Psychological Effects of Mothers of High School Student-Athletes: Predicting Depressive Symptoms

By Cline, K. M. C., Taylor, E., Bain, C. M., Pluff, A. I., Petrusa, J., Atkinson, J., & Tarizzo, M. T.

The role of mother is only one of many roles an adult woman may experience. Mothers can be expected to simultaneously be chefs, chauffeurs, teachers, nurses, housekeepers, psychics, and more. And these days, many mothers also have careers outside of the home. These expectations, and their attempt to fulfill them, either enhance or diminish their overall well-being. Although there is a plethora of previous research establishing a relationship between motherhood and role enhancement and role strain, plus previous research establishing a relationship between role enhancement and role strain and depression, no consistent relationship between motherhood, role strain and/or role enhancement, and depression has been documented. This study seeks to establish that relationship through examining the effects of role enhancement/role strain in mothers of high school student-athletes on depressive symptoms. 

The experience of having a high school student who is involved in athletics is an additional role for mothers. This led to an interest in examining the effects of role strain and role enhancement on mothers’ depression but more specifically the relationship among mothers of high school athletes. 

Role Strain and Role Enhancement

Role strain theory suggests that role strain is the discomfort experienced when individuals struggle to fulfill multiple, often conflicting roles, which in turn leads to decreased well-being 

(Oakley, 1974; Cline, 2010). There is evidence of role strain occurring in mothers (Barnett & Baruch, 1985). Things become even more complicated when a woman is mother to a student-athlete, for that adds even more roles for her responsibilities. 

Getting student-athletes to practices, attending games, helping with fundraising, and spending money for sports can all be activities that require additional maternal involvement. Student-athlete needs often force a re-arrangement of time commitments, potentially causing mothers to feel overwhelmed, creating role strain. Mothers of student-athletes sometimes have multiple children, creating a need to split their time between their children, regardless if that time is spent at events or at home. This need to fulfill various roles for their individual children is yet another potential role strain for mothers.  

Yet, it is also possible that the experience of being a mother of a student-athlete may increase the positive effects of occupying many roles through role enhancement. Role enhancement theory suggests that multiple roles can provide buffers that, under particular circumstances, can enhance well-being. For example, a      person holding multiple roles may be able to compensate for a failure in one role through success in another role (Oakley, 1974; Cline, 2010). Additionally,      filling multiple roles may contribute to a stronger sense of having a meaningful life that contributes to the overall good (Thoits, 1983). Feeling of impact upon others may enhance life (Ritternour & Colaner, 2012), which may elevate a mother of a student-athlete’s feeling of positivity about that role in particular. Being a parent is a rewarding although challenging experience; being a mother of a student-athlete is more challenging and arguably more rewarding if the child achieves the goal of a collegiate athletic career. 

For many, having an increased number of roles is linked to higher life satisfaction and consequently higher levels of happiness (Ahrens & Ruff, 2006). Mothers of student-athletes have the same expectations as other mothers, but additionally, they are expected to take an active role in their athlete’s athletic career (i.e. driving them to and from practices, attending games, helping fundraise, etc.). Mothers of student-athletes may experience enhancement through the additional role of being the mother of a student-athlete while interacting with others who share similar identities, which may result in higher well-being.  Caregiving can provide role enhancement through strengthening social bonds and broadening support (Xu et al, 2017) which may come for mothers of student-athletes through their children as well as other caregivers in similar situations met during their children’s sport participation. Finally, role enhancement stemming from being the mother of a student-athlete may simply be a result of watching their children and other children succeed, which gives them positive feelings (Peter, 2011). Interestingly, there seems to be much less literature that examines role enhancement, as compared with role strain literature. 

What we are interested in is discovering whether the role stain felt by mothers of high school athletes is correlated with higher levels of depressive symptoms, and if role enhancement is correlated with lower levels of depressive symptoms in these mothers. The current research will      use a role strain/enhancement continuum that we have developed in order to examine these variables in one model (see in methods section below). 

