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Sports and Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 8, 2023

One of the biggest stories at the recent Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, revolved around Simone Biles and mental health issues. Many news articles reported how Biles, arguably the greatest gymnast of all time, decided to withdraw from all but one of the events she was expected to win due to her mental health condition. Her decision once again brought the issue of mental health in sports to the fore, especially because she is the elite athlete in her sport.


Sports and Mental Health


Mental health and sports have traditionally had an awkward relationship. Images of coaches bellowing at their stars to “Get their head in the game!” are seared into our psyche. It’s also always been assumed that a high level of mental toughness is mandatory to compete at the elite level. Recently, professional athletes and their coaches have begun to understand that a healthy level of mental wellness in their lives is as important as physical health in attaining their goals.


The Positive Effects of Sports on Mental Health


Much of the news is currently focused on the negative effects of sports on mental health. However, it is also important not to ignore how regular exercise and participation in various team and individual sports can positively affect a person’s mental state. 


Research has shown that 20 to 40 minutes of exercise can improve mood and lower anxiety for several hours in addition to the physical benefits. More than that, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has highlighted the relationship between regular physical activity and a lower overall risk of symptoms of depression and anxiety. There has also been evidence from clinical studies that the psychological benefits from regular exercise are comparable to undergoing psychotherapy. So sports can be both a preventative and therapeutic measure in the battle with mental health symptoms.


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Depression - Exercise Treatments

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Differences Between Individual and Team Sports


When assessing the effects of sports on mental health, it is worthwhile distinguishing between team sports and individual sports. 


A recent study looked at the effect of team sports on the long-term mental health outcomes of children who experienced childhood adversity. The researchers concluded that those children who had participated in team sports experienced lower adult risk factors for mental health disorders. 


Research has also shown that anxiety and depression levels are higher in an individual athlete than in one who is part of a team.


The Negative Effects of Sports on Mental Health


Sports can have a detrimental effect on mental wellness when a person becomes overly dependent on the activity to an excessive or addictive level and pushes themselves to their absolute limits. Just the official motto of the Olympic games, which until July 2021 was “Faster, Higher, Stronger,” reinforces the idea of trying to attain ever greater levels of athletic performance. 

While elite athletes are not at a higher risk of developing mental illness than anyone else, intense training and overtraining consistently result in high mood disturbance levels. They also have to cope with unique mental health challenges. These include mental health concerns about becoming injured or recovering from injury, anxiety about athletic performance failure, and the pressure to satisfy coaches and fans.


The relationship between sports and mental health is both positive and negative. Regular exercise and participating in a sports-based activity can both prevent and treat many issues surrounding mental health. However, there is also the “dark side” of sports. Unhealthy pressure, obsession, focus on goals, and meeting ever-increasing internal and external performance expectations can lead to many mental disorders and, in some cases, psychological disorders. The importance of knowing your mental as well as your physical limits is critical for ensuring good overall health.

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