As we approach the end of the 2022 Winter Olympic games, and celebrate, or lament the outcome of Super Bowl LVI (depending on where your true loyalties lie), I am reminded of why I consider myself a sports aficionado. Rooting for my home team, a beloved player, or even a country, my fandom finds its roots in my own involvement in youth sports. Little League baseball and Pee Wee football constituted my first exposure to competitive team sports, and I credit those early experiences for inspiring me to play baseball and football throughout my high school years, before finally hanging up my cleats and heading off to college. Although my own childhood fantasies of being a sports legend were eventually confronted with the improbable likelihood of such an achievement, a reality faced by all but the most exceptional of athletes sooner or later, the world of sports continued to occupy a central role in my life. And I consider it a positive one to be sure.
Throughout my lifetime, I have remained committed to the enthusiastic, communal, and, at times, even braggadocios celebration of sports. I may even agree with the statement that my ongoing relationship with, and attraction to, almost all things sports is part of my identity. And yet, despite all of this positivity, I sometimes wonder about the cultural emphasis we collectively bestow on competitive sports, and athletic achievement more generally. At the middle and high school levels, we glorify the virtues of organized sports, as they confer physical and mental health benefits on their participants. Ultimately, we tout the benefits of youth sports to parents as not only as a mechanism for developing strong and physically healthy bodies, but also for the promotion of strong bonds with peers, self-esteem, coping strategies related to overcoming adversity and failure, leadership skills, collaboration, work ethic, and grit, among others. Clearly, participation in sports can and does offer all of these benefits for countless youth and adult competitors alike.
Yet, and it pains me to even say it, if we devoted even a fraction of the time, money, and human capital that we dedicate to organized sports to addressing youth mental health, we could have a demonstrable and sustainable impact on an entire generation’s life outcomes. No, I am not suggesting snatching up the financial support that allows school-based sports to subsist, nor am I proposing defunding professional sports as a means of effecting change. What would I do with myself if professional sports no longer existed? Rather, I am calling for a cultural shift. Historically, we have dedicated an inordinate amount of time, energy, and money to praising the physical prowess of athletes, of the aspiring young competitors who are ripe with potential, as well as those who already enjoy the privilege of local and national reverence for their athleticism. We equate their identity with what they do on the field, the court, or the ice, and relegate mental health to a secondary position despite extolling its virtues when recruiting young players.
Not to be the “well actually guy,” but many of the positive effects attached to participation in youth sports represent mental health impacts, socioemotional skills, and/or prosocial behaviors, simply issued in code, and approached indirectly through the promotion of athleticism. For the students who participate in athletics, I fear the attention to the development of many of these tools and skills may fade as the competition stakes get higher. But perhaps more significantly, these are critical enough skills, tools, and aspects of mental wellbeing and identity to address directly, and concentrate on for all students. Quite simply, they are worthy pursuits unto themselves.
With a national crisis in youth mental health currently raging, it is time to culturally endorse, fully accept, and flat out embrace the reality that mental health requires just as much attention and just as many, if not more, resources in schools and on a national platform as competitive sports. What kind of an impact could we have on youth if we dedicated the same undying admiration, fierce devotion, immense financial and social support, and even celebratory revelry to promoting mental health and wellbeing as we have attached to our favorite team? Indeed, for those wanting to become “athletes,” we can and should continue to use sports participation as a means of directly promoting physical health, and indirectly offering mental health benefits and promoting the social psychological development of youth. However, we should do so with the full realization that they are far more than just athletes and distilling their identity down to their ability to play and win can have deleterious effects. But for all students, the direct identification, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues is not only a warranted investment, but a compulsory one. To use a sports analogy, because I am, after all, a sports fan, there is no need to bank the shot when there is a clear slam dunk with mental health services as a central feature of our educational system.