Team sports: good for children’s minds, too

Category: Pediatrics | Psychiatry | Sports medicine | New

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Last update: June 02, 2022.

By Amy Norton HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, June 2, 2022 (HealthDay News) — Children who play team sports may experience some mental health benefits, but the same may not be true for those who play sports solo, according to a large new study.

A number of previous studies have linked team sports to better mental well-being for children and teens, and the new research is no exception: Overall, it found that American children who played team sports seemed to have less “difficulty” mental health – such as symptoms of anxiety and depression – than their peers who did not exercise at all.

On the other hand, the situation was reversed for children who practiced sports more dependent on individual performance, such as tennis, gymnastics and wrestling. They tended to show more mental health symptoms than their peers.

“On a general scale, looking at sports broadly, they appear to be good for children’s mental health,” said lead researcher Matt Hoffmann, assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton.

But this study, he said, suggests that not all sports provide the same benefits.

It’s unclear why, but one reason may be the added performance pressure of individual sports: Kids can’t share the “burden” with their teammates, Hoffmann said, and they may be more likely to fight when the things don’t go as expected. .

This can be especially true if parents put pressure on it, he noted.

The study, published online June 1 in the journal PLOS ONE, involved more than 11,000 American children between the ages of 9 and 13. Their parents completed a standard child mental health checklist – assessing their children on issues including anxiety, depression, social withdrawal and attention problems.

Overall, children who played team sports scored lower on most mental health issues, compared to those who played no sports. On the other hand, children in individual sports generally had higher scores.

Meanwhile, it was essentially a washout for kids who played both types of sports: Their mental health ratings were on par with kids who didn’t play sports.

None of the differences were significant, Hoffmann pointed out. On average, participation in team sports was linked to a 10% to 19% decrease in symptom scores, while individual sports were linked to an equally modest increase in scores.

The researchers took other factors into account, such as family income. This is important, Hoffmann noted, because family resources help determine which sports children play. Even then, the study found that team sports seemed better for mental well-being than individual sports.

Still, it’s unclear whether sports, per se, were the driving force. Hoffmann said it’s possible, for example, that introverted kids are more drawn to individual sports rather than team sports.

At the same time, there are reasons to believe that team sports promote children’s mental health, he added. They offer a chance to build friendships and a sense of belonging, and learn skills like cooperation and managing challenges.

According to Dr. Erin Moix Grieb, a problem with individual sports, such as tennis and gymnastics, is that children can “specialize” from an early age.

In these cases, children can train all year round – which can increase the risk of injury, explained Grieb. She is a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Stanford Children’s Health in California.

“Injuries are one of the strongest risk factors for mental health issues in athletes,” she said.

In addition, this “hyper-focused year-round training” can expose some children to social isolation, stress and Burnoutadded Grieb.

However, none of this means that children need team sports to thrive.

“It’s not intended to discourage parents from letting their kids play individual sports,” Hoffmann said.

Instead, he suggested parents check in with their kids to make sure they’re still having fun with their sport of choice. (Some kids, Hoffmann noted, simply end up in a sport played by a parent and may not really be attached to it.)

Grieb agreed. “The reality is that if young people love their sport, play a variety of sports, are supported by parents and coaches, and get enough time off with good injury prevention techniques, they will be ahead of the game,” she said.

And kids can also find a social connection outside of sports. “If a child has an activity or interest that they are passionate about, encourage them to join an organized group of others with similar interests,” Grieb said.

“Knowing that they are supported and pursuing their own interests,” she added, “will go a long way to helping their mental health.”

More information

The American Psychological Association has more on exercise and children Mental Health.

SOURCES: Matt Hoffmann, PhD, assistant professor, kinesiology, California State University, Fullerton; Erin Moix Grieb, MD, clinical assistant professor, Stanford Children’s Health, Palo Alto, Calif.; PLOS ONEJune 1, 2022, online