If sports are a healthy outlet for high school students, why do so many quit playing?

Athletes, even in high school, get scrutinized more than just about anyone else.

Their stats are posted online. Newspapers track their teams’ win-loss records. College fans scour the news and social media for recruiting updates.

Sports can turn teenagers into celebrities seemingly overnight. But what about the kids who quit playing? If the same fans examined why most athletes quit playing sports by the time they reach high school with the same enthusiasm they use to follow their favorite player or team, what kinds of physical and mental health issues would they find taking a toll on students?

Athletics are seen as overwhelmingly positive, but depending on an athlete’s situation there can be negative effects. If the effect of a situation becomes overwhelmingly negative it may be best for the student to quit sports despite the positive impact it can have on them.

Riverside has resources available to help all students, including student athletes that are struggling with issues in relation to stress, abuse, family issues, and any other situation that is negatively affecting their mental health. Mental health support is offered through meetings with counselors and co-located resources such as therapy.

According to the National Alliance for Sports, 70 percent of athletes quit sports by the time they get to high school, and when these athletes do quit sports they are seen as lazy, or not good enough by their peers, coaches, or even family members. The underlying issue doesn’t get acknowledged.

Injuries, stress of competing, the pressure to do well, balancing school work, family problems, substance abuse, and many other issues can all lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or other behavioral and emotional disorders.

All of these situations can cause an athlete to quit sports because that’s what’s best for their mental health, and continuing athletics would only worsen their symptoms.

Both students and coaches have seen students drop out of sports at Riverside. Senior football player Nicholas Spoon has seen multiple teammates quit for different reasons. 

”There was someone who dropped out of football because he was very frustrated and angry” said Spoon. He has also seen some students drop football due to family, work, stress, or coaches. 

Junior DJ Lane runs the ball against Northern High School. Football participation declined sharply in 2020-21.
Photo courtesy of Avery Prince

Men’s and women’s varsity tennis coach Steven Rochkind has also had firsthand experience with losing athletes because of the challenges they face.

“I had a student who dropped out because of an eating disorder, one of my female tennis players,” said Rochkind. “I had a male tennis player who dropped out because of substance abuse issues.” 

Family issues were one of the main factors that Rochkind saw cause his athletes to drop tennis.

“There was a girl and she had a parent that was a really good tennis player,” Rochkind said. “I think he put a lot of pressure on her. And she went to a different sport that he wasn’t involved in. So he couldn’t be critical, because it wasn’t a sport that he did. And she was my number three. In her sophomore year, she was a good player.” 

Family issues aren’t specific to tennis. If an athlete’s family is overbearing or unsupportive it can cause mental health issues that could force the athletes to make the hard decision to stop playing that sport. 

Rochkind had other athletes suffer from family issues, too.

“This one athlete was in more than one sport, and her father was critical and negative,” he said “and I think she suffered because of her father’s issues. She was a very angry child. Very angry. And I did everything I could to help her with the anger but she had a bunch of it.” 

Rochkind also sees mental health issues affect players who don’t quit the sport. 

“I had one athlete who was one of my female players, who was probably one of the best players I’ve ever coached,” he said. “She went on to play in college. But high school tennis was very stressful for her. Because her parents put a lot of pressure on her.” 

Assistant principal Chaundra Clay, tennis coach Steve Rochkind and athletic director Robert Duncan pose with senior tennis players on senior night. Mental health issues force many athletes to stop playing sports in high school.
Source: Instagram (@rhspiratesdirector)

Spoon has seen teammates quit football because of family issues, too. He mentioned students getting jobs that don’t allow them to attend practice consistently. 

“Sometimes they need to work,” he said.

These athletes are showcasing how in certain scenarios the best option for someone may be to quit sports despite the benefits they may have.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has noted the dangers of assuming that athletes should be healthy mentally. When poor mental health goes unnoticed it can cause worsening symptoms and for athletes it can impact athletic performance. 

The APA also states that mental illness is just as common in athletes as in the general population, and that mental illnesses should be taken just as seriously as physical illnesses are taken.

If symptoms grow severe, quitting the sport becomes the best option for some athletes. 

“[Athletics and poor mental health] can lead to people thinking they are worthless,” said Spoon. 

Spoon recognizes that athletics can affect students negatively and the importance that it is acknowledged, but many coaches do not recognize when an athlete is struggling and will therefore unintentionally continue to push their athletes until it becomes too much for them to handle. 

As a social worker, Rochkind is trained to recognize situations where athletes are struggling with their mental health, and he is able to acknowledge the importance of getting these athletes help in the areas they need it.

Most of the time, he says, his athletes’ mental health issues are  not because of tennis. But when they are, Rochkind is aware that the best thing for his athletes may be to take a break.

I would say that if the stress, either the stress of competition, or anything, anything that causes a mental health situation to worsen is something that we should look at,” said Rochkind. “So if a person is depressed and losing, you know, a tennis match makes them more depressed, then you need to take steps to work on that either. Either help them learn how to deal with it, or maybe suggest stopping.”

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