Student athletes grapple with benefits and drawbacks of the impact of sports on their mental health

Sports consume a lot of student athlete’s mental energy- for better or worse (Alejandro Gonzalez)

The famous singer Rihanna once sang “Love on the Brain,” but for many high schoolers it’s “sports on the brain.”

Sports is considered one of the essential pillars of high school as it creates healthy communities among adolescents and leads to lifelong friendships.

In recent years, scientists have found that exercise has a positive impact on mental health, as it can relieve stress and boost self-esteem. While this proves true for many athletes, sports can also be overwhelming at the same time.

Ninth grade health and fitness teacher and girls varsity field hockey coach Emily Hunt has seen many beneficial effects on her athletes.

“It’s been a huge positive in all of the players’ lives because they’re with their friends, they’re competing, they’re outside, they have fresh air and human contact,” Hunt said.

In Hunt’s opinion, the big takeaway from the mental health curriculum in her classes is that exercise, which includes organized sports, can help improve mental health. While it may not cure mental illnesses, it certainly helps with controlling and treating them because of the neuroscience behind it.

Carlyn Uyenoyama, Interim K-12 Coordinator for Wellness Education, said that when one is active, neurotransmitters like the famous “happiness hormones”- serotonin and dopamine-are released, serving as an instant mood booster. Another less known neurotransmitter, BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), is also released. Coined “miracle-gro” for the brain, this hormone increases neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to form and change connections. Over time, this pattern can lead to long term benefits like better mental health and improved stress management.

Exercise also enhances and positively affects many parts of the brain, including the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex which are related to memory and decision-making. These positive impacts lead to a period of time called the “green zone,” which is when these cognitive benefits are most effective.

“Ask anyone that you know that works out, goes to practice and does their homework. A lot of time they feel that they can get their homework done in a different way or they’re more efficient in getting it done. Approximately two hours post-activity we call the green zone, the area of time where you get the most cognitive benefits,” Uyenoyama said.

While physical activity has been proven to have benefits, it’s a double-edged sword. Hunt has also seen her athletes become overwhelmed with stress or pressure.

“I do think like with everything else can get overwhelmed with pressure as well. Whether it’s pressure from coaches, pressure from teammates, pressure from parents, I’ve seen it a lot in my coaching.”

Sophomore and student athlete Jenna Lazowski has experienced these feelings of burnout and anxiety first hand.

“The other side is that right after school I go to my soccer practice and then I come home and have to do all my homework. Sometimes I have to eat dinner and then do something else. So it takes a while to get started on my homework, and then actually doing it is a whole other process. In that aspect, it takes a while. It takes up a lot of my time, which is annoying I guess,” Lazowski said.

Uyenoyama said the negative effects of sports are very individualized, and what works for each person is unique.

“What might work for me, whether it’s being or not being on a team, might not work for you. The same thing goes for negative effects. If in fact someone being on the team means changing their schedule where they have no time, or their responsibilities conflict, I would say there’s probably going to be some negative effect. But if you’re in a situation where being on a team makes you not procrastinate as much, I would say it’s positive. It’s kind of an individual thing,” Uyenoyama said.

However, Lazowski encouraged students and classmates to try playing sports, even though finding what you might like is a process.

“The worst that could happen is that you don’t like it. If you’re bad you can always improve from there… But you’re never going to know unless you try it which is kind of cliche but it’s true,” Lazowski said.

Having a growth mindset is important in overcoming obstacles when trying a sport Uyenoyama said.

“I would always say, try it, give it a go, and maybe you might say, ‘Oh I don’t want to do that, I didn’t like it.’ I would say, ‘Try something different,’”Uyenoyama said. “You don’t have to be the best at it; you just have to give it a go. Just try it! Give it a season!”