Why this matters
Sports participation has mitigated the pandemic’s harmful effects on kids’ physical and mental health, so it may be more important than ever to make opportunities to play easily accessible, particularly for kids of Color.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been harmful to kids’ mental health, but participation in sports has mitigated some of that harm. While the physical and mental health benefits of sports are fairly well known, recent research sheds light on how sports have helped kids’ mental health during the pandemic — and it underscores the importance of making a wide variety of sports easily accessible to kids.
Simply expanding opportunities for youth to play sports may protect and improve mental health, but sports programs that go a step further and address mental health, either directly or indirectly, may be even more helpful to youth who are struggling.
The Pandemic and Mental Health
The pandemic has been difficult for kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 42% of high school students reported that in 2021, they felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks that they stopped doing their usual activities. The report was released in February.
And the problem is worse for girls: 57% of girls were persistently sad and hopeless — the highest level reported over the past decade — compared with 29% of boys, the CDC reported. Thirty percent of girls and 14% of boys seriously considered attempting suicide during the past year.
The Women’s Sports Foundation’s report “The Healing Power of Sport: COVID-19 and Girls’ Participation, Health and Achievements” found that the pandemic had widespread harmful effects on kids' physical and mental health and well-being, but that sports protected kids from some of that harm.
The report found that youth who played sports had higher levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social support — and lower levels of depression, loneliness, self-derogation, and fatalism — than their peers who didn’t participate in sport. (Self-derogation refers to the tendency to think and speak poorly of oneself, and fatalism involves expecting that things will turn out badly.) The report used data from the 2019, 2020, and 2021 Monitoring the Future study of eighth, 10th, and 12th graders.
For depression in particular, the Healing Power of Sport report found that 12th-graders’ depression increased from 2019 to 2021, and those who participated in sports during 2021 had lower levels of depression than their peers who did not.
Sports participation declined for both boys and girls during this period, but declines were particularly steep among Hispanic and Black youth, youth in urban areas, and 12th graders. The report noted that “12th-grade girls experienced significantly greater declines in participation than any other group examined, with participation rates dropping by an alarming 17 percentage points (66.4% to 49.4%).”
Renata Simril pays close attention to such numbers as president and CEO of the LA84 Foundation, which supports Southern California youth sports organizations and works to level the playing field so that sports are accessible to all children. She says the foundation’s most recent youth sports survey revealed that girls have been returning to sports participation more slowly than boys.
“We’re unpacking that to understand why that is the case. I’m curious if it’s perhaps tied to the CDC report that mental illness and stress is affecting girls much more than it’s affecting boys,” she says.
Other research suggests that sports participation may help improve kids’ mental health. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in January found that physical activity can reduce depressive symptoms in children and adolescents, especially for children older than 13 with a mental illness or depression diagnosis.
Putting these findings into action may be a challenge. There’s a general awareness that physical activity and sports are good for kids, and some people are aware that sports participation could boost mental health, says Karen Issokson-Silver, VP of research and education at the Women’s Sports Foundation. But, she says, “sport is under-utilized as a strategy and a tool for positive mental health.”
Programs in Action
Youth sports programs that directly address mental health may have great potential to protect and improve kids’ mental health, whether by bringing in therapists and other mental health professionals or by creating safe spaces for young athletes. These safe spaces may have the effect of boosting mental health even if participants never talk about their mental health explicitly.
For example, coaches and program leaders might ask participants to share something about their day, “helping young people sort of slow down and connect to their minds and their bodies through yoga, meditation, simple breathing exercises, incorporating icebreakers, to create a greater sense of belonging and connection and community,” Issokson-Silver says.
“There are many sports programs that are intentionally teaching young people interpersonal skills that contribute to positive mental health, whether that's problem solving, or managing adversity, or even learning how to ask for help,” Issokson-Silver adds. “We're seeing more programs creating environments that are safe spaces, allowing young people to bring their authentic selves into that space so that they can grow and thrive.”
One example is Girls on the Run, a running program for girls that also works to strengthen their confidence and teaches them about managing emotions, resolving conflict, and achieving other life skills. The organization recognizes the connection between physical and emotional health and reflects that in its programming.
Another example is DC SCORES, a nonprofit that combines soccer with poetry and spoken word as well as service learning. It aims to empower kids to be emotionally and physically healthy. The program is free to participants, and it operates in 60 to 70 elementary and middle schools in the Washington, D.C., area.
Mental health is not an explicit part of the DC SCORES curriculum, “but it comes up naturally” as part of the creative writing and service learning projects, says Tatiana Figueroa Ramírez, associate program director for creative writing. For example, in poetry slams, “we still see a lot about the pandemic and how it is adjusting to being in school, virtual classes, being back in community versus when they weren’t back in community, the different challenges that they have,” she says.
“We also see a lot about the concerns for their environments, in terms of gun violence, gentrification, being kind to one another, bullying, so that shows up a lot in their poetry, and then it actually ends up coming up a lot in their service learning projects as well,” Ramírez says. “We’ve had poet athletes do anti-bullying campaigns.”
Why does poetry make sense as part of a sports program?
“We really want to make sure that we’re doing our best to increase self-esteem and confidence, instill those leadership skills, and one of the foundational ways of doing that is one of the foundational things of poetry — finding your authentic self, being able to express yourself with little to no rules,” Ramírez says.
