Mental Health and the Young Athlete


Physical activity is usually beneficial for individuals regardless of age. The WHO recommended that children and youth between the ages of 5 and 17 ought to take part in 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous each day (WHO). A young individual who takes part in a sporting activity will be able to meet these requirements and garner the benefits of being physically active. According to Merkel (2013) organized sports have a positive impact on the young individual who participates in such activities[1]. Athletic endeavors aided in mitigating the negative impact of inactivity and an unhealthy lifestyle. Notwithstanding this however, it ought to be stated that this study also noted that sports participation could have a negative impact on the young athlete. The WHO defined mental health "as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community (WHO, 2014). The adolescent years are accompanied by many changes and stressors. The young person who participates in athletic endeavors may find participation in such activities an additional source of stress. The activity which is of physical benefit to the athlete may have both a positive and negative psychological and emotional impact on their well-being. The young athlete is "still developing cognitively and physically and is actively learning from adult behaviors and values" [2]. They ought therefore to be considered as a special population onto themselves with needs and behaviors which differ from the adult athlete.

Benefits of Sporting Activities

Sporting activities have many positive effects. It aids in decreasing the prevalence of obesity in the young individual. According to WHO, childhood obesity is a major problem throughout the world. Its negative impact is seen in many low and middle income countries. Overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and more likely to develop noncommunicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age (WHO). In the United States approximately 45 million children and adolescents take part in a sporting activity, an estimated 75% of families with school age children have at least one child who takes part in an organized sporting activity[1].

Other benefits of sporting activities include higher self-esteem, improved discipline, improved social skills and individuals who are less likely to partake in risky activities [2]. According to Campbell et al (2018) "sport participation represents leisure activities which promote social, mental and physical well-being [3].

Sport participation has also been shown to have a positive impact on females. It plays a part in improving physiological health. Physical activity was shown to lower a female's risk of developing "obesity, coronary heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias"[4]. Physical activity was also shown to have positive effects beyond the physiological impact. It was found that participating in a sporting activity played a part in females engaging in less risk taking behavior. This resulted in a decrease in " illicit drug use, tobacco-related disease, sexual risk and teen pregnancy, and eating disorders"[4].

The Impact of Sport on the Young Athlete

Young individuals should be encouraged to take part in sporting activities. The sport should be one in which they show an interest. It is known that individuals are more likely to take part in an activity that they enjoy. Often the young athlete may be placed in an activity not because they have an interest but because their parent desires them to participate. The disinterest on the part of the athlete may lead to them not participating at an optimal level even if they have the aptitude for the sport. The parent usually wishes to their child live up to their full potential including their involvement in the sporting activity. Parents, however, may be a source of stress for the young athlete. According to Brukner and Khan (2011) "parental interference and pressure are among the main reasons that children drop out of sports".[5]

Research suggests that the prevalence of mental disorders may be lower in the athletic population or comparable to the general population of young people [6]. Larun et al (2006) postulated that taking part in such activity may aid in decreasing anxiety and depression in young individuals[7]. To gain this information they evaluated a total of sixteen studies with a total of 1191 young persons. The individuals were between the ages of 11-19 years. It should be noted that the researchers stated that while it appears that activity has this positive effect, " the small number of studies included and the clinical diversity of participants, interventions and methods of measurement limit the ability to draw conclusions" [7].

This is in contrast to a study done by Kissinger (2007) who found that athletes at the intercollegiate suffered from psychological conditions at a slightly higher rate (2% more) than the general age matched population[8].

In a study by Bebetsos and Antoniou (2003), it was found that older athletes were better able to cope with adversity when compared to their younger counterparts[9]. This is further supported by Campbell et al who reported that many young athletes had not learned coping strategies to aid them in mitigating the effects of such a stressful environment[3]. It was further stated that this could result in negative physiological and psychological effects. These could include a disruption of metabolism and cognitive functioning, as well as cell production in the immune system which may influence the course of chronic diseases and disorders [3].

Magee highlights the fact that personnel such as physicians, athletic trainers and sports physical therapist involved in the care of young athletes ought to ensure the overall emotional and cognitive well-being of the athlete [2]. It is noted that this is important not only for the present development of the young athlete but also future development. Mental skills training is not only beneficial for the emotional and psychological health of the athlete. It can also have a positive impact on the physical training, motor skill development and facilitation of rehabilitation of the athlete. [5]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Merkel DL. Youth sport: positive and negative impact on young athletes. Open access journal of sports medicine. 2013;4:151.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Magee DJ, Manske RC, Zachazewski JE, Quillen WS. Athletic and Sport Issues in Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation . Missouri: Saunders; 2010. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Campbell E, Irving R, Bailey J, Dilworth L, Abel W. W.“Overview of psychophysiological stress and the implications for junior athletes”. American Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. 2018;6(3):72-8.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Staurowsky EJ, DeSousa MJ, Ducher G, et al. Her Life Depends On It II: Sport, Physical Activity, and the Health and Well-Being of American Girls and Women. East Meadow, NY: Women’s Sports Foundation; 2009.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Brukner P, Khan K. Brukner & Khan's Clinical Sports Medicine, 4th ed. Austrailia: McGraw Hill; 2011. 
  6. Gulliver A, Griffiths KM, Christensen H. Barriers and facilitators to mental health help-seeking for young elite athletes: a qualitative study. BMC psychiatry. 2012 Dec;12(1):157.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Larun L, Nordheim LV, Ekeland E, Hagen KB, Heian F. Exercise in prevention and treatment of anxiety and depression among children and young people. Cochrane database of systematic reviews. 2006(3).
  8. Watson JC, Kissinger DB. Athletic participation and wellness: Implications for counseling college student‐athletes. Journal of College Counseling. 2007 Sep;10(2):153-62.[1]
  9. Bebetsos E, Antoniou P. Psychological skills of Greek badminton athletes. Perceptual and Motor Skills. 2003 Dec;97(3_suppl):1289-96.