Competitive Teams Support Adolescent Mental Growth
Adolescents are in a period of life that is unavoidable and runs risk of shaping their futures in a negative way. These teenagers fall under the classification of a vulnerable population and if not properly guided can develop mental illnesses due to poor social interaction. High school administration should require adolescents to participate in a competitive team activity in order to combat the possible negative outcome of adolescence. The competitive team environment will provide the adolescents with life skills and social skills that they can utilize in this development stage in their life.
While there are a plethora of experiences adolescents encounter during this period of time, one of the most common milestones is the high school experience. According to the Education Data Organization on school enrollment statistics, as of 2018 there were 15.8 million students enrolled in secondary/high school, with the rate of enrollment trending up. While that does not include every teenager in the nation, almost 16 million is a significantly notable number of teenagers in schools. Focusing on this population of adolescents that are enrolled in a school, attention can be brought to mental vulnerability of this age group. Teenagers are a population of people that are very unique from their preceding and succeeding age groups. They have vast differences from the children they are growing up from being and the adults they are growing into. Their minds are developing and new life experiences can influence them strongly. They are at high risk of mental issues if not properly guided, which is why they can be considered a vulnerable population.
It is important to first understand the concept of a vulnerable population. In the article “Defining and Measuring Vulnerability in Young People,” the authors state that the literal definition of vulnerability means the state or condition of being weak or poorly defended. Basically, the people that fall into these categories of vulnerable populations are susceptible to adversity. There is a high chance that a problem will arise among these people as opposed to among the people that are not included in a vulnerable population. Holly R. Farley in her assessment of adolescent mental health identifies that the most commonly considered vulnerable populations are ethnic minorities, low SES, the LGBTQ+ community, and people with disabilities, all circumstances out of the individuals control. In the case of adolescents, the population they are grouped with is definitely not a choice considering no one can decide what age they would like to be. A person will inevitably go through their teenage years whether they want to or not.
One of the vulnerabilities teenagers as a population face is to mental health illnesses. According to Farley’s assessment of mental health, a big reason adolescents are a vulnerable population is because they are in a prime developmental stage. Most teenagers experience the feeling of being awkwardly stuck in the middle of childhood and adulthood. They are becoming too old to be treated like a child but are not yet old enough to be treated like an adult. This is their transition stage from one level of maturity to the next and it is accompanied by a lot of pressure. The teenagers have gained more responsibilities than they previously had both in school and at home. On top of that the intensity of school has increased and suddenly they have to learn organization and time management. There is no longer someone holding their hand and guiding them the way they were used to.
Another risk factor to mental health during this developmental stage is the social pressures. In the article about defining and measuring vulnerability the authors Shah, Dheeraj, et al. allude specifically to the vulnerability of young people as being found among those more exposed to risks than their surrounding peers. Some teenagers may find their place quicker or already have an established friend group that they have to rely on in any social situations that may arise. But the risk is higher for the teenagers that have to try to establish themselves and those friendships, whether it be they just never really had close friends or they are at a school that none of their friends attend. These adolescents can be pressured into doing things that they do not actually want to do as an attempt to fit in and have friends. They are easily shaped by the environment around them as they try to conform to what they think they are supposed to be. This also is tied with the next risk factor because of their potential choices of bad behavior to fit in.
Teenagers are vulnerable not only to their environment, but also to themselves. While the decisions they make can be attributed to the social pressures they experience, at the end of the day they do have free will and choose to make decisions. Some of the influencing factors that Farley lists are the want to fit in and exploration of sexual identity. Their longing to fit in is probably the biggest inducer of self-destruction. They could go to the extreme and get involved with substances like drugs and alcohol or could engage in minor delinquencies like cracking jokes in class at the expense of their reputation and success. While trying to explore their sexuality they could become involved in situations they are not quite ready for in order to combat feeling like an outsider when “everyone else is doing it.” They could also face challenges of coming to terms with a sexual preference that they may not feel is accepted but that they ultimately do not have a choice to decide. This could lead them to doing things to avoid this feelings or having to deal with rejection if they do not fit a societal norm (although in this age all sexualities are more of a norm). Without guidance, these teenagers can dig themselves in holes too deep to get out of and become sent on the wrong path.
A prominent mental health illnesses the adolescents are vulnerable to is depression. Farley provides statistics that of the 12% of the US population that is made up of adolescents, 30% are reporting symptoms of depression each year. A striking statistic is that suicide is the second leading cause of death between ages 10-24, a range that starts just short of adolescence and goes just a few years past. These high rates of illness can be due to the fact that these teenage years are a time of physical and emotional changes, as previously discussed. Another large mental health issue is anxiety, which could be generalized or attributed to social interactions. The illness could inhibit the ability to make friends or to get involved, which are important factors to the healthy development of adolescents. High schools can provide an environment for adolescents to avoid these mental illnesses by requiring their participation in a competitive team sport.
