BY PATIENCE LEPHOGOLE
In today’s demanding world of high performance sports, an emphasis is often placed on medals and winning above all else.
While we can talk of the epidemic of knee (soccer and track), shoulder (tennis and baseball), and head (football) injuries related to specific sports, what we normally forget to talk about is the psychological risks and benefits related to youth sports. According to experts, there are psychological risks that come with sport participation, both positive and negative.
It is often a common agreement within sport experts that sport is supposed to be fun, when it stops being fun and have the potential to hurt a young athlete and it is time to shift gears and reevaluate. However, if a youth athlete is having fun, the rewards can last a lifetime as it can be used as a source of income.
Dr Karabo Tlhabano, a PhD researcher in Sport and science exercise, asserts that sport has psychological benefits including improvements in mood, sleep patterns, concentration, confidence, self-esteem, and reductions in stress among others adding that these benefits come in a variety of ways. She said one of them includes reducing Stress and Low mood.
“Athletes make friends in sport (teammates) and interact with those friends daily, sharing each other’s burdens/ challenges intentionally and without intent. Friendships built around a common purpose (e.g., love for sport) can be an important protective factor cushioning individuals from being overwhelmed by issues or challenges life,” she opined.
Dr Tlhabano continued; “Over time these friends become more like family because of enormous time spent together, supporting each other through sport related challenges (e.g., losing, injuries). It is among teammates that athletes usually receive encouragement to keep going post injuries or loses, it is from teammates that athletes receive encouragement to not be overcome by competition pressure.”
Moreover she added that one other benefit include forward Looking (hope) as sport gives athletes a purpose, something to do, something to master and something to excel in.
When asked if sports is risky to a mental health of an athlete, Dr Tlhabano had this to say: “indeed competitive sport is not free of affecting mental well-being negatively and many times this is ignored.”
She further said “When faced with injury, relationship, unemployment and academic challenges athletes may draw from their resilience, purpose, confidence, friendships and physical activity to not be overcome by stress. It helps when athletes’ families understand and are supportive, the community too needs to appreciate the high stress life of athletes.”
Dr Tlhabano further highlighted that at times as with all human beings, it can be overwhelming leading to clinical anxiety and/or mood disorders, especially if exposure to stress is prolonged and coping resources are inadequate.
Moreover, Dr Tlhabano said “There is no data or work done which looked into mental health of Batswana athletes, therefore a clear picture does not exist. To know where our athletes stand will require research. What we know is that athletes have unique challenges and often times the pressure of yielding results, the severity of injury and juggling the demands of sport and of other things can be overwhelming and some high profile athletes internationally have publicly shared of their battles with mental illnesses.”
Athletes, more especially professional athletes have to deal with a lot of stressors. However even non professional athletes who have high ambitions usually have to manage highly stressful situations.
“The risk of injury and actual injury are among the common stressors in the lives of athletes especially ahead of important competitions. Sport is risky business each time an athlete goes to train or compete and they know it. An injury, depending on the nature and degree of the injury can mean missing important competitions or a while season. If sport is your career, an injury means no income until you are back competing. Other stressors such as relationships, unemployment and academics can impact the athlete and make one prone to injuries. The sources of stress can result in a cycle leaving an athlete not knowing from which direction the cause and maintenance of their stress, anxiety or depression come from,” she added.
She added that “With stress, anxiety and mood problems comes poor concentration, sleep challenges, irritability, slowed reaction, poor judgement… all the symptoms that heighten the risk of injury.”
Dr. Tshepang Tshube who is an Educator and Researcher of Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Botswana says the psychological risks of athletes in Botswana are minimal.
He said the risks vary from low confidence because self-esteem is tied to sport performance, delusions that sport will provide college scholarships, strained relationships with over-invested parents as well as inappropriate feelings of superiority.
“Our society’s obsession with sports puts a premium on athletes and athleticism, which can imbue young athletes with an inflated sense of self. This is because most young athletes feel great when they win, but it is how the handle loss that defines their long-term character,” he opined.
“Unhealthy performance pressure as sports psychologists are in high demand because parents, coaches, teams and schools put undue pressure on young athletes to perform well every time they step on the field, court, or track,” he added.
Benefits that come with the psychological benefits of sports has been said to be several. “We build athlete’s mental skills which include confidence, to build strong mental toughness, have them to be able o manage their anxiety levels because for them the levels are always high hence the need to calm them,” he added.
Dr Tshube further said that skill-building in sport enhances self-esteem, which carries over into other areas of life.
“Other benefits include positive body image. While not always a perfect antidote, sports can make young athletes feel proud of their bodies and what those bodies can do. Too many teens are unable to handle the rigors of school hence it may give them resilience,” he says.
Moreover, it is clear such benefits may include an acquisition of a work ethic. Sports require effort and commitment, both traits that serve us well in adulthood. Athletes apply the aptitude for hard work and effort that they acquired in sports to almost everything they do in their lives, from hobbies to academic assignments. Excelling in sport is all about the work we expend, which sets up an excellent foundation for long-term success.
Pyschological benefits further include self-regulation, organization, and time management of the athlete. Combining sports and school requires an ability to self-regulate. Getting to practice on time with the proper equipment helps student-athletes learn to organize themselves
In giving advice to parents, Dr Tshube had this to say: “Parents should allow their kids to engage in sports, supporting them especially to their psychological being which is crucial to their growth.”
“There should be holistic approach to athlete development which means they should be provided with athletic development, psychological, psychosocial and also engage in school, between balancing the two,” he added.
He concluded that there is more that needs to be done in terms of the psychological status of athletes as he has observed that there are athletes who could use more mental strength. “There is need for psychological healthy education. However, we have a few athletes who display such mental strength which is a good sign,” he said.