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National

How tennis protects and supports mental, emotional and physical health for life

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D. | December 14, 2021

While science is clear that the journey of becoming a tennis player builds multi-level skills that predict success on and off the court, regular play also fortifies neural pathways that protect and sustain mind-body health across life. The unparalleled malleability of childhood and adolescence present an extraordinary opportunity to make preventative health skills and mindsets—via the behavioral ripple effect of full engagement in the experience of being an athlete (think: physical activity, sleep, nutrition, hydration and a growth mindset)—as routine as brushing one’s teeth.

 

Does tennis protect health, if so how, and does competition help or harm?

 

Here are some commonly asked questions by parents of competitive players. As you read, remember that mental and physical health are two sides of the same coin, and that the very same molecules shape all elements of health throughout our integrated mind-body system. In other words: mental health affects emotional health, which affects physical health, which affects brain health, which affects lifespan health. Just like nature and nurture, they cannot be pulled apart.

 

With this proviso, please see below for details on how we as tennis parents can best support our child across distinct, but biochemically related, categories of health and well-being:

Mental Health

Q: With teen anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide at epidemic levels and on the rise – does the pressure of competitive tennis help or harm?

A: Tennis is a clear boon to mental wellness when we encourage the following:

  • A disciplined balance of training, match play and recovery.
  • Building and fortifying a growth mindset where loss is interpreted as feedback (what did I learn?) rather than failure (I’ll never get better). Adaptive meaning making reduces noisy inner chatter and spawns mental clarity. Skill for life!
  • Multi-sport participation – to cross-train and just for fun – builds physical literacy (the competence and confidence to move in various settings and value physical activity across life) which is strongly linked with “psychological resilience” (the capacity to thrive despite exposure to adversity) – skills to ride out life’s peaks and valleys.

 

Emotional Health

Q: How does tennis support my child’s emotional well-being?

A: Emotion biochemistry is palpably influenced by tennis play in the following ways:

  • Having fun on the court, when joyful play is balanced with engagement in other sports and proper recovery, infuses aerobic and anaerobic “upward spiral” exercise biochemistry (dopamine + serotonin + norepinephrine + adrenaline + endorphins) into the mind and body.
  • Oxytocin (“the love hormone”) amplifies this recipe via human connection.
  • Tennis biochemistry offers a prescription strength emotional reset that allows us to “zoom out”, gain perspective, and move forward.

 

Physical Health

Q: How does tennis compare with other sports when it comes to injuries?

A: Overuse injury is the most common, but major issues are rare and head injury is nearly non-existent. 

  • Having a diversified sport menu reduces injury risk by strengthening a player’s whole body. By limiting over-reliance on a select set of muscles and engaging in complementary sports that build all-around athletic strength – mandatory for the top players today – overuse injury is vastly reduced.
  • Recovery and rest are non-negotiable – equally as vital as practice or play!
  • Physical literacy is the goal, and we get there via multi-sport participation. 

 

Brain Health

Q: Does the open skill (dynamic, unpredictable and externally-paced) sport of tennis have advantages over closed skill sports (static, predictable, and self-paced) for brain development?

A: Yes!!! There are few, if any, sports as complex and fully engaging for the whole human being as tennis. Managing our inner selves (Breathe deeply! Regulate emotions!) while simultaneously responding to incoming stimuli (Bad bounce! Adapt now!) is as thorough a mind-body workout as you’ll find. Neuroscience reveals that the healthiest, most efficient and creative brains are marked by healthy cross-talk between the neural structures focused on our inner and outer worlds. Tennis builds healthy brains.

 

Lifelong Health

Q: Is tennis unique relative to other sports in supporting health across life?

A: Yes! Re-read above for the story on why our lifetime sport is a gift that keeps giving.

  • The Mayo Clinic’s Copenhagen Heart Study found that tennis players, on average, lived 9.7 years longer than non-exercisers, 10.1 years longer than those who regularly went to the gym and 3.5 years longer than those engaged with the next sport on the list (incidentally, also an open-skill racquet sport).
  • Intrinsic motivation to play is bolstered by multi-sport participation. Less stress, fewer injuries and lower burnout rates = reduced dropout. Fun is the name of the game – no matter the level – and joy is vital for persistence. 

The long game for tennis is not only about lengthening lifespan (years of life), but also enhancing healthspan, or the quality of life while we’re living it. Encouraging fun in sport—whether our child is on the tennis court, soccer field or running track—optimizes the odds of both, and according to a large recently-published study, also amplifies the odds of long-term success

 

By giving our children freedom to adventure and explore which sports bring them joy and empowering them with the agency to choose the best fit for who they are and what they love, they will land on the best recipe for them. Whether their chosen outlet is hitting tennis balls with a friend amidst a dark and confusing moment, shooting hoops with a pal at the local park, or feeling awe while out on a solo trail run in nature, what’s most important is that they have a healthy and safe go-to context to gain the needed distance to breathe, process, reflect and reframepivoting the inner story from one of dead-end despair to one of forward-moving possibility.

 

In the end, tennis is so much more than a potential scholarship or first-place trophy. It is a means to an end for a healthy, happy and productive life. As a personalized recipe for both lifespan and healthspan, it’s just what the doctor ordered—the combination of upward spiral exercise biochemistry and oxytocin-laden authentic, empathic and caring friendship. It is, quite simply, the best medicine of all.

Click below for other articles in this five-part series:

Using tennis as a tool for the development of the whole child: part 1

What parents should know about tennis and child development: part 2

 

Sheila Ohlsson Walker, CFA, Ph.D., is a behavioral geneticist whose research centers on how nurture (environment) shapes nature (DNA), and how we can create contexts in sport and school settings that optimize positive development and unlock the potential of our youth. A former professional tennis player, Walker translates scientific findings to equip athletic and academic educators with knowledge and skills that help young people build mindsets and habits that promote wellness and healthy whole human development across life. Learn more at her website by clicking here.

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