Any participation in competitive team activities, but specifically among adolescents, will result in literal winners and losers, but figuratively there are no real losers. Both teams can face setbacks with either outcome but are given the opportunity to learn and improve. Just because the team wins does not mean they had a perfect performance, and if the team loses that does not mean they did awful. They can learn and improve in both their activity specific skills as well as social and general life skills leading to a desirable increase in self-esteem of adolescents. Participation on a competitive team of any kind will benefit adolescents by arming them with social skills and life skills they need to navigate this period of their life.
The percentage of adolescents that are currently not engaged in any extracurricular activities is low, meaning only this small number of students would need to be convinced to become involved in a competitive team activity. In an analysis of adolescent extracurricular activity, Andrew M. Guest and Nick McRee state that around 75% of youths in grades 7 through 12 already participate in at least one extracurricular activity during the school year. Therefore if high schools required students to participate in a competitive team activity then a large percentage of adolescents would already be on board. Even if their current extracurricular is not of competitive nature, it can be assumed since these teenagers are willing to be involved, they will be open to competition based. This means only a small 25% of adolescents in this age range would potentially oppose starting a competitive team activity.
Mark Leary discusses in his chapter on self-esteem importance that psychologists have three main assumptions about aiming for positive self-esteem. The first is that it is universally accepted that people want to enhance self-esteem. Human nature pushes us towards wanting to feel good about ourselves. The second is that it is more desirable to have a high self-esteem, once again wanting to feel good rather than bad. The third is that raising a low self-esteem can improve the well mental wellbeing of a person as a result of a more positive mindset. People that have a high self-esteem have been found to have better social skills, be more adaptive, and have overall more socially acceptable interactions. The development of self-esteem through competitive activities is one way these activities are beneficial to adolescents.
The self-perception of success is what can help raise the self-esteem of adolescents despite the overall outcome of their teams event. According to a case study by Pedersen and Seidman on self-esteem development of adolescent girls, when the teen girls got involved in sports their self-evaluations increased to a more positive nature. In the case study they had the girls take assessments that measured their personal view of themselves overall before and after being involved. It was hypothesized and proven that the self-perception of success in a team sport can be connected to the global self-esteem of adolescent girls. The most important part of the findings is that self-perceived success pushes self-esteem in the right direction. This does not always mean success in the competitive match but could also be micro successes in personal goals. For example, answering more questions right during academic club than they did last time. Even if the teen still gets some wrong, they are happy with the improvement and success they are able to achieve. Or if they are struggling to improve, they can learn to change their mindset to be easy on themselves and acknowledge they are trying their best. Afterall, no one can excel at every task they take on. The positive self-evaluations in the study led to an increase in general positive self-esteem. Simple pride in ones actions can positively influence the way someone feels about themselves, and eventually lead to a confidence that will help them thrive.
Despite the possibility of a positive outcome, this is not guaranteed if there is not proper leadership and positive influence in place. Guest and McRee, in their study of extracurriculars, warn of the potential for any possible benefits of competitive teamwork to completely disappear if the activities are not properly constructed. An important way to avoid overpowering of the negative is by the proper guidance of coaches, club leaders and even parents or other family members. These influential adults in the adolescents’ lives need to be encouraging and willing to teach the life lessons that are available. Most importantly, school administration requiring the competitive team involvement need to carefully select the coaches and teams leaders. These positions should be filled with those that can maximize the benefits and positive outcomes of the participation. Constant tearing down of players and participants by poorly chosen coaches and leaders will harm the adolescents mentally instead of helping them.
An example of a well-appointed coach is seen in the case study of youth learning life skills through high school sport involvement written by Nicholas Holt, et al. This study followed a boys high school soccer team, players and coaches, through their academics and athletics to see if their sport participation benefited them in their day-to-day life. The head coach in this study valued the philosophy of developing personal relationships with the players. He was not just a coach there to do a job but took on the role of a mentor that all coaches should strive to be. He found it important to teach his players that even when one cannot change a situation, they can change their attitude about the situation. It is this concept that turns failure into success. While the game or match may go in the books as a loss, the lessons learned from the setbacks are positive outcomes in the midst of disappointment. A coach focused on teaching how to find the positives in that situation is important to teaching the valuable lesson needed of not dwelling in defeat. Very few people make it through life without experiencing a setback or some type of adversity. When this happens there is always the option to give up and succumb to the failure. If these adolescents are taught through competition how to cope properly and move forward from disappointment then in the future, they will be more likely to keep pushing towards success.
