Amid the Nation’s Ongoing Youth Mental Health Crisis, New Research Shows the Critical Role Sports Can Play in Promoting Girls’ Mental Health


Published on April 23rd, 2024

NEW YORK, NY (April 23, 2024) – As the nation continues to grapple with a youth mental health crisis, the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) – one of the first organizations to recognize the powerful connection between sports, equity, and society – released its latest research today, shedding light on the pivotal role of sports in fostering girls’ positive mental health. Titled “Thriving Through Sport: The Transformative Impact on Girls’ Mental Health,” the report underscores the power of sports – in supportive and inclusive settings – to help lower depression and anxiety, boost social connectedness, and inspire a greater sense of meaning and purpose in girls who play, compared to girls who don’t or never played sports.

Findings from the report include:

Sports Participation Can Lower Depression and Anxiety

  • Mental health disorders are 1.5 to 2.5 times lower for girls who play sports vs those who never played.
  • 29% of girls who never played sports have moderate-to-high levels of depression symptoms vs. 17% of girls who currently play.
  • 21% of girls who never played sports have moderate-to-high levels of anxiety symptoms vs. 11% of girls who currently play.

Sports Participation Has Promotive and Protective Benefits

  • Girls who play sports report 1.5 times higher levels of meaning and purpose compared to those who never played.
  • In sport settings that focus on effort, improvement, and teamwork, depression symptoms are significantly lower (3%) vs. settings where winning is the main goal and success is defined by ability compared to others (24.7%.)
  • In sport settings where girls have more “voice and choice” over goals and activities, depression symptoms are significantly lower (4%) vs. settings where they don’t have that opportunity (35.1%.)

“So many young people are struggling with mental health issues. It’s a prominent public health concern,” said Dr. Claudia Reardon, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “This new WSF research shows that sports can play a powerful role in supporting girls’ mental well-being. Beyond physical activity, when girls play, they build relationships with their peers, learn to work as a team, and so much more. This data shows it can lower depression and anxiety and provide fulfillment and meaning. We need to make sure that all girls have access and opportunity to high quality, supportive environments in which to play sports, so they can reap these benefits.”

WSF research has shown that 50 years after the passage of Title IX, girls still have far fewer opportunities to play sports today than boys. This latest report further bolsters the need for equity in sports. More than a ‘nice to have,’ it shows that sports can be an impactful tool for promoting girls’ mental health.

“The data in this report point to the potential of sport to be a positive influence for girls’ mental health, when it is done well,” said William Massey, PhD, Associate Professor, College of Health, Oregon State University. “In light of this WSF report, and other research in the field, it is clear that girls need more access and opportunities to participate in sport. This data also illuminates the vital role coaches play in creating sport settings that optimize girls’ mental health.”

WSF’s new research report not only sheds light on the positive effects of sports participation on young girls’ mental well-being, but also underscores the urgency of prioritizing mental health support within the sports community. As the mental health crisis among youth remains a pressing concern, this research serves as a crucial reminder of the transformative power of sports to empower girls to thrive.

“Thriving Through Sports joins our rich legacy of WSF research that examines vital issues and influences that can impact, or be impacted by, girls’ and women’s access to sports,” said WSF CEO, Danette Leighton. “The ongoing mental health crisis in society – across all ages, and especially for youth – is a profound challenge that calls all of us to take action. Our data provides hope that sports, when done right, gives girls a tool for supporting their mental health. When we help girls thrive, we all win.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of WSF, which has been changing the game through its evidence-based research, advocacy, and community programming, to enable girls and women to reach their potential in sport and life.

The full report is available on WSF’s website and includes detailed insights and actionable recommendations for promoting girls’ mental health through sports.

“Thriving Through Sport” was generously funded by the Kozmetsky Family Foundation, a Dallas-based foundation that is committed to sparking meaningful impact through grants for basic needs, education, and health, with special emphasis given to veterans, women, and children. Additional support was provided by the Advancing Girls Fund, a fund of the Tides Foundation.

About the Women’s Sports Foundation
The Women’s Sports Foundation exists to enable girls and women to reach their potential in sport and life. We are an ally, an advocate, and a catalyst. Founded by Billie Jean King in 1974, we are one of the first organizations to recognize the powerful connection between sports access, equity, and society. WSF has been changing the game for 50 years through its research, advocacy, and community programming, investing over $100 million to help girls and women play, compete, and lead – in sports and beyond – without barriers. A leader and champion of the entire women’s sports ecosystem, WSF amplifies the vital societal and cultural impact that is made when girls and women play sports. All girls. All women. All sports® To learn more about the Women’s Sports Foundation, please visit

Media Contacts:
Patty Bifulco
Women’s Sports Foundation

Kandice Miller
Women’s Sports Foundation