Coping through physical activity is one of many healthy ways to manage stress I discussed in one of my previous posts, but I felt that coping specifically through sports deserved its own post (by the way I will be incorporating personal stories and views in this, just a disclaimer). For the most part, coping through playing sports of any kind is an efficient outlet for stress or just a generally good way to stay in shape and keep up good self-esteem and self-efficacy. One major skill I can attribute to my involvement in sports from a young age is my ability to time manage. This is an extremely important skill to have, and it almost forced its way into my life when I had to manage an onerous homework load from a rigorous course schedule in addition to practices, training, and tournaments throughout the weeks of the season.
As someone who has played both competitive volleyball and competitive basketball, there are certainly countless additional benefits that come with a sport including new team friends, communication skills, a source of accomplishment, something to prevent (me) from feeling lazy and unproductive, and overall, a great time. However, sports can also turn taxing and detrimental to mental health in teenagers under the wrong circumstances. While sports can act as escapes from the stressors of domestic life or educational life, they could also serve as primary or additional stressors. A lot of high school student athletes have hopes of playing their sport in college which applies a lot of stress and pressure to perform well at all times for recruiting and tryouts and games to impress current and future coaches. This entails late nights spent trying to catch up on homework after a practice, increased levels of adrenaline and stress, and lots of mental breakdowns from increasing pressure from parents, coaches, school, and friends. In this process even with athletes who do not intend on playing at a college level, sports can become a dangerous source of validation.
Validation is a necessary part of our lives, and it is important that we seek it from the right places. Having a high self-esteem comes from unconditional positive regard (psych word for love) from people around you like friends and family. Having people who accept you for who you are, have experienced things with you, and know you well enough to anticipate your thoughts and feelings are great sources of validation. However, in order to make sure self-validation is stable, it is important to have it from more than one source. Sports become such a monumental aspect in the lives of high school students that often the majority of validation is based off of performance during a game or practice. Performance of a sport naturally should not be a deciding factor in one's self-concept or self-worth, but it can be very easy to get caught up in emotions and forget that (definitely not speaking from experience...). Coaches like to put pressure on, stress out, body shame, and overwork their athletes in order to accomplish that college recruiting process or qualify for nationals or whatever it is the goal of a season is.
The most absurd thing one of my volleyball coaches ever said to my 15u team (we were also practicing with the 18u team so there was quite an audience) was that we were "models" outside of the court, but in order to succeed in volleyball, we all needed to lose 10 pounds. We looked at each other with varying degrees of shock and faces that read "She must be joking, right?" She wasn't. She didn't say "get in shape" or "hit the gym x times a week," she said we all needed to lose 10 pounds. I left the club the following year, but that is beside the point.
Saying unrealistic things like this or the most used phrase ever- "practice makes perfect"- has an impact on developing teenage athletes. Obviously, no matter how much anybody practices, life is never going to be perfect and there's no way to guarantee perfection because there are about a hundred too many variables to account for (and also since perfection doesn't exist because it is subjective but I'm getting off topic). I remember a time not super long ago when if I ever performed poorly during a practice or a game, my day would be ruined, and I would carry this dejected feeling with me feeling bad about myself when I really should have realized that the world was in fact not ending. This is in no way saying feeling like this is overdramatic or invalid, but it is important to remember that self-worth does stem from other places including but certainly not limited to sports.
Lastly, to wrap up this post, obviously not all stress is bad, and it is important to learn how to cope with stress and pressure because as long as the human condition perseveres, those two things stay alive and well. However, it is equally important to learn to pick battles, not allocate all the "validation eggs" in one basket, and think rationally and carefully in regard to self-image, self-worth, and self-efficacy in comparison to sports and athletic performance. Thanks for reading, I know this one was filled with anecdotes, but I felt they were relevant! :)