A new Canadian study examining extracurricular participation among youth found that team sports in particular may boost peer belonging and mental health in preteens.
The study, published in The Journal of Youth and Adolescence, analyzed extracurricular participation for both boys and girls in fourth and seventh grade. It found that participating in team sports had greater mental health benefits compared to individual extracurricular activities or non-participation in extracurricular activities.
“The results of our study shouldn’t be interpreted as ‘team sports are good’ and ‘individual activities – like tutoring or music classes – are not,’” Eva Oberle, the project’s lead researcher, told the University of British Columbia.
The catch? The study also found that girls were less likely to participate in team sports than boys, but had “significantly greater” rates of participation in individual activities.
The Women’s Sports Foundation’s recent research, “Teen Sport in America: Why Participation Matters” features a sport-by-sport analysis of participation effects on psychological health. Supporting Oberle’s findings, WSF’s research indicates that youth who participate in team sports generally experience lower levels of loneliness and self-derogation and higher levels of social support and self-esteem. Baseball, softball, football, soccer, basketball, cheerleading and volleyball all ranked particularly high in one or more of these categories.
Emphasizing Oberle’s point, neither research project is asserting that individual sports are necessarily bad for mental health. In fact, Teen Sport Report indicated that individual sports including tennis, track & field, weightlifting, and equestrian are associated with positive psychological health. Oberle suggests that the positive correlations among team sports and mental health may be due to the built-in camaraderie that comes naturally with playing on a team.
“The key point is that extracurricular activities that allow children to establish meaningful relationships with their peers can support their positive mental health,” she said. “Group activities like team sports may naturally do this, whereas other activities may need to deliberately integrate some additional strategies to better support peer connectedness.”
Per WSF’s research, the biggest thing is to get and keep children active – it has shown that the more sports a child plays, the better. Increasing youth participation – particularly among girls, who are less likely to participate in sports than boys – is key. Additionally, both reports emphasize the need to decrease access barriers surrounding sport for demographics that experience them at the highest rates, such as urban populations and children of color.
“It’s important for communities to think about how they can make activities accessible for all children, ensuring fees aren’t a barrier and offering activities at accessible locations, for example on school grounds and right after school to make them accessible for children with working parents,” Oberle said.
Through programs like Sports 4 Life and GoGirlGo!, WSF is ensuring that millions of girls across the United States are able to play. To learn more about these initiatives, please click here.