Why Are So Many Teen Athletes Struggling With Depression?

Oct 18, 2019 4:45:00 PM / by Wayne G. McDonnell, Jr., M.B.A.

InCourage Teen Depression

We all value the positive effects that playing sports can have on our kids – improved social skills, higher self-esteem, better mental and physical health, for starters. However it’s not all fun and games. Toxic and/or too-intense sports experiences have also been found to contribute to depression and anxiety in young athletes. 

The teen years can be a time of emotional turmoil and, while sports can provide a healthy outlet, they are not an inoculation against mental health issues. Though reports of depression and anxiety among young female athletes is actually 30% lower than among the general female population, it is possible that the physical and mental expectations of being a student-athlete might trigger a new psychological concern, exacerbate an existing concern or cause a past concern to resurface - for males and females alike.

Incourage Mood Disorders Blog Stat

 -- Source: Journal of Athletic Training.

What’s the cause? Student-athletes are often spread incredibly thin, fighting to maintain an excellent academic performance, grueling physical routine all while trying to enjoy an active social life. By getting ahead of issues like sports specialization, sports professionalization and bullying, we can help keep our kids happy and healthy on and off the field.


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While training year-round on a single sport can give student athletes an advantage when it comes to competition time, this singular focus also means an increased risk of injury and burnout. All of those extra practices can make players more vulnerable to injury, and an injury, especially one that ends their playing career for the season, can be a substantial emotional challenge for a student athlete whose identity is closely tied to playing sports. When these single-sport athletes are sidelined by injury, they can feel lost or depressed.

The solution: Multi-sport play

Another reason to add to the list in favor of multi-sport play: studies have shown that playing a variety of sports throughout the year is a healthier alternative to specialization. A multi-sport approach can also lead to better performance, less burnout and social isolation, and a lifelong enjoyment of sports.

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Sports specialization goes hand in hand with sports professionalization. Professionalization is when a youth sport program mirrors the intensity and training you’d expect in college or professional sports – not what’s necessary, or even best, for kids. Long practices and multiple daily workouts can easily lead to overtraining and exhaustion which overwhelms growing bodies. While teens need around nine hours of sleep, hours of practice paired with hours of homework can quickly result in sleep deprivation. And studies have found that too little sleep has a negative impact on teens, including, you guessed it, depression and anxiety, and could increase the risk of sustaining an injury in elite teen athletes. It’s an endless race to do more younger and we’re sacrificing our kids’ childhoods and happiness.

The solution: Keep sports fun 

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again – sports are meant to be fun. Is being exhausted fun? No! Is being overwhelmed fun? Not at all. Is pushing a growing body to train like that of a professional athlete fun? Nope. Instead of pressuring our kids to achieve athletic excellence through relentless training and membership in private clubs and teams (which may have their own income-driven reasons to promote year-round training), encourage your kids to play, have fun, and maybe even take a break. Focus on their development and the quality of the educational experience they are having, not on wins or dollars invested.


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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that any type of bullying increases a child’s risk for anxiety and depression. Cyberbullying is just another tool in a bully's arsenal, and it’s a tactic for shaming and intimidation that’s being used with alarming frequency. Last year, a Pew Research Center report found that the majority of teens said they had been bullied or harassed online.

So much of a teen's social life occurs online, so just logging off isn’t an option – a large part of their academic and extracurricular lives happen online, too. And many teens find refuge and welcoming friends online that they don’t find otherwise. Plus, you don’t need to be logged on to have to feel the fallout of cyberbullying: students will have to deal with rumors and posts the next day at school, regardless.

The solution: The power of peers

So, what should we do about bullying? Adults can intervene, but the answer might be in the hands of the kids themselves. A recent study has shown a reduction in student conflict by having well-connected kids promote conflict resolution — think of them as student influencers, who are using their social collateral to work as upstanders, people who intervene in bullying situations rather than bystanders who do nothing. We should all encourage our kids to be a positive force in the lives of others, and teaching them to be upstanders is just another opportunity to do this.

We all want to bring out the best in our kids, but sometimes we put our children under so much pressure to perform well that they suffer serious consequences. While we are better at monitoring their physical well-being, we need to make sure we have as close an eye on their mental health, too. The traditional student athlete mindset is built on mental toughness, but by using these solutions, we can help encourage high expectations without creating a high-pressure culture that harms more than helps.

If you or someone you know needs help, reach out. Visit, for links to mental health and suicide prevention resources, including hotlines for immediate help.

Bullying, including cyberbullying, is a serious problem with a serious impact on mental health. Be part of the solution.

Download our cyberbullying info sheet and watch our video to learn more about real solutions you can use - today - to address the problems of bullying and hazing. 

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Topics: coaches, athletic directors, athletes, parents, youth sports, teen athletes

Wayne G. McDonnell, Jr., M.B.A.

Written by Wayne G. McDonnell, Jr., M.B.A.

For nearly two decades, Wayne G. McDonnell, Jr., M.B.A. has been intimately involved in sports management education, sports media, and coaching. He achieved the rank of Clinical Professor of Sports Management and served as an Academic Chair. McDonnell was a Co-Director, Program Development and Special Initiatives for New York University’s Sports and Society. McDonnell is a Forbes Sports Money contributor with a focus on the business of baseball. He has also written for other baseball-related periodicals such as Maple Street Press’ Yankees Annual 2010, Yankees Yearly 2012, 2013, and Bleacher Report. He was awarded the NYU School of Professional Studies Award for Teaching Excellence in 2011 as well as an Award for Outstanding Service in 2008. McDonnell’s research on the game of baseball has been consistently featured at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture.