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Sports: A Mental Health Game Changer

Participating in sports not only serves as an effective coping mechanism for anxiety and depression by redirecting focus, but also boosts self-esteem through consistent encouragement from peers and coaches.

By Shazia Ali

Updated March 15, 2024

Sports, without a shadow of doubt, have evolved into an important aspect of society. While the majority of the population consider it as a hobby, there are people who are passionate enough to build a career based on it. It acts as a healthy addition to maintain balance in our lives.

The effects of playing sports on physical health are well-known. For example, it helps to boost the metabolism of the body. Not only does it improve movement and balance, but also increases flexibility of the body and joint mobility. Rehabilitation after major surgeries is vital for patients and this is where physical activity comes in hand. However, the benefits of participating in sports and physical activity are not limited to physical benefits.

Sports can have a significant amount of impact on one's mental health. It can help a patient to deal with anxiety. When playing sports, our focus gets directed to the game itself. In this way our mind can break off the array of negative thoughts that come with anxiety. In addition, our brain releases "happy hormones" such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These hormones assist in enhancing our mood and improving our sense of well-being. Interaction with teammates can get rid of social anxiety. Studies have shown that children who participate in sports in their school life suffer less from social anxiety and they have a more positive attitude towards life than those who do not. Thus, sports can be a form of coping mechanism for people experiencing any form of anxiety and depression.

Another benefit of playing sports on mental health is that it can build self-esteem. When we play sports, we often receive tons of words of encouragement and support from our peers: coaches, teammates and sometimes even opponents. Regular involvement in sports leads to continual support from people. As a result, we begin to feel better about ourselves and have an improved self-image. Due to drastic changes in appearance and increases of certain hormones in the body during puberty, teenagers suffer greatly from low self-esteem. To battle this, parents must encourage their children to engage in sports from a young age.

While playing sports has its positive effects on mental health, it also impacts the mind negatively. Athletes often tend to receive heavy criticism from coaches and other players if they don't perform well. This can discourage the athletes' overall performance as well as destroy their confidence. Similarly, frequent losses can tend to be frustrating to those extremely passionate about their sport. Despite his success, Michael Phelps, who is a former Olympic swimmer, had his fair share of mental health issues while playing sports. "I struggled with anxiety and depression and questioned whether or not I wanted to be alive anymore", he said.

The suicide rate among college athletes from data collected by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tells us that estimated the suicide rate in college athletes to be 0.8–0.93 per 100,000 a year. In correspondence to this data, this was presented as the second to the fourth leading cause of death. It can be revealed from this date just how much mental health in athletes is neglected.

Sports may have some negative effects, but the overall good it does for us mentally is certainly overweight.

To gain a more realistic view on this topic, an interview was conducted with former national team players of the women's basketball team in Bangladesh and the founder of Deshi Ballers, a leading sports organization in Bangladesh promoting women's sports: Gulnahar Mahbub Monika and Ashreen Mridha.


How has sports helped you with your mental health?

Monika: Sports played a major role in my life when it came to dealing with my mental health. It basically gave me the mental strength I needed to take on my struggles with depression.

Ashreen: Sports always gave me a reason to feel happy. Everyone in this world has their own personal struggles. Whenever I meet my teammates on the court for practice, I am able to forget about all the negativity and only focus on playing and having a good time. Even when I have a bad day at home or at work, playing for 1 hour gives me instant joy that gives me the positivity to start a new day.

Do you feel significantly better after a practice session?

Monika: When I'm out there, I forget everything and just enjoy the moment. It's my little escape from the craziness in my busy life and all the chaos in my head. And after a good practice session, I always feel so much better.

Ashreen: Practice sessions have quite an impact on the body. You're basically tearing muscles every day. It tires me out but at the end of the day, I always get a good night's sleep after practice, and sleep is the best thing you can give to your body every day. When your body is tired, it automatically falls asleep, and when you sleep well, you wake up energized for another day.

Over a prolonged period, do you see any improvement?

Monika: I've always been an introvert, but thanks to sports, I've made so many friends along the way. Sports helped me reduce my anxiety, overthinking, and even helped me to shift my perspective from pessimism to a more positive outlook in various situations. Honestly, I think sports are a big part of who I am today. Without them, I might've turned out quite differently, and not in a good way.

Ashreen: I realize now that whenever I am off practice (after a league or tournament) a strange sadness takes over me. Since playing sports has been a part of my routine for over 20 years, whenever I am on a break from practice I feel empty. I still end up waking up at 7:00am even if I don't have practice and I miss my teammates a lot. After so many years of being in this routine, I now understand that this has helped me be a disciplined person in other aspects of life as well (studies and at work). I am much more organized and I am able to manage stress in a good way. I can handle difficult situations without having to panic. I can also pass on the same positive energy to people around me. It's all because of sports. The athletic lifestyle has helped me stay sane in this rather crazy world.

Have you noticed any negative effect or any sort of deterioration over time?

Monika: When it comes to mental health, it's pretty hard to find any downsides to sports. However, if the environment you're playing in is negative, that's where things can go south. You might start doubting yourself, getting all egoistic, even turning into a bit of a show-off, and that negative competition can really mess with your mental well-being.

Ashreen: There are times I find my mental health falling, especially when I am injured or forcefully need to take long breaks from playing, like during covid. People end up storing many of these negative thoughts inside themselves, and once they build over time it sort of takes over your body. If you can program your mind to filter out the toxic energy and only retain the good parts, life becomes easier. But this takes a lot of practice and patience. world.

What is your message to the people out there struggling?

Monika: In today's world, almost each one is struggling with something in their life. The only difference is that some folks are seeking help, while others are still figuring out how to handle things on their own. It's a tough reality, no one can truly help you except YOU. You've got to find your own way out of the mess. Don't hang on to those moments; with time, they'll pass, and you'll learn how to manage all that chaos in your head. Trust me, sharing and talking can be like magic for untangling those thoughts. So, don't keep yourself isolated. Keep moving forward, and you'll notice that there are plenty of people right there with you. And remember ONE-STEP AT A TIME!

Ashreen: Never be afraid to share your vulnerability and weakness because it makes you stronger. While it is important to take care of yourself, it is also important to extend support to others around you. Sometimes reaching out to friends you haven't heard from in a long time, or inviting them over for coffee can make a huge difference in that person's life. We don't know who is going through what, but we can still do our part to be kind to everyone we meet and interact with. If there's nothing for you to share with others, just smile and share some kindness. Make sure every moment you spend with someone is one that they will never forget.