Depressive Symptoms

Depressive symptoms also tend to correlate with higher rates of unemployment and lower productivity when those with depressive symptoms are effective (Bubonya et al, 2019). Those with higher rates of unemployment tend to have higher rates of depressive symptoms, and those who already exhibit symptoms of depression may exhibit more symptoms when the financial burden of underperformance or unemployment is exists (Rizvi et al, 2015). This vicious cycle lends itself to mothers as well, for in addition to these external challenges they must still fill the role of mother, and may experience further stress due to role overload (Haggag et al, 2011). 

Therefore, based on previous research, it would be reasonable to conclude that being a mother of a student-athlete could have an impact on role strain and/or role enhancement that the mother feels, which would then impact the psychological well-being of the mother. However, there is no previous research directly establishing this relationship. This study seeks to fill that gap by exploring the relationships between role strain and role enhancement experienced by mothers and the mothers’ depressive symptoms. Based on previous literature, two things are expected to be discovered: 

Hypothesis 1) higher levels of role enhancement will correlate with lower levels of depressive symptoms and; 

Hypothesis 2) higher levels of role strain will correlate with higher levels of depressive symptoms. 

Finally, we were interested to see if there were variables that would affect the role strain or role enhancement a mother of a student-athlete may feel. We included our demographic variables of employment status, race, education, number of children, and marital status. We also included who makes financial decisions regarding the student-athlete, and if the mother feels that she needs help with her student-athlete. We hypothesize that these last two variables will have a significant impact on both role strain and role enhancement. 



A total of 367 mothers of student athletes completed our survey. The majority of mothers were married (87.7%), white (90%), and working full-time outside of the home (69%), with two children (35%). Education level was widely varied with the majority of the mothers holding either a four-year degree (38%) or an advanced or professional degree (36%). We found that this sample is consistent in composition to the larger population of Indiana, in which the sample was collected, according to census data ( 


In February 2018, all athletic directors with membership to the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) were emailed, requesting their assistance in this research study. Athletic Directors were asked to forward the email to all of their coaches who were then asked to re-forward the email to the mothers of their student-athletes. Mothers were asked to respond to an anonymous survey using Qualtrics. The survey contained 23 questions about academic eligibility, role strain, and role enhancement as well as demographic questions. Questions were multiple choice with the exception of one open-ended question asking about the benefits of being a mother to a student-athlete. 


Dependent Variable.

Depressive Symptoms.

Depressive symptoms were measured using the CES-D 7-item scale. This is a scale previously found to be a valid, reliable measure of symptoms of depression (Radloff, 1977; Cline, 2010). This version of the CES-D excludes items that are not generalizable across men and women (Ross & Mirowsky, 1984). Responses were averaged to produce an index score from zero (low levels of depression) to seven (high levels of depression). Cronbach’s alpha for this scale was .81. For a full description of this scale, please see Ross and Mirowsky (1984). 

Independent Variables.

Role Strain/Role Enhancement. 

Role strain was measured by the question, “How often do you feel that having a student-athlete brings stress or strain to the other obligations you have in your life?” Responses were coded as 0 = never, -1 = infrequently (1-2 days per week), -2 = once in a while (3-4 days per week), and -3 = frequently (every day). 

Role enhancement was asked by the question, “How often do you feel that having a student athlete benefits your life?” Responses were coded as 0 = never, 1 = infrequently (1-2 days per week), 2 = once in a while (3-4 days per week), and 3 = frequently (every day). 

These two variables, “role strain” and “role enhancement” were then combined into an index we named “RoleStrainEnhancement” ranging from -3 = strong negative effects or high levels of role strain to 3=strong positive effects or high levels of role enhancement. Role strain/enhancement was operationalized through a continuum that we used for analysis in Table 2. Role strain and role enhancement were then examined separately in Tables 2 and 3. 

Who Makes Financial Decisions.

