A nationwide study of 11,235 children aged 9-13, conducted by the journal Public Library of Science (PLOS), found that a child’s mental health is positively affected when participating in team sports .
The study, led by Matt Hoffmann, an assistant professor of kinesiology at Cal State Fullerton, was published in the open-access journal PLOS One.
“As mental health trends continue to change, it’s important to get up-to-date information on the link between organized sports participation and mental health,” Hoffmann said. “In this study, we analyzed one of the most comprehensive datasets to date on the sports participation and mental health of young Americans.”
Parents and guardians reported aspects of a child’s mental health on a behavior checklist. The researchers looked for associations between mental health data and a child’s exercise habits while taking into account other factors that may impact mental health, including household income and overall physical activity.
The analysis concluded that children who play team sports were less likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, withdrawal, social problems and attention deficits. Hoffmann noted that he collected the data before the pandemic.
“We know that regular participation in youth sports has declined during the pandemic due to closures in organized sports leagues and also in school sports,” he said. “At the same time, research has shown that children and adolescents suffer from mental health problems during the pandemic due to factors such as isolation. These results tell us that it is important to re-engage our young people in organized sports, especially team sports, as the pandemic subsides.
Hoffmann said the most surprising finding was that kids who only played individual sports, like tennis or wrestling, were more likely to have mental health issues than their counterparts who didn’t play any organized sports.
“Previous research has shown that participating in individual sports does not have the same mental health benefits as participating in team sports, but there was no evidence that participating in individual sports can be associated with worse mental health compared to no sport,” he said. “We can’t say anything for sure, but we do know that playing individual sports can involve pressure and stress,” Hoffmann explained. “These athletes don’t have teammates to share losses or failures with, so they can take the blame. “I also think it’s important that we don’t jump to hard conclusions about possible mental health issues that may arise from individual sport participation. Overall, I think more research is needed to determine what may happening with individual sports and their role in the mental health of young people.
Ensuring that young athletes playing individual sports receive support from their parents, guardians and coaches is critical, Hoffman said, as is the need to increase mental health awareness.
“Adults need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of poor mental health in children and look for ways to help. While feelings of sadness after poor performance and some anxiety here and there are a normal part of youth sports, regular signs of possible mental health issues can be cause for concern,” he said. “Improving mental health awareness and literacy for everyone involved in youth sport, including children themselves, is a good place to start.”
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