If schools were to require students to participate on a competitive team it would not be surprising that they would face pushback by some parents and/or students. Forcing or requiring someone to do something runs the risk of perceived negatively, especially by those that don’t want to be forced. Most people do not like to be told what to do and they can feel like they have no control over a situation. A main combative argument that could arise would be that those with social phobias would not benefit from this forced participation. However, requiring first year students at a high school to participate in a competitive team activity will ultimately benefit them despite this likely objection.
One of the biggest oppositions to requiring the adolescents to participate in a team activity is that all not all teenagers do well in social situations. A large reasoning for the lack of functioning well during social interaction is that they are struggling with social anxiety or social phobias. Forcing them into these social situations could have detrimental effects on their mental health and well-being from all of the stress and anxiety caused. According to Kenneth Walters and Debra Hope in their analysis of social behavior, social phobia embodies an excessive fear of social situations that stems from the anticipation of scrutiny leading to expectations of humiliation and embarrassment. People classified as social anxious are said to have activated defense systems. During social interaction they are submissive. The don’t engage in dominant behavior but instead have the goal of avoiding rejection to remain in the situation, or if needed they focus on escaping or avoiding the situations all together.
Luckily, the submissiveness is not a problem when the activity is happening. In the study conducted by Walters and Hope they tested the social interactions of those with social phobia against non-anxious people in the same kind of interaction. The results showed that the aforementioned characteristics of the socially anxious are predominately through verbal interaction, which is something they would need for their “dominance”. When the adolescents join a team the focus is not solely on speaking to their peers, which minimizes the threat to the teenagers that may be socially anxious. This is definitely true with sports. During practices and games the focus is on the sport activities. While you may be the focus for a few seconds while a play is happening the crowd is overall watching the team as a whole. In practice the coaches are focusing on everyone and teammates are focused on their own success at what they are doing. There is no pressure to carry a conversation during these times. The aspects of playing the sport that are beneficial, such as reaching personal goals and achieving personal satisfaction with one’s performance, are in turn not actually causing harm to the social well-being of the individual.
Of course there are times when that social interaction does need to occur, or the competitive team may be more verbally focused, such as a scholastic competition team. In the case of the latter, there may be more social pressures that could cause anxiety. However, as time goes on and the adolescent is more involved in the activity and the benefits of doing so are seen, any negativity that may arise at the beginning would be counteracted. As skill improves and the teenager starts to positively participate the fear of being rejected decreases. The more comfortable the teenagers become in their environment the easier their social skills will emerge, and this comfort can come from team relationships being built.
As the team bonds and the adolescent becomes closer to the whole team or just certain individual, the teen no longer has to worry about trying to get out of the situation because it will be a situation that they are comfortable being in. In any of the competitive team sports, in order to succeed as a team that bonding does need to occur. This means that all of the participants will have to eventually verbally interact as they get to know their team. This may seem daunting, but actually is the type of situations that adolescents need to develop positive social behaviors. Annette La Greca and Nadja Lopez did a study to evaluate social anxiety among adolescents, which differs from the more commonly studied and utilized data from among adults. Their study analyzed adolescents interactions with peers and their general social environment and the linkages to social anxiety. The results showed that a major important factor in development of adolescent social functioning is having close friendships. These relationships result in emotional support, intimacy, and an expression of emotions, which are all beneficial to the emotional development of a teenager. When the adolescents have at least one person that they are close with the relationship makes them feel like they are not an outsider and helps prevent shying away from further social interactions. Teenagers that are socially anxious may keep to themselves in school, so being on a team will place the teen with a group they will inevitably have to interact with. The placement will relieve the pressure of having to seek out relationships on the adolescents own account.
A common psychotherapy approach to combating disorders like social anxiety is exposure therapy. If a patient was afraid of snakes the therapist would start by having one in the same room as the patient and then eventually have the patient able to tolerate the snake being on their body. The best way to combat a fear is to face it head on. This therapy exposes someone to the very thing they fear the most which in turn eliminates the fear or at the very least makes it manageable. In an article by Steven Shearer about treatment of anxiety disorders discusses how these this time of cognitive behavioral therapy is useful. He says that even if its self-conducted any gradual exposure lasting long enough from the anxiety to diminish is effective in combating it. Prolonged exposure, such as an hour-long practice or meeting, provides optimal time for adolescents to face their fear of interacting with their peers at the rates they are ready. The teenagers learn how to deal with the social situations that they are uncomfortable in. As more time is spent with a team the more comfortable an individual gets, which makes it easier to work on these skills. Competitive teams provide adolescents the environment they need to have positive mental growth during this major developmental period of their lives.
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