This variable was asked using the following question, “Who in your family makes the decision to spend money related to sports to support your student-athlete?” Responses could be mom, dad, or other adult, but this variable was recoded so that 1=mom and 0=anyone else. 

Needs Help.

This variable was measured with the following question, “Do you ever feel as if you need help with your high school student-athlete (i.e. getting them to practices/games on time, finding time to help them with fundraising, etc.)?” Responses were coded as 1=yes, 0=no. Please not that in Table 2, “needs help” is a control variable. However, in Tables 3 and 4, it is an independent variable. 

Control Variables.

Marital Status.

Marital Status was asked using the following question, “What is your current marital status?” Answers were recoded so that 1 = married, 2 = single/never married, 3 =divorced, 4 = widowed, 5 = engaged and/or living with a partner. We recoded this variable into a binary variable in which 1 = married and 0 = any other marital status, given that 87% of our sample was currently married. 


Education was asked by the question, “What is the highest level of education that you have completed?” Answers were recoded so that 1 = less than a high school diploma, 2 = high school diploma or GED, 3 = some college, 4 = four-year college degree, 5 = advanced or professional degree. 

Employment Status.

Current employment status was measured by the question, “Are you currently employed?” Responses were recoded so that 1 = yes, full-time outside of the home, 2 = yes, full-time inside of the home, 3 = yes, part-time outside of the home, 4 = yes, part-time inside of the home, and 5 = stay at home mother. Again, these were each coded into 5 separate binary variables with 1 = the variable named, and 0 = any other current employment status. 

Number of Children.

Number of children was measured by the question, “How many children under the age of 18 currently live in your home?” Responses ranged from 1 child to 6 or more children. 


Race in our study was measured by the question, “What is your race?” We created a binary variable of 1 = White, 0 = other. 

Financial Decisions

This variable was measured by asking, “Who in your family makes financial decisions about your student-athlete?” Responses were coded so that 1=mom, 0=anyone else besides mom. 

Data Analysis

Data from a total of 367 mothers was analyzed using SPSS (A correlation matrix of all variables available upon request). Descriptive statistics were run on all variables (see Table 1). Data analysis was then conducted using linear regression. First, Role Strain/Enhancement continuum on depressive symptoms was examined (see Table 2). Next, we examined what variables had an effect on role strain. Finally, we examined what variables had an effect on role enhancement.  


Table 2 presents findings regarding the effects of role strain and role enhancement on depressive symptoms. One model was run examining both the effects of the control variables and Role Strain/Enhancement on depressive symptoms. This model displays positive relationships between all types of employment except full-time inside the home where a negative relationship was discovered. Number of children had a positive significant relationship with depressive symptoms (B=.33, SE=.16, p=.0416). The role strain/enhancement continuum was found to have a significant negative relationship with depressive symptoms (B=-0.80, SE=.13, p= .000). 

Table 3 presents the findings regarding the effects of multiple variables on role strain. We were interested in what variables might affect role strain. We examined race, education, number of children, employment status, marital status, if mom makes financial decisions for her student- athlete, no and if mom thinks she needs help with her student athlete. More education was correlated with lower levels of role strain (B=-0.09, SE=.18, p< .05). Compared with stay-at-home moms, mothers who worked full-time outside of the home had higher levels of role strain (B=.32, SE=.13, p<.05). Finally, mothers who stated that they needed help with their student-athletes had higher levels of role strain (B=.56, SE=.10, p<.000). 

Table 4 presents the finding regarding the effects of multiple variables on role enhancement. We used the same variables as we examined in Table 3. For role enhancement, we found that white mothers experienced more role enhancement than non-white mothers (B=.30, SE=.14, p<.05). We also found that moms who worked part-time in the home experienced higher levels of role enhancement than stay-at-home moms (B=.54, SE=.25, p<.05). Finally, moms who stated that they needed help with their high school athlete reported lower levels of role enhancement than moms who stated that they did not need help (B=-.29, SE=.10, p<.01). 


