By Bethany Bray:
Professional counselors often recommend exercise to clients as a way to improve mood and overall wellness. In addition to boosting serotonin, a neurotransmitter connected to feelings of well-being, exercise offers the chance to unplug from the busyness of daily life and process one’s thoughts.
A recent journal study in The Lancet Psychiatry takes that recommendation one step further, connecting team sports to improved mental health. A cohort of researchers studied four years of recent survey data from more than 1 million American adults.
They found that individuals who exercised experienced 43 percent fewer days of poor mental health in a one-month period than did people who didn’t exercise at all. Individuals who experienced the greatest mental health benefits, however, were those who participated in team sports, followed by those who rode bicycles or did aerobic and gym activities (in durations of 45 minutes, three to five times weekly).
Jude and Julius Austin, American Counseling Association members who played soccer both in college and at the professional level, stress that the study’s correlational findings do not mean causation.
“We think further research needs to be done regarding the lived experience of athletes in team sports who struggle with mental health issues,” said the brothers in a co-written statement to Counseling Today on the Lancet findings.
Although mental health improvements are not caused by exercise, physical activity does, when done appropriately, have biological, cognitive and social benefits — which Jude, an assistant professor in the counseling program at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas, and Julius, an assistant professor in the marriage and family therapy and counseling studies program at the University of Louisiana Monroe, say they experienced as soccer players.
“It is exciting to see [researchers] investigating things we believe most athletes can collectively, albeit anecdotally, agree on,” wrote Jude, a licensed professional counselor in residency and Julius, a provisionally licensed professional counselor. “In our experience playing team sports, it feels great to survive a particularly tough practice. Pushing ourselves through seemingly impossible physical tasks with others reinforced that we have everything we need to handle life’s challenges. There is something healing about being swept away by the team’s mentality during a game; pressing or absorbing pressure, counterattacking or keeping possession, the ebb and flow of defense to offense, being in the zone. Even if it’s only for a moment, those sweeping moments were where we received social support, affirmation, genuineness, empathy and unconditional positive regard. These are all therapists’ offered conditions in an effective therapeutic relationship. We could not say this with empirical certainty, but we would imagine that receiving these conditions from a team can cause lessening of mental health issues.”
ACA member Sarah Fichtner, a former Division I women’s soccer player for the University of Maryland (UMD), has mixed feelings about the Lancet study. While there is little doubt that exercise in general benefits both mental and physical health, it can be taken to the extreme when sports are played at a high level, she says.
“I am a firm believer that exercise improves an individual’s mental health, as it produces feel-good endorphins and releases chemicals such as norepinephrine which alleviate stress and anxiety,” Fichtner says. “As an exercise and health enthusiast myself, there is not a doubt in my mind that exercise has many positive implications. However, I am a bit skeptical of the [Lancet] findings pertaining to team sports. I do see the benefits of exercise groups [in] that they provide accountability, comradery and support, but in terms of competitive team sports — particularly at the collegiate level — the environment is extremely different.”
Fichtner is a counselor intern at Hackensack Meridian Behavioral Health and is working on completing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling at Kean University in New Jersey. After her experience as a DI athlete, she calls for balance when it comes to competition and team sports.
“During my time as a student-athlete and captain at the University of Maryland, I saw firsthand the detrimental consequences of the collegiate world. When a player is recruited to play at the DI level, he or she is expected to perform. Coaches have one goal in mind, and that is to win,” she explains. “Practices are intense, to say the least, and the idea of healthy competition goes out the window. A player is competing against his or her teammates every day to secure a starting position. They are competing to be the fastest, fittest, slimmest and most technical or tactical player. And every day, their coaches are telling them, ‘You are not good enough,’ ‘You need to lose five more pounds to be in the running for a starting position,’ ‘Your teammates are working harder than you’ and ‘Ask your teammate so-and-so for help. She is outperforming you. She has great skills.’ This high-intensity environment can lead to many mental health challenges such as eating disorders, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, which I witnessed during my four years at UMD. Thus, when I think about team sports, specifically at the collegiate level, the word balance comes to mind.”
“Aside from the intense environment, there were many positives takeaways from my time as a student-athlete,” Fichtner adds. “I made lifelong friendships, competed at the highest level of collegiate sports, was privileged to visit many states, had top-notch gear, learned important life lessons and would do it all over again in a heartbeat. Nevertheless, now as a mental health counselor, I see the collegiate world through a different lens. Many of the challenges we athletes faced on a daily basis seemed both normal and absolute. But now as I grow both personally and professionally, I realize that colleges need to establish a balance between a healthy competitive environment, where athletes are pushed and held accountable, and a debilitating, harmful environment, in which athletes are placed in harm’s way [of] mental health challenges. Balance is key to any exercise regimen, especially in the collegiate world.”