This is a brief recap of an article that originally appeared on GlobalSportMatters.com and was written by Allison Torres Burtka, published April 12th, 2023. I thought the information was excellent and I wanted to share with our parents and readers. The entire article can be found by clicking here.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on the mental health of children, but participation in sports has proven to be a mitigating factor in alleviating some of this harm. Although the physical and mental benefits of sports are widely acknowledged, recent research emphasizes the crucial role of sports in enhancing children’s mental well-being during the pandemic. This underscores the importance of ensuring easy access to a wide range of sports activities for youngsters.
Expanding opportunities for youth to engage in sports can contribute to protecting and improving their mental health. However, it is worth noting that sports programs that not only provide access but also address mental health, whether directly or indirectly, can be even more beneficial for children grappling with mental health issues.
The COVID-19 Pandemic and Its Impact on Youth Mental Health
The pandemic has posed significant challenges for children’s mental health. A 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that 42% of high school students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless for at least two weeks to the extent that they ceased their usual activities. This data, released in February, paints a troubling picture of the emotional toll the pandemic has taken on young minds.
Moreover, the impact is more pronounced among girls, with 57% of them reporting persistent sadness and hopelessness—the highest level recorded over the past decade. In contrast, 29% of boys reported similar feelings. Additionally, 30% of girls and 14% of boys seriously contemplated suicide in the past year.
The “Healing Power of Sport: COVID-19 and Girls’ Participation, Health, and Achievements” report by the Women’s Sports Foundation further confirms the widespread adverse effects of the pandemic on children’s physical and mental health. However, it also highlights how sports participation has shielded kids from some of this harm.
The report reveals that youngsters engaged in sports exhibited higher levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social support, alongside lower levels of depression, loneliness, self-derogation, and fatalism, compared to their non-participating peers. Specifically, sports have been found to have a positive impact on depression, with 12th-graders in 2021 who participated in sports showing lower levels of depression than their non-participating counterparts.
The Impact of Sports on Youth Mental Health
Other research has also suggested that sports participation can significantly enhance children’s mental health. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in January indicated that physical activity can reduce depressive symptoms in children and adolescents, especially those older than 13 with a mental illness or depression diagnosis.
Despite this wealth of evidence, there remains a gap between recognizing the benefits of sports and utilizing them as a tool for promoting positive mental health. Karen Issokson-Silver, VP of research and education at the Women’s Sports Foundation, points out that while some acknowledge the connection between sports participation and improved mental health, sports are still underutilized as a strategy and tool for enhancing mental well-being.
Many sports programs intentionally teach interpersonal skills that contribute to positive mental health, such as problem-solving, resilience, and seeking help when needed. These programs create environments where young people can bring their authentic selves, promoting growth and well-being.
The Connection Between Sports and Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed children to various challenges, including mental health issues, social isolation, and decreased academic engagement. These issues are interlinked, and addressing them has become a pressing concern. Unfortunately, the populations most affected by COVID-19, primarily low-income communities of color, often have limited access to sports programs.
As communities, schools, and parents work together to meet the multifaceted needs of children, sports are emerging as a powerful tool to enhance mental health and combat some of the pandemic’s detrimental effects. The pandemic’s academic achievement gap is widely discussed, but the physical gap and social isolation gap are equally significant.
Addressing the physical, psychological, and academic well-being of today’s youth is imperative, and sports participation can play a crucial role in this endeavor. Now, more than ever, sports have the potential to promote positive health and development among children, and they should be recognized as a valuable asset in safeguarding their mental well-being.