Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Women’s World Cup and Mental Health

Yesterday marked the Opening Day of the Women’s World Cup. Jointly hosted by Australia and New Zealand, the best female soccer players from 32 countries will compete over the coming month to determine who takes home the 18-carat gold trophy on August 20th.

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Perhaps you are a huge soccer – or football – fan. Perhaps not. Regardless, this international championship kicks off a conversation about women, sports, and mental health that is about a lot more than the points on the scoreboard.

1. Sports are Good for Girls’ Mental Health. From an early age, sports provide physical exercise, social experiences, and mental challenges, allowing athletes to make friends, build social networks, learn skills like problem-solving, and develop resilience. These activities increase self-esteem, confidence, and overall self-image. Teenage girls who participate in sports and physical activity report lower rates of stress, depression, and suicidality than girls who do not participate in sports. The data clearly support the idea that fostering sports involvement has the potential to protect and promote mental health and well-being across the lifespan.

2. TEAM Sports are Especially Good for Girls’ Mental Health. Not all sports are equal. Participating in a team sport – such as soccer –  is associated with greater mental health benefits than being exclusively involved in an individual sport – such as tennis or ice skating. According to “The Girls Index,” girls who play a team sport report lower rates of loneliness, less sadness and depression, and spend less time on social media than their peers.

3. Sports Aren’t All Fun and Games Although sports, especially team sports, can be beneficial for girls’ mental health, female athletes face particular challenges and stresses that potentially increase mental health risks. These are serious issues in the world of professional women’s soccer. A 2022 independent investigation by the US Soccer Federation reported that emotional abuse and sexual misconduct were “systemic” in women’s soccer, with exploitation rife at virtually every level of the sport. Beginning with youth leagues, they reported that the culture normalizes “verbally abusive coaching” and “blurs boundaries between coaches and players.” The abusive relationships ended in “unwanted sexual advances and sexual touching,” and “coercive sexual intercourse.” From young girls on recreational teams to elite athletes, this abuse is profoundly disturbing, and the mental health implications are profoundly significant.

4. Particular Risks Associated with the Objectification of Female Athletes. Although engaging in sports has the potential to convey many benefits for girls, when the competition ratchets up, so do the risks.  Compared to their male peers, women athletes are perpetually objectified and judged on perceived attractiveness rather than their athleticism. Consider the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Calendar – truly a case where a picture tells a thousand words. There are many others. As recently as 2021, the Norwegian women’s beach handball team wound up in a legal battle with the sport’s governing bodies over the bikini bottoms they must wear as part of their uniform, which they felt were too revealing. When the athletes’ repeated complaints were ignored, they wore shorts in protest, only to be fined 150 euros (~$175) per player. One of the serious implications of this toxic environment is increased risk of developing an eating disorder among elite female athletes.

5. Female Athletes Speak Out. As soccer star Naomi Girma heads to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup, she carries with her the memory of her late friend and Stanford University Soccer teammate, Katie Meyer, who died by suicide last year. On Wednesday, Girma honored Meyer in a touching  Players’ Tribune post. The US team also announced a new mental health initiative in partnership with Common Goal that will provide mental health training to coaches from more than 15 youth sports organizations to ensure that they are better prepared to address mental health issues. Clearly, a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go.

Women and girls’ participation in team sports can play a starring role in protecting and promoting their mental health – whether it’s in a pick-up match on a local soccer field or on the pitch of a World Cup stadium in a game broadcast to millions worldwide. For this and many other reasons, we, as a society, should encourage and support women’s sports.  At the same time, we cannot turn a blind eye to the risks, unique challenges, and obstacles female athletes face every step of the way: the pressures of competition, a pervasive culture of sexual harassment and verbal and emotional abuse, inadequate resources and unequal pay, objectification and diminishment in the media, and more.  Only with greater support for our female athletes, on and off the field, can they perform at their best, reach their potential, and reap the immense benefits (including better mental health!) of getting in the game and going for the gold. Go Team USA!

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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