Students have not been able to practice with their teams and interact with their teammates to the same degree this year, causing changes in routines that have affected the athletes’ mental health
Frustrating and persistent. The two words senior football captain Reece Huggard used to describe his summer without regular football workouts. Huggard did his best to train on his own, but, according to him, it wasn’t the same. While working out has clear physical benefits, working out as a team provides physical, mental and social benefits.
The National Library of Medicine conducted a study in 2014 on Canadian high school student athletes looking to see if there’s a correlation between physical activity and stronger mental health. Eight hundred and fifty students were a part of the study in 10 different high schools. The study found that the students who participate in any kind of sport enjoy better mental health than those who do not play sports.
Three years after the original study was conducted, researchers reached out to the participants and questioned them about their depression feelings, stress levels and overall mental health, asking them to rate those on a scale of one being the lowest to five being the highest. Those that participated in sports as a high school student answered with higher scores than those who did not play sports in all three categories.
“[Sports provide] the feeling of being a part of something bigger than ourselves,” Associate Head of Upper School Ruth Burke said. “[Being] a member of a team or group working toward common goals, and engagement in a community are critical to happiness and well being, again this can be in a variety of venues, not just sports.”
Sports create social interaction by putting students together to achieve a similar goal. Athletic teams create an environment where all participants are pushed toward a team mindset and they work together.
“Being in a team setting gave me the support system that I needed,” womens basketball head coach John Franklin said. “[Basketball] is more of a distraction in a positive way. It allowed me to focus on developing into the best player I could by working at my craft. That kept me out of trouble, and I learned to surround myself with like-minded people who were positive which just happened to be at the time were my teammates and coaches.”
Those lessons and values taught in sports carry over to other aspects of a student athlete’s lives. According to AdventHealth, a Christian health website, playing a sport increases concentration and mental sharpness.
“One can learn many lessons from sports that are usable in academics,” upper school learning counselor Dr. Hilary Higbee said. “Practicing leads to improvement. Analyzing your performances can help you figure out where changes are needed, and watching those with a better game can give you ideas about what to change.”
Burke has seen these positive effects not only in herself, but also in her two sons, both who heavily participate in athletics. Brodie Burke ‘20 is a member of the football team at Southern Methodist University, and sophomore Patrick Burke plays varsity football and soccer.
“Regular exercise has been proven to improve brain functioning, aid in quality of sleep, result in increased desire to eat a healthy diet, and reduce feelings of anxiety and depression,” Burke said. “Activity begets activity. The more active you are, the more you crave activity. The more you sit around on the couch, the more you find yourself wanting to sit on the couch more and it becomes difficult to break out of that cycle. Same would be true of gaming or almost any singular activity.”
But although participating in sports can have positive effects on student’s mental and physical health, it can also have negative repercussions. There are instances where sports hurt a student’s chance at academic success as well as his or her mental wellness.
“If it is so late or an athlete is so tired when getting home from practice that they are unable to complete their work their learning can suffer,” Higbee said. “The ups and downs of sports—winning or losing, playing or not, stronger and weaker performances—can take an emotional toll that might impact academics negatively, but can also help build confidence to take on a challenge or come back from a defeat.”
Sports teams brought everything to a halt last spring when the COVID-19 pandemic began to escalate. Senior lacrosse and football player Michael Bagley felt the mental and emotional weight after his lacrosse season was canceled.
“Everything started canceling and when the season got called off entirely it hurt badly,” Bagley said. “I became somewhat depressed to the point where I was seeking help just so I could talk to someone about how I was feeling.”
After online school ended in May of 2020, Bagley kept a similar routine of waking up, sitting around the house, and going back to sleep. It wasn’t until football practices started in August that changed and improved his mental state.
“Even though we had to stay distanced, just being outside and around my friends for what was pretty much the first time since COVID started gave me so much energy and was something to look forward to,” Bagley said. “Football [gave me] a break from the monotony and a time where I could feel normal again.”
Especially in a time where feeling connected is so tough, athletics create positive environments for students and serve as a healthy distraction from the plights of everyday life.
“The pace of life is elevated when my boys are engaged in something they enjoy and that spills over to the rest of their life,” Burke said. “They are better students in the classroom when they are engaged in a sport. There is a heightened commitment to making good decisions about health and nutrition and wanting to practice or workout more, even when they don’t have to.”