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Teen Athletes: Are They More Likely to Have Substance Abuse and Mental Health Issues?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Sports have a host of benefits for teens. From social advantages to academic enrichment to physical health, it seems like there’s nothing better than playing on your high school team.

At the same time, there’s a dark underbelly in the world of teen athletics.

Research looking at thousands of teen athletes around America has produced some slightly unsettling correlations. This data shows that while high school athletes are at higher risk of performing better in several positive factors (such as physical health, academic performance, and more), they are at higher risk for certain negative behaviors as well.

Teen Athletes, Substance Abuse, and Risky Behavior

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services conducted a landmark meta-analysis on extracurricular involvement and teens. In examining data from over 40,000 students from high schools around America, the researchers wanted to know whether how teens spend their time affects other aspects of their life. Many of the teens they surveyed participated in sports, band, art, volunteering, or another after-school activity.

This study found something intriguing: although participating in extracurricular activities, in general, helps you stay in school and prevents you from smoking later on, certain types of activities predispose you to risky behaviors.

Such as… (drumroll, please): Sports.

The researchers found that being on a sports team was correlated with high levels of drinking and sex.

  • Student athletes are more likely to drink alcohol than students who don’t play sports. Not only are they more disposed to drink, but they’re more likely to engage in binge-drinking.
  • Male athletes are more likely to engage in sex and become teen parents. (However, this correlation does not apply to female athletes.)

Depression and Anxiety in Teen Athletes

And while research shows that being involved in high school sports serves as a protective factor against mental health issues—due to the frequency of physical exercise, social benefits of belonging to a team, and more—other data shows that teen athletes have higher rates of depression and anxiety than their non-athlete peers.

A study conducted by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association found that high school athletes report higher levels of negative emotional states than their peers. This could be due to the heavy pressure – whether internal or external – placed on them to succeed on the field.

Sport by Sport

One aspect of the 1995 meta-analysis was that it compared sports to other extracurricular activities like music, art, religious services, volunteering and more. It did not differentiate between various sports. (In fact, the study didn’t even mention which sports the teen participants were involved in.)

Problem is, every sport is different. Tennis doesn’t really compare to football. Basketball is very different than ice hockey.  Do certain sports correlate with specific behaviors? Does risky behavior vary by sport?


Social Culture of Team Sports

In general, research shows that athletes in team sports like basketball or soccer are more likely to drink alcohol than those in individual sports, like track-and-field (Kulesza 2014). Experts believe the social culture of team sports influences participants to drink and engage in other high-risk behavior, while teens involved in solo sports have less interaction with their fellow athletes.

More specifically, studies have found that certain sports are correlated with certain risky behaviors.

In an expansive report on teen athletes and mental health, researchers examined the 20 most popular high school sports. These sports were: baseball/softball, basketball, cross-country, competitive cheerleading, football, golf, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, tennis, track and field, volleyball, wrestling, crew, equestrian, field hockey, gymnastics, ice hockey, water polo, and weight lifting.

Here are some of the findings from their study:

  • Lacrosse players were at high risk for substance use.
  • Male football players are more likely to engage in increased aggression and violence, even off the field.
  • Wrestling is associated with an increased risk of substance use, lower grades, higher rates of skipping class, and poor mental health. Wrestlers, data shows, had low rates of self-esteem and lack of social support.

One disclaimer of the study: it was commissioned by the Women’s Sports Foundation. So there is a possibility of researcher bias. However, we include it here because it is one of the most expansive studies, to date, on sports and teen behaviors.

Gender in Sports

Lastly, another study surveying almost 900 adolescents (Moore, 2005) found that gender also made a difference when it came to athletics. The study found that females who participated in typically female-dominated sports, and males who were involved in heavily male-dominated sports, were at higher risk for substance abuse—but not the other way around.

  • Females involved in cheerleading/dance/ gymnastics were at increased risk for using at least one substance.
  • Male athletes who played on their school football, swimming, or wrestling teams were also at an increased risk for using at least one substance.

Teen Sports: Understand the Risks

While organized sports can help prevent certain risky behaviors in adolescence and beyond, it can also lead to other risky behaviors.

But remember that lumping all sports together isn’t a wise idea when it comes to judging its tendency to lead to risky behavior. Each sport has its own culture, which can influence participants to behave in either positive or negative ways.

We’ll end off with a recommendation that the meta-analysis researchers made in summation of their findings:

“If the group code encourages some forms of risky behavior, such as binge drinking or sexual promiscuity, participation in the [sport] may be counterproductive.”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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