Team Sports Boost Mental Health in Youth

Coaches are fond of the saying that there’s no “I” in “team.” Parents may be heartened to learn that there’s less depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems in team sports, too.

Youth who play team sports appear to enjoy better mental health than those who don’t, according to a new study that aligns with previous research indicating that sports provide a positive social outlet and a sense of belonging. The researchers, from Canada and the United States, also found that girls who played organized team sports and individual sports reported less risky behaviors than girls who did not play sports at all.

However, the study showed that kids who compete only in individual sports — think tennis, wrestling, and gymnastics — appeared to have worse outcomes than nonathletes, suggesting that the emotional benefits of sports may come largely from group participation.

“Team sport allows kids to develop friendships with peers and feel a sense of belonging within their groups,” said Matthieu Hoffmann, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton, and leader of the new study. “Kids learn teamwork skills and work together to overcome conflict. These are all positive factors that may protect against mental health problems.”

Studies show that individual sports can increase stress and performance anxiety. Hoffman said these experiences can be isolating, especially because individual athletes often shoulder much of the burden of poor performances. For certain individual sports, such as ballet and gymnastics, poor perception of body image could also play a role.

In the new study, reported in the journal PLOS ONEinvestigators analyzed data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, an ongoing look at brain development in 11,235 US children aged 9 to 13 years.

Parents of children participating in the study filled out the Child Behavioral Checklist (CBCL), a questionnaire designed to detect emotional and behavioral problems in youth, including depression, anxiety, withdrawal, socialization, and others. For the study, parents respond to general questions with answers that can range from not true, somewhat or sometimes true, and very often or always true.

The new study found that children who played exclusively team sports scored lower in their parent’s self-reported answers to the CBCL, indicating various mental health difficulties. These children presented with 10% lower anxiety and depression scores, held 19% lower scores to withdrawn behavior, and scored 17% lower in social anxiety and thought problems, such strange behaviors and ideas, seeing things or hearing things, or having a hard time getting one’s mind off certain thoughts. They also scored 12% lower in attention problems.

Female athletes who played team sports were 20% less likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as sex and drug use, than young athletes who did not play any organized sport, the study found. Female athletes were also less likely to engage in these risky behaviors if they played both individual sports and team sports.

Hoffmann said the finding that outcomes that young athletes who play individual sports appear to have worse mental health than nonathletes is “new and surprising.” But he said it’s important not to jump to strong conclusions about the results just yet.

“We need to be aware of the potential mental health risks that youth may face when they play only individual sports,” Hoffmann told Medscape Medical News. “The results tell us that parents and guardians and coaches may need to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of mental health problems in kids playing only individual sports.”

Hannah Thompson PhD, MPH, assistant research professor of community health sciences at Berkeley Public Health, Berkeley, California, agreed that the data don’t prove that individual sports cause poor mental health outcomes or that parents should start pulling their kids from the swimming team .

The study does underscore the need for more research on topics such as how the behavior of coaches affects the mental health outcomes of young athletes, the effects on mental health of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the role that parents play, Thompson said.

“At this developmental stage, parents play a critical role in both their children’s sports participation and their overall mental health,” Thompson said. “It would be interesting to see future research using youths’ own report of their mental health, as opposed to parents’ perceptions of their child’s mental health, which this study uses, because it’s possible that parents of children who play individual sports feel more anxious about it themselves, which is being born out in this data.”

Hoffmann said he hoped the study would lead to more mental health literacy programs among young athletes and prompt coaches and parents, particularly those supporting kids who play individual sports, to seek more information about what mental health problems look like among today’s youth.

“Mental health is an almost daily topic in today’s society. The rates of mental health disorders among youth have increased over recent years,” Hoffmann said. “All of these points to the need to better understand the role that organized sport may play in individuals’ mental health, particularly among kids.”

Hoffman and Thompson reported no relevant financial relationships.

PLoS One. Published online June 1, 2022.

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