The purpose of this study was to examine the well-being of mothers of high school student-athletes with particular regard to the multiple roles they may play or      fulfill. While role strain and role enhancement have      been shown to be related to psychological well-being, it has been unclear whether the experience of role strain or role enhancement has an impact on mothers of high school athletes. This is a unique population to study, but important given the number of mothers who hold this role. With over 7.9 million high school students participating in athletics (NFHS, 2019-2020), there are millions of mothers who are taking on the extra responsibilities that come with having a high school athlete. 

It was hypothesized that: 1) higher levels of role enhancement would correlate with lower levels of depressive symptoms and 2) higher levels of role strain would correlate with higher levels of depressive symptoms. The results indicate that the hypotheses were supported. 

We also examined the factors that may influence role strain and role enhancement separately. We found that education, employment status, and a need for help predicted role strain. Race, employment status, and a need for help predicted role enhancement. 

Limitations and Future Directions

There are a few limitations to the current study. First is the scope of data collected about mothers of student-athletes. Data was obtained from statewide schools with membership in the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA). Indiana was selected as the initial study location because of Indianapolis headquarters for two major sporting membership organizations: National Federation of State High School Association (NFHS) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In the future, we plan to collect data from all 50 states. 

Second, the data was cross-sectional. This means it is not possible to determine causal order among variables. While it was discovered that knowledge of role strain/role enhancement influencing depressive symptoms, it could be that there is a mediating variable explaining this relationship. The nature of this relationship can only be determined through longitudinal studies. 

Childhood participation in athletics is ever increasing. Over 7.9 million high school students participated in athletics (NFHS, 2019-2020). The impact of athletics on the mental health of the student has been a common topic of research, but this study hoped to enter a new field of research: that of the effect of the student athlete on mothers’ mental health and well-being. Mothers are known to take on multiple roles, which can lead to role strain or role enhancement, depending on other factors. In this case, some of these factors include employment status, race, education, and whether mom needs help with her high school athlete. Our future research will include data to see what additional factors may influence role strain and role enhancement of mothers of high school athletes. 

Despite the limitations imposed by the research design, the current study also sheds new light on the way in which the mental health of mothers can be influenced by their children participating in athletics. In doing so, research on both mother-child relationships and on multiple roles and well-being has been extended. The findings presented here indicate that there is a relationship between a child’s participation in athletics and the mental health of their mother, and that the number of children a mother has may have a significant effect on the strength of this relationship. Administrators, coaches, and Athletic Directors may wish to consider how to help mothers with their student athletes. Taking the pressure off of moms could lead to healthier moms and healthier children. 


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Table 1

Descriptive Statistics for Variables (n=367)

RangeMean (SD)
Employment Status   Full-time Outside of Home   Full-time Inside of Home   Part-time Outside of Home   Part-time Inside of Home   Stay-at-home Mom

.68 .03 .12 .03 .12
Number of ChildrenRace (White=1)Education (5= Advanced or Professional Degree)
1.96 (1.06).904.04 (.92)
RoleStrainEnhancmentRole StrainRole EnhancementDepressionIndexFinancial Decisions Needs Help-3-30-30-310-320-10-1.86(1.25)1.41 (.82).54 (.80)18.32(3.33).81 (.19).74 (.26)

Table 2

Regression of Depressive Symptoms

                         Model 1
Employment Status
  Full-Time Out  Full-Time In  Part-Time Out  Part-Time In


Number of Children0.33(.16)*.11

*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

Table 3

Regression of Role Strain

Model 2

*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

Table 4

Regression of Role Enhancement

Model 3


Number of Children
Employment Status     Full-time Out     Full-time In     Part-time Out     Part-time In 
Marital Status
Financial Decisions
Needs Help

.30 (.14)*
-.01 (.05)


.06(.13).17 (.26).04 (.16).54 (.25)*
-.03 (.06)
.13 (.17)
-.29 (.10)**






*p<.05, **p<.01, ***p<.001

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