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Playing sports may help kids overcome challenges as adults, study finds

The lessons learned in organized sports can last kids a lifetime

Kids playing soccer
Photo (c) Alistair Berg - Getty Images
While recent studies have highlighted the mental health benefits associated with kids playing sports or being enrolled in extracurricular activities, a new study conducted by researchers from Ohio State University looked at the lifelong benefits of team sports. 

Their findings showed that playing organized sports during childhood is likely to make kids more resilient during adulthood. 

“Kids who participate in sports learn what it is like to struggle as they learn new skills, overcome challenges, and bounce back from failure and try again,” said researcher Emily Nothnagle. “The grit they develop playing sports can help them the rest of their lives.” 

Sports can help kids develop grit

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from nearly 4,000 adults enrolled in the American Population Panel. They answered online survey questions about their participation in sports during childhood and then ranked how well they related to statements related to perseverance and work ethic. 

Ultimately, it was clear that former sports players had developed more grit and resilience as adults. Nearly 35% of child athletes scored high on characteristics related to grit, and just 17% scored low on that scale. On the other hand, 23% of those who hadn’t played sports as kids had developed a strong sense of grit as adults, and 25% scored low on that scale.

While playing sports was beneficial, the findings showed that sticking to sports was the key to reaping the benefits in adulthood. Participants who quit their teams during childhood weren’t likely to develop the same grit and resilience as those who consistently played their sports. 

“Adults who played youth sports but dropped out did not show higher levels of grit,” said researcher Chris Knoester. “They actually demonstrated lower levels of grit after we included a proxy measure of how sports mattered for the development of grit while growing up. 

“Quitting could reflect a lack of perseverance, which is a crucial component of grit. It could also make quitting an activity, and not persevering, easier the next time.” 

The researchers hope consumers understand the potential long-term benefits of enrolling their kids in organized sports. Though sports tend to be a way for kids to have fun, make new friends, and stay physically active, these findings highlight that it can also improve their character long after they stop playing. 

“Sports offer this valuable place in society where you can work hard and practice and take it seriously, but it is also not real life to some extent – typically, sports are thought of as a separate sphere of life and the stakes in sports are not as far-reaching and extreme,” said Knoester. “But you can take those lessons you learn and practice in sports, such as building grit, and apply them in your life outside of sports in very useful ways.” 

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