We know the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many of us, especially teens. Now new research from the American Academy Of Pediatrics conference shows kids who had their sports seasons canceled suffered significantly during that time. Teen athletes reported high levels of anxiety and depression and low levels of physical activity and quality of life when sports were sidelined.

Dr. Drew Watson with University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health says, “This study was really kind of against the backdrop of the existing mental health epidemic that we’ve been seeing in adolescents.”

Thousands of teens nationwide filled out surveys in May 2020 after sports were canceled and then one year later when sports returned. Dr. Watson says the data showed, “Dramatic improvements in physical activity and quality of life and considerable improvements in anxiety and depression. Unfortunately, we haven’t quite gotten back to where we were before, and so continuing to prioritize mental health in adolescents and adolescent athletes is going to be a really important priority for years to come.”

17-year-old Henry Weinpel was disappointed when sports were canceled during the pandemic. “I couldn’t spend time with my friends as much as I used to. It was really difficult to stay in physical shape,” he says. Henry’s mom, Leslie, says, “I just had to keep encouraging him to focus on the future.”

Henry is working harder than ever now that sports are back. He says, “The pandemic got me to realize how important sports were and it makes me enjoy it that much more.” Leslie says, “He comes home every day drenched in dirt and sweat with a big smile on his face. And I say, ‘how was practice?’ He’s like, ‘it was awesome.’” Henry is happy to be back with his team, which remains undefeated.

Researchers say they’re also seeing worsening mental health for teen athletes that were not able to get back to sports since the cancellations around COVID.