Extracurricular activities and sports can help students gain admission to university. But is the need to ace exams and win one for the team too much pressure?

Photo illustratio

Photo illustration of teen athletes against a backdrop of grades and college application.

This article, by high school student Micah Earnest was produced out of News Decoder’s school partnership program. Micah attends The Tatnall School, a News Decoder partner institution. Learn more about how News Decoder can work with your school.

Nate Diaz plays football at Volcano Vista High School in Albuquerque, a city in the U.S. state of New Mexico. For Diaz, football is a stress reliever. But that’s not true for all of his teammates.

He thinks that some of his teammates should get mental health counseling but his school doesn’t provide any. Statistically, these football players aren’t likely to seek out help.

A 2019 study by Athletes For Hope found that 33% of all college students experience significant symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental health conditions. Among that group, 30% seek help. But of college athletes with mental health conditions, only 10% do.

Among professional athletes, data shows that up to 35% of elite athletes suffer from a mental health crisis that may manifest as stress, eating disorders, burnout, depression or anxiety.

Diaz said that some athletes want to act strong and so although they know they can reach out for help, they won’t because of the stigma behind it.

Taking on stress in the drive for success

Being part of a team puts pressure on Diaz to succeed. Track is similar but since track isn’t a team sport, his need to progress is solely on him. He said that having a coach who yells and berates him for not performing at his fullest has also negatively affected his mental health.

Rebecca Whitesell, a counselor at Tatnall School where I am in the fourth year, said mental health issues differ depending on the types of students. For some students, mental health issues might stem from poverty, violence and lack of resources. “However, Tatnall, on the other hand, it is directly related to college pressure and deeming that as success and the only way to prove one’s worth,” Whitesell said.

Why do so many people stress themselves out to succeed? Is going to college the only way to achieve this success? Is this the pressure that forces everyone to go into extracurricular activities and push themselves to the limit in school? Is this healthy, and should school feel like a stressful place?

One way for students in the United States to stand out is through their extracurricular activities.

Many high schoolers either play a sport or have a sports requirement. Those kids who start at a young age often let the sport take over their lives and base their emotional status on their performance.

Teen athletes hide their anxiety and depression.

This epidemic of mental illness among young people is not limited to the United States, however. In South Korea for example, according to data collected by Statista, suicide was the top cause of death accounting for 43% of deaths of people between the ages of 10 and 19.

I can also relate to the struggle of mental health while being a student athlete at The Tatnall School in Wilmington, Delaware.

Track has both been my stress reliever and the cause of my stress, and the added pressure to succeed academically in private school sometimes feels unbearable.

Being a professional athlete is a dream of mine. School is also a part of that, and while going to a private school was the best decision for me, it also added pressure to succeed academically.

This added pressure mentally which left me feeling physically drained, leading to a never-ending cycle.

My school also lacks a mental health therapist as part of the staff, although we have a counselor who helps with mental health. I received therapy treatment until I was no longer able to afford it. However, before accepting any help, I declined service for six years. I did not want to be considered weak and I was too scared to ask for help.

Scoring in academics and sports is twice the pressure.

Leigh Morgan, a college counselor at Tatnall, said extracurricular activities are valuable; she has seen studies to back this up. She believes universities in the United States see them as essential to the college process. In this way, universities in the United States differ from their counterparts overseas, where extracurricular activities are not valued as high as academics.

In 2022, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates university sports in the United States, emphasized the importance of mental health in its constitution, which all member schools, conferences and divisions have agreed to uphold.

This historic inclusion — initiated by Student Athlete Advisory Committee members from each division — demonstrates a strong commitment by the NCAA to its student athletes’ health, safety and well-being.

Institutions are now required to “facilitate an environment that reinforces physical and mental health within athletics by ensuring access to appropriate resources and open engagement with respect to physical and mental health.”

This is a great help, but this is too late since many high schoolers go into college with these mental health struggles. Our goals are to lessen the burden of this epidemic before they reach full adulthood. Though universities have taken a step, our primary concerns should be to a younger audience.

What can we do for people now and future generations to make schooling a better learning space for high schoolers who want to succeed without feeling inferior to others if they do not do a sport or reach the top 1% of their class?

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why do so many teens stress themselves out to succeed?
  2. Is going to college or becoming a professional athlete the only way to achieve success?
  3. What can we do to make schooling a better learning space for high schoolers who want to succeed?
Micah Earnest

Micah Earnest is in the fourth year at The Tatnall School in Delaware, and aspires to win an Olympic medal for track and field. Micah also hopes to become a physical therapist for the U.S. track team. Micah enjoys exercising, gaming, reading and spending time with loved ones.

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