Females, Sports, and Mental Health

Recently I wrote two essays about sports and mental health using American Pharoah’s spectacular Triple Crown victory as a victory.

What about girls and women and sports and psychological well-being?

If anyone has been following the Women’s World Cup, how exciting it was to see the U.S. oust Colombia and reach the quarterfinals!

The U.S. women’s national team advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals with a 2-0 win over 10-woman Colombia in their round-of-16 battle Monday night in Edmonton, Alberta.


Way to go young ladies!


Let’s look at the good:

  • High school girls who play sports are less likely to be involved in an unintended pregnancy; more likely to get better grades in school and more likely to graduate than girls who do not play sports.
  • Girls and women who play sports have higher levels of confidence and self-esteem and lower levels of depression.
  • Girls and women who play sports have a more positive body image and experience higher states of psychological well-being than girls and women who do not play sports.


It would appear that “Sport[s] is a place for girls to learn social interaction, hard work, the triumphs of success and coping skills when faced with failure.”



But there’s a downside:

  • Athletic burnout: burnout is a current epidemic among all ages but in particular, it is highest among female athletes who exhibit maladaptive perfectionism. Maladaptive perfectionism refers to the rigid standards and unrealistically high expectations that one places upon herself. With the unpredictability of sport, being unable to cope with challenges or changes can lead to excessive stress and in turn, burnout.
  • According to the American Psychiatric Association, women are “nearly twice as likely” as men to develop depression, anxiety and eating disorders. Add in the stress of sports commitments and you have a dangerous combination. The majority of women interviewed pointed to eating disorders related to their sport as the top issue.
  • The pressures of women to gain muscle in training but stay thin to uphold a standard of beauty outside of sports is irreconcilable.
  • In sports, the private issue of women’s body image becomes public.

Is help readily available?

…yet every major women’s and men’s sport has a pink ribbon campaign while mental health issues go unnoticed.

So where do these student-athletes go for help? Few women interviewed had used on-campus psychological services because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

“No one wants to admit there’s a problem until it’s too late.”

Most student-athletes viewed professional help as a “sign of weakness.” Those who did seek help found the wait time was up to three weeks to book an appointment.

What about watching sports? It’s complicated, there are up and downsides.


Women’s Sports Media, Self‐Objectification, and Mental Health in Black and White Adolescent Females

Kristen Harrison, Barbara L. Fredrickson


Recent surveys have suggested that sports media exposure may be linked to adolescents’ body perceptions. This study tested this relationship from the perspective of objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) by surveying and experimenting with 426 adolescent females aged 10–19. Sports magazine reading predicted greater body satisfaction among older adolescents, regardless of whether they participated in sports. Self-objectification in adolescents of all ages predicted mental health risks including body shame, disordered eating, and depression. Participants also viewed a video depicting men’s sports, women’s lean sports, or women’s nonlean sports. For White participants, watching lean sports increased self-objectification, whereas for participants of color, watching nonlean sports had the same effect. Discussion focuses on self-objectification in adolescents and how cultural differences in the female body ideal are reflected in portrayals of female athletes.


One thing is clear: sports may play a significant role in the growth and development of girls and young women, and may carry significant physical and mental health and social consequences well into adulthood.

Perhaps worth exploring further, along with cultural nuances, for those who work with female patients.

In the meantime, just as I cheered Serena Williams who won the French Open and her 20th Grand Slam title (I feel a bit like I watched her grow up as Venus’s younger sister in U.S. Open matches; see:

http://espn.go.com/tennis/french15/story/_/id/13023322/serena-williams-wins-2015-french-open-20th-grand-slam-title), I am thrilled to see the U.S. women’s national team come closer and closer to bringing the World Cup home.


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