Researchers say team sports such as baseball can be more beneficial for children’s mental health. Shoji Fujita/Getty Images
- Researchers are reporting that team sports are more beneficial to children’s mental health than individual sports.
- In fact, they say participation in an individual sport can result in greater mental health difficulties than playing no sports at all.
- However, other experts say there are beneficial aspects as well as downsides to all youth sports.
- They note that children with attention difficulties and other issues sometimes thrive in individual activities.
A new study of children in the United States concludes that participating in team sports is better for children’s mental health than playing individual sports.
In addition, researchers report that participating in an individual sport such as tennis or wrestling is actually associated with greater mental health difficulties than playing no sports at all.
Their findings run counter to some previous research stating that participation in any youth sport helps guard children against mental health difficulties.
Matt Hoffmann, Ph.D., an assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University Fullerton and his colleagues presented their research in the latest edition of the open-access journal PLOS ONE.
Hoffmann’s team analyzed data on sports involvement and mental health of 11,235 children aged 9 to 13.
Parents and guardians reported on several aspects of their children’s mental health. Researchers then looked for associations between mental health data and the children’s involvement with sports. Other factors were considered, such as household income and overall physical activity.
Researchers said the analysis showed children playing team sports had fewer signs of anxiety, depression, social problems, withdrawal, and attention difficulties.
However, countering researchers’ expectations, the study also found kids who played only individual sports tended to have greater mental health difficulties than those who didn’t play any sports.
They did note that female athletes playing both team and individual sports were associated with a lower likelihood of rule-breaking behavior than those who didn’t play at all.
The authors acknowledged that more detailed research is necessary.
What experts have to say
“There are many components of team sports that are beneficial for children,” Dr. Julian Lagoy, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health in San Jose, California, told Healthline.
“One benefit to children of participating in a team sport is how to deal with other people, but it is also about learning how to be a leader and to be a part of something greater than yourself,” she said. “Being on a team holds an individual accountable to everyone else on the team, even as children.”
However, Lagoy said the dynamic can go both ways.
“In some ways, it is easier to lose when you are on a team because you will not have all the culpability,” Lagoy explained. “It can be the case that if you make an error that costs your whole team a victory, the pressure can end up being much worse. However, when you lose or win on a team you will share it with others, which can make the losses more bearable and the wins that much more enjoyable.”
Jillian Amodio, a social worker and founder of Moms for Mental Health, told Healthline she’s seen both team and individual sports benefit children.
“Sports, in general, provide an opportunity to learn problem-solving, build confidence, build strength, and to lead a healthy lifestyle,” Amodio said. “While team sports offer opportunities to learn how to work collectively and collaborate with teammates, it doesn’t necessarily make them better or worse than individual sports.”
“Individual sports such as horseback riding, skating, swimming, or martial arts still have collaborative aspects to them,” Amodio noted. “It also comes down to interests and preferences. Being good at something is not the same as loving it. One major factor about involvement in any kind of physical activity that should never be overlooked is the enjoyment factor of it all. A sport should be fun. It should be something that the participant views as a positive aspect of their life.”
“Pressure comes in many forms,” she added. “The pressure of a team or the pressure to perform well for a team is really no different than the pressure to perform for one’s own sense of satisfaction. We are all motivated by and for different things, and it again comes down to personal preference and personality traits.”
Stacy Haynes, a therapist at Little Hands Family Services in Turnersville, New Jersey, agrees the benefits can depend on the individual child.
“As a therapist for autistic children and children with anxiety, individual sports are best,” Haynes told Healthline. “Neurodiverse children often struggle in team sports due to their own perceptions of the game, their teammates, social pressures, etc.”
“Therapists will actually recommend individual sports such as track, tennis, swimming, and karate for youth who have neurodevelopmental differences that interfere with their ability to play sports,” he noted. “(For example) kids who have low frustration tolerance with teammates (and) youth who have anxiety performing in front of others or letting down their team. Even sensory concerns in team sports can make it difficult for youth to participate ex. loud crowds, teammates shouting.”
“Not all sports are created equal and neither are our children,” she noted.