A new study examining the link between a child’s participation in an organized sport and their mental health found that those who participate in team sports may be less likely to have mental health problems.
According to the study published in PLOS One, the researchers used data from more than 11,000 US children between the ages of 9 and 13.
Parents and guardians self-reported their child’s mental health problems using a ‘Child Behavior Checklist’. In addition, they were given a long list of activities (sports, music, hobbies) and asked to indicate their child’s lifetime involvement in each activity.
The researchers found that participating in a team sport was associated with 10% lower scores for anxiety/depression, 19% lower scores for reclusiveness/depression, 17% lower scores for social problems, 17% lower scores for thought problems compared to participation in no sport and 12% lower values was related to attention problems scores.
Conversely, participation in an individual sport was associated with 16% higher scores for anxiety/depression, 14% higher scores for withdrawn/depression, 12% higher scores for social problems, and 14% higher scores for attention problems compared to participation in no sport.
“It is possible that some children and adolescents participating in individual sports experience significant stress associated with independent performance, which could contribute to mental health problems,” the study authors explained.
Furthermore, athletes who participated in both a team and an individual sport did not display different mental health profiles compared to non-exercise children and adolescents.
“The results suggest that participation in team sports was associated with fewer mental health problems, while participation in individual sports was associated with greater mental health problems,” the study authors continued. “The results suggest so [the] Sport can be a prominent factor in the relationship between sport participation and mental health.”
Overall, there were fewer mental health problems among women compared to men and among those who identified as Black and Asian compared to those who identified as White.
“The results of this study, coupled with previous research, suggest that participation in organized team sports can be a useful medium to promote mental health in children and adolescents,” the authors added. “Efforts to provide affordable opportunities for children and young people to join organized team sports leagues/clubs outside of school may require further attention, particularly for families facing socio-economic challenges.”
One possible limitation the researchers found was the use of parental self-reports, noting that it’s possible that parents who enroll their children in individual sports tend to attribute the problematic aspects of their children’s emotional and behavioral behaviors overestimate. Alternatively, it is also plausible that parents who register their children in team sports are more likely to see their children interacting positively with their peers and therefore tend to underestimate possible mental health problems.
The researchers said additional research will be needed to determine to what extent and under what circumstances participation in a single sport may be problematic for youth.
In addition, the authors said that future studies could be conducted to examine the link between sports participation and mental health among minority youth (such as LGBTQ youth), who may be at increased risk of mental health problems.
These findings add to previous research suggesting that participation in team sports can be a means of supporting the mental health of children and adolescents. But other studies have also linked participation in youth sports with negative consequences such as anxiety and burnout.
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