It is five o’clock on a Sunday morning. Somewhere in America, a lone figure can be seen briskly making her way down a quiet street. The girl’s movements are determined, but her increasingly heavy breathing reveals her exhaustion. She should stop, but she does not - to do so would keep her from achieving her personal best. Her goals are never-ending, and while her athleticism is beneficial in many ways, it also creates constant physical, mental, and emotional stress. She feels that she will never be perfect, that there is always more to be done.
Outwardly, this individual seems like a driven professional. Closer examination, however, reveals her high school mascot emblazoned on the back of her sweatshirt. The song that blasts through her headphones is one that has been overplayed on MTV for weeks. On her lips are a few sparkles from the lip-gloss she swiped on before leaving her house. At first glance, this girl looks like a normal high school student but beneath the surface, she is intensely focused and has a frustratingly desperate desire to succeed - she is a typical adolescent athlete.
Hardly anybody will contest the fact that, in many ways, high school and college students benefit from participating in athletic programs. The exercise helps protect against health risks like obesity and cardiovascular diseases and, according to a 2003 study conducted by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, teen athletes also have consistently higher grades, higher graduation rates, lower pregnancy rates, and lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse than their non-athletic peers.
The physical benefits of sports are far-reaching and undeniable, but far fewer studies have explored how sports alters a teen’s psychological state. As demonstrated by their transcripts, student athletes develop good work ethics since sports require self-control and discipline. Athletes are constantly pushed to excel, to forget all else and “get in the game.” The question is, are athletes negatively affected by the standards set by coaches, teammates, parents, and, most importantly, themselves? Recent statistics demonstrate that, for a substantial number of teenage athletes, the answer is “yes.” In particular, rising rates in violence and eating disorders may be linked to the aggression and perfectionism that is practically bred in adolescent athletes, proving that, if certain precautions are not taken, participation in athletics may be detrimental to their developing minds.
A random survey I conducted of athletes ages 16 to 18 reveals that young athletes are negatively affected in different ways depending on gender and what sport is played. For example, when asked what an athlete needs to be like in order to succeed in their sport, 54% of men and 43% of women replied that aggression is essential. However, while seven out of 10 girls reported being more belligerent and assertive on the field than at home or in class, only two out of every 10 boys agreed. Since the majority of male athletes felt that aggression is imperative to success, and an overwhelming majority apparently behave the same at home as on the court or field, it can be concluded that adolescent male athletes are generally more aggressive than their non-athletic counterparts.
But surely there is nothing wrong with a little roughhousing now and then? After all, it is a relatively harmless way of releasing the anger and frustration of a poor performance at the sport. The fact remains, however, that these athletic, somewhat aggressive boys will grow into men who may not be able to manage this anger on a larger scale. According to the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, one out of every three sexual assaults on college campuses is committed by a student athlete, and domestic violence is the crime most frequently committed by male athletes. Rates among athletes who play full-contact sports like wrestling, lacrosse, and football are even higher. According to another study, male athletes make up only 3.3% of the student population, so the fact that such a small minority manages to commit such a common crime is disturbing. Clearly, violence occurs so often among adolescent male athletes that it cannot simply be accredited to an individual’s psychological or biological predisposition - there must be a stronger factor that directly links student athletes to such destructive behavior.
I believe that these actions are an extension of the aggressive behavior that is so encouraged in this group of young men. Their emotional motivation to commit such crimes can be traced back to the feelings of anger and aggression encouraged on the field that contribute to athletic excellence. In addition, my interactions with male peers who participate in sports lead me to believe that this aggression also creates a tendency to deny weakness and maintain a “macho” reputation. Thus, many are reluctant to seek counseling, and their negative emotions are more likely to manifest themselves in a destructive way.
Several measures can be taken to prevent violence by athletes. Many schools have taken the first step by developing policies to punish those who take part in violence but it is doubtful that simple rules will discourage athletes. More proactive steps should include on-campus awareness campaigns that confront the issue. Allowing student athletes to act without consequences will result in chaos. Regardless of a team’s prowess, this is too high a price to pay. Administrators should follow the example of Richard Brodhead,president of Duke University, who assembled a committee to investigate the behavior of all athletes at the university after the infamous lacrosse scandal. He eventually agreed to reinstate the team, but only after they pledged to adhere to a code of conduct.
In addition, small gestures should be taken to convey respect between teams. Not only is shaking hands before and after a game a courteous gesture, it reminds everyone that they are playing against people who are opponents just for a few hours, but who are their fellow members of humanity for life. Through cooperation, aggression in athletes can be reduced so that they can learn to value competition while still respecting others.
Violence among female athletes is a much less pressing issue, since women are rarely encouraged to be hostile; most strive to be beautiful and thin. Add to this the fact that athletes are self-motivated, competitive perfectionists and it is clear that women are at greater risk to develop a skewed self-image. It is not surprising that 100 percent of young women surveyed admitted to being more aware of their physical appearance due to their participation in sports.
This self-awareness, which often turns into self-deprecation, is not only the result of society but is directly related to the sport played. Young women frequently participate in what Nanci Hellmich of USA Today calls thin-build sports, activities which require a lean body weight. Aesthetic sports - like gymnastics, diving, dance, and synchronized swimming - emphasize thinness, whereas endurance-based sports like cycling and track encourage lower-body strength so athletes can be faster. In some of sports, weigh-ins and body-fat analyses are a weekly occurrence. Such practices are unhealthy, and sometimes, cruel.
Separate studies conducted in 1999 and 2002 by eating disorder experts Craig Johnson and Katherine Beals found that “at least one-third of female athletes have some type of disordered eating.” Female athletes are very self-critical about their appearance. Even worse, at the high-school level, catty girls can turn on each other. I vividly recall sophomore year leaving my jeans on the floor of the locker room before practice. As my teammates and I chatted, my coach noticed the pants and asked, “Whose are these?” One of the girls replied that they had to be mine because they were so small. Another eagerly asked what size I wore. Not wanting to engage in a discussion about my clothing sizes, I replied that it depended on the store. Then this girl, my own teammate, grabbed my jeans to read the tag. She triumphantly announced, “Size double zero! I can’t even fit into those. I still have to wear kids’ pants, like a size 12 slim.” Then she smirked. Looking back, I am still horrified by this sabotaging of females’ self images.
The rate of eating disorders and low self-esteem among female athletes can decrease if precautions are taken. Prevention should take priority over treatment - only 50 percent of those afflicted with an eating disorder fully recover. Ten percent die, and 40 percent slip in and out of remission for the rest of their lives. Coaches and trainers should take an active role in prevention by having nutrition experts speak to players and emphasize fitness over thinness.
Ultimately, teenage athletes are admirable people. On the field, many display good sportsmanship, perseverance, and self-discipline. However, due to the physical, mental, and emotional demands, they can be susceptible to acting in a manner that is irrational and destructive. With significant work and cooperation, this behavior can be minimized. If administrators and parents act appropriately and quickly, the future of this group of talented young men and women will be limitless. After all, the adolescent athlete stops for nothing.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.