NBA commissioner Adam Silver made headlines recently with a quote regarding the state of happiness in professional basketball. He described many players as unhappy or isolated, which he correlated with social media, describing our current time as an "age of anxiety."
Silver is far from the only commissioner to observe difficulties in his sport. Concussion issues continue to cloud football and corruption charges plague FIFA.
Speaking of corruption, you may have seen a recent story about college admissions and sports…
Considering the pressure, pain and behavior surrounding athletes at the top level, why should young athletes continue to play, particularly when those challenges appear to trickle down to sports at higher levels, albeit on smaller scales? Well, for many reasons, which we'll discuss here! Sports remain a fantastic activity for people of all ages, including these from the field of sport psychology.
Looking at the long game, this is one of the most important aspects of sport participation. Not everyone recognizes it, though. I'm always surprised by how often athletes, even college athletes, I work with don't connect how their sport skills will translate into the working world.
Young athletes, think about everything you're learning to do. Not everyone your age has experienced an older adult verbally critiquing their performance. Not everyone can keep a strict schedule with regular performance assessments (such as games/competitions/events/matches). Who is better equipped to be a team player, or even a team leader, than a former athlete?
While your boss probably won't need your athletic prowess, aside from an Arrested Development
, company softball-type situation, they'll certainly need everything else you learned in sports. Imagine only having to work 40 hours a week in a medium-paced environment. You already have the skills to crush that. Employers love hiring athletes for these (and many other) reasons.
Positive youth development
Positive youth development is a well-known phrase within certain groups, but not to the general public. PYD (defined here
) focuses on a young person's strengths and develops skills – such as leadership – by fostering positive relationships with mentors.
PYD helps young athletes create positive thinking patterns about themselves and helps build an identity different from the one they might have in other aspects of their life. Further, some research has shown a link between good mentorship and resilience.
Like anything else, resilience can be taught, if you've got a mentor who can model good behavior and help you see the light in yourself. Athletes often learn to bounce back from failures quickly and PYD can be a driver of this trait.
Lastly, most coaches use tenants of PYD in their practice. I'd encourage all coaches to sift through some of the literature on it. However, certain programs are designed specifically for positive youth development. Parents of athletes whose focus is on fun and learning should explore their local options for sport-related positive youth development. Cognitive wellness
With all the scary (and real) concussion and traumatic brain injury stories populating our lives, we often forget something quite important – exercise is awfully good for our brains.
Research has demonstrated that aerobic activity – a part of every sport in one way or another – can improve higher level brain functions (like memory and focus) across age groups (Guiney & Machado, 2013). Depending on the sport, athletes tend to score well
on problem solving and inhibition skills compared to non-athletes.
Universities across the country report higher GPAs for sports teams than for the general student body. Why? From a psychological perspective, athletes have to practice these skills constantly while playing their sports. A long distance runner would not be able to practice without sustained focus, just as a linebacker without problem solving skills won't be able to bust up many offensive plays.
We don't always talk about "sport intelligence" translating into other forms of intelligence, but just like the employment skills, cognitive skills translate from sports to other aspects of life.
Your doctor has probably told you this one before. Exercise of nearly any type can act as a mood booster. Physical movement, in general, can boost mood. Studies have shown that exercise decreases depression, anxiety and other symptoms of mental illness, and increases feelings of happiness and well-being.
The sense of connectedness offered by team sports decreases loneliness and isolation, helping an athlete build a community.
On a really basic level, sports are fun. Unfortunately, this is one of the first things I see competitive athletes forget – the love of the game. When the stakes get too high, many players start feeling consumed by their sport, rather than invigorated by it. Simply remembering the aspects of the game that one loves can help a player regain their motivation and move away from the pressure. Side note on social media
I combed through some social media research while writing this article. The primary themes I found were that posting can increase someone's feeling of connectedness, while scrolling through images/posts about other people's lives can decrease someone's feeling of connectedness.
Very little research exists regarding celebrities, but anecdotally, they appear to receive far more criticism than the average person. So while young athletes may enjoy connecting with others through social media, it is important that their fans:
(1) Notice their own negative feelings when scrolling.
(2) Remember that sports are for development, happiness, cognitive wellness, future employment and much more.
Especially at the high school level, athletes are far more than entertainers, and far less professional than the guys at the biggest stage. Enjoy the show, but take it easy on them.
Connor Hartley is a mental performance consultant from Tacoma, Washington. He teaches mental skills to athletes, musicians, students and other types of performers, including elite athletes in soccer, basketball and golf. Hartley has a master’s degree in mental health counseling with a focus in sport psychology from Boston University and a bachelor’s in psychology from Loyola Marymount University. Reach him on Facebook (Hartley Performance) Twitter (@connorhartleySP) or via email at email@example.com.