Depression and Sports: A Double-edged Sword

The 2022 Wayne State University football team in a huddle. Credit: Tamara Hew-Butler

The mythology and physiology that characterize winners from losers remains elusive. While physiological profiling—studying biomarkers and body composition and using wearable technology—of “superhuman” athletes continues, our unsatiable quest for greatness often minimizes how our mental health can affect our physical health, athletic training and competition.

Superstar athletes Michael Phelps, Coco Gauff and Simone Biles have highlighted the detrimental effects of poor mental health, such as depression, on performance. Alarmingly, in 2022, five college athletes died by suicide within a two-month span. These events have exposed the critical importance of acknowledging mental health while reducing the stigma associated with any perceived lack of “toughness.” It’s also important to note that mental health is inextricably linked to physical health, as athletes often ride the razor-thin edge between peak performance and tissue failure.

Our laboratory screens for depression in both college athletes and nonathletes. Depression is a mood disorder characterized by:

  • persistent sadness,
  • fatigue,
  • loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy,
  • feelings of worthlessness,
  • difficulty thinking or concentrating,
  • changes in appetite or sleep patterns,
  • indecisiveness, and/or
  • thoughts of death.

The incidence of depression among university students ranges between 10 and 85%. Our studies show that the incidence of depression in student athletes is actually quite low—between 4 and 14%–which is much lower than the average (nonathlete) student at our university.

Why the paradox? Are athletes at more or less risk of depression than nonathletes? Like everything else, the answer is complicated, situational and has many factors. From our experience, it appears that participating in NCAA Division I and II level sports reduces depression from a likely combination of social and physiological factors. Previous research has suggested that sports participation enhances social connections and self-esteem, which, along with the biological benefits of regular physical activity, decreases depression scores. Sports also provide camaraderie, routine and a packed schedule that often leave little room for overthinking or excessive social media consumption.

So, want to be happier and healthier? Try participating in sports—but do not overdo it! While scientists are starting to understand more about the molecular underpinnings of superior health, the mental health consequences of sustained training and competition require more research. 

Tamara Hew-Butler, DPM, PhD, FACSM, is an associate professor of exercise and sport science at Wayne State University in Detroit. She directs the Warrior Performance Human Research Lab, and her scientific interests include hydration and sports performance.

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