There is new evidence that playing a team sport for children is somewhat protective against anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, and attention problems.
In general, children who play a team sport are less likely to have psychological problems than children who do not play sports.
The findings are supported by previous studies.
However, the large-scale study by sports psychologists at California State University also found that children who devoted themselves exclusively to an individual sport — such as tennis, dance, cycling, or wrestling — were more likely to have mental health problems than children who did not play any sport at all.
The study prompted the Smithsonian Magazine to ask: Should parents of young tennis players be concerned about these findings?
The article starts off a little provocatively, with a quote from the great Andre Agassi, who says he wished he had played soccer as a kid instead of tennis:
“I play at school three times a week, and I love running around the football field with the wind in my hair, calling for the ball, knowing the world won’t end if I don’t score. The fate of my father, my family, and planet Earth does not rest on my shoulders. If my team doesn’t win, it’s their fault, and no one will yell in my ear. Team sports, I conclude, are the way to go.”
Lead author of the new study, Dr. Matt Hoffman, an assistant professor in Cal State’s Department of Kinesiology, did not elaborate on the deeper significance of his findings but suggested that rather than panicking, parents and coaches “should be aware that young wrestlers, dancers or swimmers may experience additional stress or anxiety and support them accordingly”.
It’s a nice idea. But how many young Andre Agassi is there with an overly pushy parent on their back?
The researchers analyzed the sports habits and mental health data of 11,235 children aged nine to 13.
Parents and guardians reported on various aspects of the children’s mental health by completing a form known as the Child Behavior Checklist, a widely used tool by which parents identify and describe emotional and behavioral problems and competencies.
The researchers identified “associations between the mental health data and the children’s sports habits while also considering other factors that may affect mental health, such as family income and overall physical activity.”
Dr. Hoffman and his colleagues say the positive findings from team sports were “in line” with their expectations. This is not surprising, as there are a large number of previous studies that support these findings.
A large 2019 study from the Department of Pediatrics, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, found that practicing team sports can help children avoid depression.
The study also found that people exposed to negative childhood experiences reported better mental health as adults if they participated in team sports as children.
But the researchers were caught off guard by the expectation that individual sports “would be associated with fewer psychological problems, even to a lesser degree than team sports.”
Instead, they found that children who played exclusively individual sports had more mental health problems than children who did not exercise.
The Smithsonian article featured an independent analysis by Professor Catherine Sabiston, a sports psychologist at the University of Toronto.
She told the Smithsonian she wasn’t surprised by the findings of the individual sport:
“Individual sports are generally judgment-based, weight-based, often appearance-focused sports that increase social comparison, competitiveness, and individual aspiration.
“There is no one to blame or ‘thank you’ for except yourself, and the pressure to perform is heightened.”
That’s exactly what Andre Agassi said.