The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines an adverse childhood experience (ACE) as any trauma, neglect or abuse occurring before the age of 18. Approximately 50 percent of the population has experienced at least one.
Now, a new study titled “Association of Team Sports Participation With Long-term Mental Health Outcomes Among Individuals Exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences”, published in May in JAMA Pediatrics, examines whether team sports decrease the negative lasting effects of ACEs.
The result? In short, participation in team sports in adolescence contributes to improved mental health in adulthood.
“Some of the pathways between team sports participation and improved adult mental health were through improved feelings of self-esteem, social acceptance and connectedness to school,” Molly Easterlin, the lead researcher of the study, told Infectious Diseases in Children. “These results suggest that children affected by ACEs may benefit from participating in team sports and other programs that provide psychosocial support.”
Easterlin’s research examined a nationally representative sample of 9,668 individuals in 1994, then again in 2008, to determine the association between team sports and diagnoses of depression or anxiety later in life. The study’s findings show variance between boys and girls. Upon reaching adulthood, both genders were less likely to have anxiety after participating in team sports as adolescents, but boys were also less likely to experience depression.
The stronger findings for boys may be due to the lower participation rates by girls with ACE. In the 90’s girls faced even greater cultural and financial barriers to their participation than they do today. The research additionally looked at other, non-sport extracurricular activities such as theater and band and found that these activities did not have as strong an impact as team sports – though Easterlin says that does not mean they are not helping.
“There may be something powerful about that team environment [in sports], where you’re in competition, being coached in a certain way and interacting with your teammates towards a common goal,” she told NPR.
The Women’s Sports Foundation has long recognized the positive mental health benefits of sport and has advocated for girls’ participation. This new study adds another layer onto our own research on the topic, which includes the Her Life Depends on It series that examines the links between participation in sport and physical activity, and the health and wellbeing of American girls and women. To read our full report, click here.