Evaluating the relationship between mental health and athletics


Lindsay Taylor '24

Mental struggles can affect student-athletes’ enjoyment of their respective sports.

In light of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics and testimonies from athletes regarding their mental health struggles, conversations about the relationship between mental health and athletics have grown more prevalent.  Even at a high school level, athletes face an immense amount of pressure to perform at their best, whether for college recruiting or bringing pride to their school, according to theatlantic.com.  Sophomore Emilia Bernal and School Psychologist Lisa Schwartz discussed the innate ties of mental health and high school athletic competitions at Sacred Heart Greenwich.

Sports games are significant to the community, students, and school culture at Sacred Heart, which can put pressure on athletes to constantly excel in their sport.  While student-athletes feel the stress of representing their school at athletic events, many find that focusing on improvement and their love of the sport helps them combat the pressure of competing at a high level of intensity.

Emilia Bernal ’24 competes in a volleyball match with the varsity volleyball team.  Courtesy of Mr. Christopher Pope

Emilia is one of the captains of the varsity volleyball team at Sacred Heart.  As a competitive volleyball player, Emilia deals with both the pressure to win and the disappointment of losing games.

“I have obviously felt nervous when big games are approaching such as those against [Greenwich Academy] because I want to perform my best,” Emilia said.  “However, I think worrying about a game after I did not do as well as I wanted to or continuing to think about it can impact my mood and performance at the next practice.”

To prioritize her mental well-being along with her physical health, Emilia incorporates breathing exercises and meditation into her daily routine.  She finds that focusing on her breath gives her the strength to accept and move on from the mistakes she makes in games.

“I like to do breathing exercises in the morning or meditation to circle back to my breath,” Emilia said.  “I try to focus on being present and I feel that focusing on my breath during a point really helps me.  Volleyball is a game of mistakes and lots of other sports are games of mistakes.  That’s how they work.  It is important to stay in the moment and play point by point.”

Dr. Schwartz works with Upper School students at Sacred Heart to help them manage the pressure from different aspects of their lives.  She explained why she loves working in a high school environment.

“The lives of teenagers are so complicated and they deal with some really difficult situations,” Dr. Schwartz said.  “Being in a school gives you the unique balance of being able to see students individually but also in their real life and I find that to be very special and very helpful.”

Sacred Heart athletes invest a lot of time into their sports.  Dr. Schwartz commented on the role of athletics in students’ mental health.

“Athletics can bring positive strength, energy, a stress outlet, camaraderie, and team building,” Dr. Schwartz said.  “The flip side is when we don’t experience that and when it’s overloaded with competition and stress, that’s when it permeates and makes it more difficult for us to function in other pieces of our lives.”

Ms. Simone Biles flips on a beam during the Rio 2016 Olympics. Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.com

On a global scale, many professional athletes have drawn attention to their mental health in an effort to end the stigma surrounding mental struggles.  Ms. Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open May 31 after saying she would not sit for press conferences after matches to prioritize her mental health, according to cbssports.com.  During the Tokyo 2021 Olympics, Ms. Simone Biles pulled out of the team competition and the all-around final.  She feared that her mental health would affect her physical well-being after contracting the “twisties,” a sensation gymnasts face while flipping according to The Washington Post.

More athletes are beginning to open up about the mental health struggles that they face rather than dealing with the pressure in silence.  In 2020, Ms. Osaka was the number one women’s tennis player in the world and won the United States Open Tennis Championships for the second time, according to The Wall Street Journal.  However, as her popularity grew and the pressure to win mounted, her mental health started to decline.

“Recently, when I win, I don’t feel happy,” Ms. Osaka said, according to The Wall Street Journal.  “I feel more like a relief.  And then when I lose, I feel very sad.  I don’t think that’s normal.”

Dr. Schwartz believes that similar pressures that come with competing in a sport to satisfy an external figure can also emerge in student-athletes.

“The hardest part is perhaps when a student doesn’t realize that their motivation isn’t coming from within,” Dr. Schwartz said.  “We can’t lose sight of the fact that the sports that we do in high school are really supposed to be fun.”

Another professional tennis player, Ms. Venus Williams, discussed the importance of maintaining her mental health while competing in a sport.  She discussed her methods of coping with the pressure of playing tennis at a high level and explained that her mother advised care for her “whole self,” which means prioritizing happiness outside of competing in tennis.  Ms. Williams said that focusing on her well-being in other areas of her life helped alleviate the pressure of professional athletics and allowed her to continue playing tennis, according to The New York Times.

Following the growing advocacy of athletes for mental health awareness, Dr. Schwartz believes that student-athletes can look up to the examples that professional athletes are setting. 

“I’m so proud of our athletes,” Dr. Schwartz said.  “The fact that they are such public figures gave them the opportunity to de-stigmatize and help other people feel more comfortable coming forward and saying ‘I’m not feeling up to this and that’s okay.’  You have to understand your limits.  There has to be more good than bad to keep doing something.”

Featured Image by Lindsay Taylor ’24