Flip Your Script

John J. Schessler, Wellness Coach/Personal Trainer

Mental Clarity & the Sports Connection

For many people, staying active is as natural as breathing, myself included. The psychology of athletics and mental health are often associated with each other quite often but do we actually know what’s happening inside our brains and bodies when we exercise, watch or play sports.

Psychology says that the reason most of us wrap ourselves up inside of work, doing activities or just plainly staying busy is that we’re protecting ourselves. Busy-ness is a tool that we use to protect our brains and bodies from becoming stagnant and stale. Also, if you suffer from OCD, ADHD or similar disorders, staying busy is actually a way to keep your emotions in check. Your brain is so occupied with busy work that it doesn’t have time to process the emotions that you may be experiencing at the moment. So what’s the connection between sports and positive mental health?

Consider this: you play in a baseball summer league and really enjoy it. Even if you don’t want to do it before you start playing, by the end of the game you’re so happy because you won and feel accomplished. Negative emotions play a role in physical health, tensing our muscles up, causing chest pain, migraines, headaches, etc. If you go into an event or sport with a negative outlook, odds are you’re going to experience feelings such as those. During the game however, the fact that your active releases a rush of hormones from the brain that cause you feel good, endorphins. Have you ever seen long distance runners after running a 10K? Sure, they may be tired, but they still have smiles on their faces and some of them may even want to run the race again. This is what endorphins do, they relieve pain and stress being put on our bodies. On top of the endorphins flowing through you, there is also serotonin as well. Increased serotonin positively affects a person’s mood and regulates your emotions, taking them from negative ones and turning them into more positive affects (emotions). Low levels of serotonin can contribute to depression, bipolar and anxiety-related disorders due to the low levels of serotonin in the body and how it reacts with other chemicals in our makeup. Serotonin is a natural mood stabilizer in the body so it main jobs are to help regulate sleep patterns, reduce anxiety, stimulate bone health and heal wounds. Aside from serotonin, there is also dopamine or the ‘happy’ hormone. It is directly responsible for us experiencing our happiness state of mind.  It not only controls mental and emotional responses but also motor reactions. The dopamine system plays a central role in several significant medical conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Tourette syndrome, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and addiction. Aside from dopamine itself, there are many other important drugs that act on dopamine systems in various parts of the brain or body.  Dopamine is considered an essential element in the brain reward system. So, to put that in real world scenarios, if you are watching a baseball game and your team scores three runs in, that happiness you feel is a result of increased dopamine levels in your body being produced by your brain.

Concerning mental health and sports psychology, there’s a lot of bocce balls in the air at once and sometimes it’s extremely difficult to sort through. Studies have shown that 20 to 30 minutes of exercise each day can make people feel calmer. This calmness continues several hours after exercise.

Taking part in sports in a group has a greater impact on mental health than individual sports. Researchers in Australia found that women who played tennis and netball in clubs had better mental health than those who exercised alone, like walking or working out at the gym. There were no differences in physical health between the two groups. A study of teenage athletes found that those who played individual sports more likely reported experiencing anxiety and depression. This may be because those in team sports often play for fun. Individual sports don’t require another person to compete together and may make the athlete experience more stress than enjoyment. 

With the good, comes the bad news though. Sports participation can cause a person a lot of stress and tension due to the rigorous training involved, game schedule or time being devoted to the overall sport. These kinds of interferences can cause mood swings, depression and anxiety, just to name a few and a lot of times isn’t regulated with medication unless the person is seen by a physician or specialist. There is also pressure for you to perform at your best so when you aren’t feeling so great and things go sour, coaches may react negatively to your performance causing even further issues with your mental health.

A lot of athletes’ experience burnout during their careers due to the increasing demands placed on them by their coaches, fans and management companies. Sometimes an athlete can isolate themselves from public view or experience depression as a result from the burnout. In conclusion, it’s important to note the key role that sports play as a tool to fight the organic and psychological risks of depression. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that educational and formative activities are also important when it comes to athletes. Sports participation can be a great thing when the individual takes the correct steps to incorporate forms of self-care, medication schedules, etc. but the performance of the athlete is only as good as they recognize their issues to be. If you feel something may be off, as usual, consult a physician.

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John J. Schessler is a Pittsburgh-based Personal Trainer, Wellness Coach, Actor & Writer. He is also the host of the podcast, “ManAlive!”, available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify. If you have ideas for future articles or for future podcast episodes or interested in online training, please email: j.schessler@pghwellnesscoach.com.

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