playing sports, I have definitely reaped both the positive and negative effects of athletics in regard to mental wellbeing. Throughout my adolescent and teen years, sports were always a place for me to escape from the ‘real world’. I was surrounded by friends, doing something that made me feel alive and good about myself. The better I became at a particular skill or over all game play, the more confidence I gained in myself, both in and outside of the activity. With this positive outcome, came the negative. My talent in Tae Kwon Do was recognized early on, and I continuously and quickly moved up in rank and competition level. Eventually I was training 6 days a week, for at least 2 hours at a time (on top of all my other sports, activities and school work) and competing at tournaments every other weekend in preparation for nationals; this was all at the age of 13, when puberty was taking place. At this point, the sport wasn’t fun for me anymore and felt that if I took a day off I would be letting my coach and my Dad down. The pressures to impress lead me to a mental breakdown and my anxiety to skyrocket. On top of this, I was struggling to maintain my weight to stay in my preferred weight class, so I was always obsessively watching what I ate and weighing myself on the scale. Personally, I can relate to a number of things Nicola has touched on within her post, and feel that education to parents, coaches and athletes is most important! Sport can foster such great development, but also in turn be so harmful. Sports and activity must be handled with caution and care.

  4. jordanmacgregor says:

    Excellent post! Being in sport my whole life, I only ever talked about mental health with one other person. Sport is amazing for mental health and you did a great job at showing the link between the two. If I was ever having a bad day I would always use sport to help myself feel better. Even though sport could have many different negative effects on mental health I found that it helped me way more than it ever harmed me. I was make sure that even as a coach I let the children know that being there are only a certain amount of people who become a professional athlete. I then ask them what their goals are so I can motivate them in the right direction instead of just trying to create a bunch of stars since it would just be unrealistic. One of the things that becomes dangerous with sport, and you pointed it out, is that children will start to obtain all their self esteem from working out which can become dangerous if it doesn’t meet expectations. Therefore missing a shot or making a minimal error could make all the difference between being happy/ enjoying life and hating the sport while not being happy with oneself. The children I always find that enjoy sport the most are the ones that are there to have fun and be with friends. It puts a lot less pressure on them and they mostly just have a great time while learning a new life skill. Those kids are the successful ones to me.

  5. robbiepark95 says:

    Great post Nicola! I loved the contrasting points of positive and negative affects on mental health. Since a young age I was always told that sport is to be enjoyable. Yes, you eventually become more interested and try to perfect one more than another, but ultimately we engage in sports because we enjoy it. The one sport I chose to excel in was soccer. Maybe that’s just because it’s our country’s national sport, and everyone played it, but it was also my favourite to play. Whenever I played with my friends, we played soccer. At school, we played soccer. It was the sport that kept me happy and each time I finished playing, I couldn’t wait for the next game.
    I noticed the positive and negative effects of soccer on certain individuals mental health. Some kids would crumble in the sport, because they realized their skill level wasn’t the greatest, and instead of improving it, they would quit. Another negative mental health factor i found was negative feedback from parents. Some kids who had rally good ability would often fail because one or both of their parents would heckle them from the sideline if they feel that they never made the right decision. As a result, they’re standard of play dropped. One of my close friends actually stopped playing completely because of this. I can sort of relate this to your example of a workout addiction, in the sense that it was the parents addiction at trying to get their kids better (at least in their own minds), but instead it negatively affected their mental game.
    On a positive note I rarely encountered a situation when an individual was bored. Soccer is classed as the working man’s game, because the equipment is not expensive as all thats needed is a ball and a few jackets (goal posts). It means that all kids can take part, you don’t have to own some fans expensive equipment to play. It can also be played in may different forms. For instance, 5v5, 7v7, 11v11, or any number for that matter. It means that everyone can be involved and the game can be made fun with different twists added in such as; weak foot only, or everyone on the team must touch the ball before you can attack.
    I feel that soccer had a positive mental affect on myself, and that the game is supposed to be positive. Sometimes like any sport, we encounter negative people or problems around the game, but ultimately sport is to be fun and should be a relief from all other problems a person may have.

  6. rachben1 says:

    Awesome post Nicola, I found this super interesting to read and very relatable. I have been involved in team sports my entire life and have witnessed both negative and positive aspects of youth development through competitive sport. It is unfortunate to see youth experiencing negative outcomes due to over involved parents or a desire to look a certain way and be the best at a particular sport. Youth are experiencing so many changes and challenges as they grow. As future sport and recreation leaders we want sport to be their outlet and way of expressing themselves in a positive way.

    Being involved in track and field and cross country running since a young age allowed me to see many girls go through negative stages where they didn’t like their body and dealt with self esteem issues. Being in an athlete environment is tough because youth sometimes feel that they are competing with teammates for the ideal body image or the starting line position, etc.

    I think it is important for leaders and coaches to acknowledge that most youth experience some form of challenge throughout their athlete career. Coaches, leaders and even parents are responsible for supporting their athletes and making sure that they are not alone through their struggles. We need to break the stigma and encourage athletes to talk about their mental health. Encouraging this communication will help create more inclusive and supportive environments.

    Rachel Bennett

Comments are closed.