The Winning Edge: How Sports Enhance Kids’ Mental Health

Asha Patton-Smith

Sports aren't just about physical health—they're a foundation for building mental resilience in kids and teens. However, as we embrace the joys in sports, it's equally important to navigate the challenges, especially in the competitive spirit of student-athletics.

Benefits of Sports on Mental Health

Just like a balanced diet benefits the body, participation in sports is vital for mental well-being. Engaging in sports releases endorphins, natural mood lifters that can reduce stress and depression. Every goal, every race, every game is more than just a physical challenge; it’s a base for self-esteem and emotional strength.

The Pressures of Sports

Yet, the coin of competition has two sides. Student-athletes often carry the weight of high expectations—both their own and those of peers, parents, and coaches. Studies among young athletes indicate a significant increase in mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. This underscores the need for comprehensive support systems in sports programs to help athletes manage pressure and maintain their well-being.

Practical Advice for Parents and Young Athletes

Parents, you are your child’s coach in the game of life. The strategies you employ at home can affect how your child handles the pressures of sports. Try these tips.

  • Engage in open conversations about mental and emotional health to reduce the stresses associated with sports. Ask thoughtful, open-ended questions that encourage your child to express their feelings and concerns.
  • Be aware of changes in behavior that may signal distress, such as withdrawal from social interactions or declining academic performance. Show them how you manage stress and encourage them to adopt healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Teach coping skills including mindfulness. One way is using digital tools, such as the Calm app, offered for free to Kaiser Permanente members.

Connecting Physical Symptoms with Feelings

Often, the stresses of athletic pressures manifest physically. A complaint about a stomachache or a headache could be a child’s way of expressing anxiety. It's important to take these signs seriously, to investigate causes, and to discuss them openly.

Encouraging Emotional Expression Through Sports

Encourage your child to share their emotions about their sports experiences. This can be as simple as discussing how they felt during a particular practice and exploring both the highs and the lows. These conversations can empower them to navigate their feelings about sports and beyond.

By fostering an environment that recognizes both the mental boosts and the pressures of sports, we can help our young athletes not just succeed in their sports but thrive in life.

Kaiser Permanente Partners with St. James to Support Healthy Athletes

Kaiser Permanente is honored to partner with The St. James, which offers diverse programs for youth sports, catering to beginners and advanced athletes alike to foster inclusivity and participation. Through this partnership, Kaiser Permanente supports The St. James youth sports events, teams and other activities that promote sports and wellness among youth in the region. The collaboration aims to cultivate a thriving environment for young athletes to excel, not only in sports but also in their overall mental, emotional and physical well-being.

Learn more about youth mental health here.

Asha Patton-Smith headshot

Asha Patton-Smith, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia.