Summary: Children who participate in team sports have better mental health outcomes than those who play individual sports or take part in no sports at all. Those who play individual sports have worse mental health outcomes than those who do not play sports.
A large-scale study of U.S. children and adolescents has found that participation in a team sport is associated with fewer mental health difficulties, but that kids who are exclusively involved in an individual sport—such as tennis or wrestling—may face greater mental health difficulties than kids who do no sports at all.
Matt Hoffmann of California State University, U.S.A., and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on June 1, 2022.
Previous research has consistently suggested that youth participation in organized sports might help protect against mental health difficulties.
However, some studies have linked youth sports participation to worse mental health, so more detailed research is needed to determine which approaches to sports might be most beneficial.
To shed new light, Hoffmann and colleagues analyzed data on the sports habits and mental health of 11,235 kids aged 9 to 13. Parents and guardians reported on several aspects of the children’s mental health by filling out a form known as the Child Behavior Checklist.
The researchers looked for any associations between the mental health data and the kids’ sports habits, while also accounting for other factors that might impact mental health, such as household income and overall physical activity.
In line with the researchers’ expectations, the analysis showed that kids involved in team sports were less likely to have signs of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, social problems, and attention problems.
The researchers also expected individual sports to be associated with fewer mental health difficulties, even if to a lesser extent than for team sports.
However, they instead found that children who exclusively played individual sports tended to have greater mental health difficulties than those who did not play sports at all.
Nonetheless, for female kids, participation in both team and individual sports was associated with a lower likelihood of rule-breaking behavior than non-sports participation.
Overall, these findings add to a growing body of evidence that playing team sports is positively associated with mental health for children and adolescents.
The authors suggest that further research could help clarify the link they observed between individual sports and worse mental health difficulties, and longitudinal observations are needed to investigate any causal relationships between sport participation and mental health.
The authors add: “Children and adolescents who played exclusively team sports, like basketball or soccer, had fewer mental health difficulties than those who did not participate in any organized sports. However, to our surprise, youth who participated in only individual sports, such as gymnastics or tennis, had more mental health difficulties compared to those who did not participate in organized sports.”
About this sport and mental health research news
Author: Hanna Abdallah Source: PLOS Contact: Hanna Abdallah – PLOS Image: The image is in the public domain
The data (cross-sectional) were from Data Release 3.0 (one-year follow-up visits on the full cohort) of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study—a broadly representative sample of 11,235 US children and adolescents aged 9 to 13 years.
Parents/guardians provided self-reports of their child’s mental health difficulties using the Child Behavior Checklist.
To assess participation in organized sport, children and adolescents were categorized into one of four groups: 1) participation in team sport, 2) participation in individual sport, 3) participation in team and individual sport, and 4) non-sport participation.
Participation in team sport compared to non-sport participation was associated with 10% lower anxious/depressed scores, 19% lower withdrawn/depressed scores, 17% lower social problems scores, 17% lower thought problems scores, and 12% lower attention problems scores.
Participation in team sport compared to non-sport participation was also associated with 20% lower rule-breaking behavior scores for females (compared to males).
Conversely, participation in individual sport compared to non-sport participation was associated with 16% higher anxious/depressed scores, 14% higher withdrawn/depressed scores, 12% higher social problems scores, and 14% higher attention problems scores.
Participation in both team and individual sport compared to non-sport participation was associated with 17% lower rule-breaking behavior scores for females (compared to males).
Results indicate that team sport participation was associated with fewer mental health difficulties, whereas individual sport participation was associated with greater mental health difficulties.
The findings complement previous research suggesting that team sport participation may be a vehicle to support child and adolescent mental health.
Additional research is needed to determine to what extent, and under what circumstances, participation in individual sport may be problematic for younger cohorts.