The soccer portion of DC SCORES also incorporates elements of self-care.
“One of the things that we incorporated into the soccer curriculum this year was language around taking care of ourselves, taking care of others, and taking care of our community,” says Jason Gross, senior program director of soccer and operations. The program “allows kids to express themselves in a way that they can connect with whatever issue they’re going through, but also be celebrated and valued for their thoughts and feelings,” he says.
For youth sports programs that don’t already include elements of mental health or wellness, figuring out how to better support athletes may be a challenge. Coaches shouldn’t be expected to be mental health professionals, but they can be trained to recognize signs that kids are struggling, and they can learn ways to support athletes’ mental health.
Simril says that coaches can receive training, “not to solve very real mental health or stress or depression issues that need to be addressed with a therapist or a trained clinician, but I think for the vast number of young people coming out of COVID, it’s just a matter of how do you sort of reengage with yourself and your peers in sport, play, and movement.”
Simril pointed to the Center for Healing and Justice Through Sport as an example. The center consults with organizations and trains coaches on healing-centered sports and social-emotional learning through sports.
More Than One Sport
The Healing Power of Sport report found that youth who participated in more than one sport benefited more than those who participated in only one sport. Both boys and girls who participated in one sport reported higher self-esteem than those who did not participate, and those who played two or more sports had even higher self-esteem.
But the pandemic reduced the number of kids playing more than one sport. Participation in two or more sports declined, with the largest declines occurring among Black girls and Hispanic boys, the Healing Power of Sport report found. This decline “highlights the critical need for continuous access across a wide array of girls’ sports settings; education to parents, schools, and other stakeholders of the value and importance of keeping girls involved in multiple sports; and greater communication and collaborative planning and organization between sports programs so they can avoid overlapping seasons, space, and times as much as possible.”
Aside from simply providing more sports options for kids, schools and programs could encourage sports sampling, or trying out various sports rather than focusing on one. Sports camps and programs that are shorter than typical sports seasons are one way of introducing kids to a sport that’s new to them.
“Sports teams in particular can demand so much time from their individual players that it really limits opportunity, and so anytime communities or schools can provide those shorter opportunities for girls, it's wonderful,” Issokson-Silver says. “That's what sport sampling is all about: giving girls exposure to different sports and letting them try it out and see what clicks for them.”
“I think it is important to give young women a variety of options to meet their body types and meet their interests. … That variety gives you the experience to actually see what you're good at,” she says, adding that the LA84 Foundation has seen increased interest in less traditional sports such as rugby and lacrosse.
The Women’s Sports Foundation exposes girls to various sports through “athlete ambassadors” who serve as role models. Shining a spotlight on “high school and collegiate female athletes as examples for younger girls — that has a really powerful impact,” Issokson-Silver says.
Organizations like the mentioned foundations provide resources to expand access to sports. And programs like DC SCORES that provide free opportunities can open doors to sports that may typically be financially out of reach for some young athletes.
Soccer, in particular, is often costly to participate in. Travel soccer can cost $1,500 to $4,000 a year and may require participation twice a week, well after the school day has ended, Gross says. DC SCORES’s after-school program, in comparison, “fills a need and a gap in that four-to-six time frame, with parents who work hourly jobs that don't have the same flexibility to be off or can’t pay for a nanny or au pair to come and pick up their kids,” he says.
Kids’ declining mental health has been a significant problem during the pandemic, and this research shows that sports can protect and enhance kids’ mental health. Parents, communities, and schools may be inclined to advocate for and provide expanded opportunities as a result.
Sometimes, outside of school programs, information about available sports programs may be difficult for parents to find, according to Issokson-Silver. She suggests that parents approach local recreation departments and school administrators to “share more about what their families need, to make sure that their girls can access the resources that are there, whether that's transportation or personal sports equipment or financial support.”
“The desire is there, and the demand is there, and the needs are often unmet.”
Although many people recognize the importance of physical activity, others don’t appreciate its connection with mental health or social-emotional learning, Simril says. “I have talked to school administrators who will say their priority is social-emotional learning, mental health, stress and anxiety, attendance, bringing kids back to school. And then when I start talking about an after-school sports program, or PE, or sports in general, their response to me is: ‘Well, athletics isn’t our priority,’” Simril says.
But sports are a way to address all of these concerns. According to the Healing Power of Sport report, “Given the significant impact of the pandemic on declines in the physical, psychological, and academic well-being of today’s teens, sports participation and the support it provides for the promotion of positive health and development may be more important now than ever before.”
Pandemic-related closures have dealt kids a host of challenges: mental health, lack of social connections, less connection to academics, poor social-emotional learning, and more. “The academics talk about the achievement gap between math, science, reading," Simril says, but “there's also a physical gap, and then there’s a social isolation gap added on to that.”
These challenges are connected, and addressing them is an urgent matter. The populations that were hit hardest by COVID — largely low-income people of color — often are the same populations where kids have less access to sports. As more programs try to address kids’ multifaceted needs, they highlight youth sports’ potential to benefit mental health and perhaps help repair some of the damage the global pandemic inflicted.
Young people today have a very different relationship to sport than their parents or grandparents, both in the ways they compete as well as how they consume their favorite athletes, teams and leagues.
We explore key trends among young people and their relationship to sport in this digital issue.