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Playing team sports may lower the risk of kids' mental health concerns, study finds

Experts say individual sports may have the opposite effect on mental health

Happy kids playing youth soccer
Photo (c) JW LTD - Getty Images
A new study explored the effect that sports can have on kids’ mental health. The findings showed that while team sports were associated with a lower risk of mental health concerns for young athletes, individual sports may make kids more susceptible to mental health struggles. 

“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,” the researchers wrote. “However, to our surprise, youth who had participated in only individual sports, had more mental health difficulties compared to those who did not participate in organized sports.” 

How sports affect mental health

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from more than 11,200 kids between the ages of nine and 13. Parents answered questions about what sports their kids played and completed the Child Behavior Checklist to give the researchers some insight into the kids’ mental health. The researchers then compared how the kids’ history with sports affected their mental health. 

The study revealed a positive association between kids who played team sports and strong mental health outcomes. Team sports players were less likely to experience a number of mental health concerns, including social problems, anxiety, attention problems, and depression. Additionally, young girls who played sports were 20% less likely to engage in rule-breaking behaviors when compared to those who didn’t play sports. 

The researchers were surprised to learn that kids who played individual sports didn’t experience similar mental health benefits. In fact, kids who were involved in individual sports like gymnastics, golf, or tennis had a higher risk of mental health struggles. These kids were 16% more likely to have anxiety or depression and 14% more likely to be more withdrawn. 

Moving forward, the team plans to do more research in this area to better understand why individual sports negatively affect kids’ mental health.

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