Often we hear of people encountering adversity as a precursor to incredible personal achievement. Now, a study published in May in JAMA Pediatrics reports there may be some truth to this, and sports can play a significant role. The study revealed that when people who had experienced traumatic events as children participated in team sports during their adolescence, they had improved mental health outcomes.
The U.S study considered a national sample of 9,668 people, and found that “among children affected by adverse childhood experiences, team sports in adolescence was associated with less depression and anxiety in adulthood”.
Dr. Molly C. Easterlin, the lead author of the study, suggests that parents could consider team sports for children who have experienced challenging or traumatic events.
“Something about the team environment provides psycho-social support,” she said.
While various factors including duration of intensity of the physical activity, family environments and backgrounds might affect sports participation, they “still see the connection between sports and mental health,” she said. “There may be something about sports that provides resilience.”
Dr. Rochelle Eime, an associate professor of sport participation at Federation University in Australia, believes there are “a lot of life lessons that can be learned through playing team and group-based sports. You’ve got to train and word hard; you learn to win and more importantly to lose.” This, she said, was a critical trait to developing resilience.
“They can learn so many life lessons, it can really help their social well-being and their psychological well-being as well,” Dr. Eime said. “They often have less stress in their lives, better social interactions, improved self-esteem.”
Now, Sports medicine specialists are increasingly drawing a link to mental health, including both the advantages that young athletes can gain, and the indicators that they may occasionally need help.
Dr. Alex B. Diamond, an associate professor of pediatrics and orthopedics and the director of the program for injury prevention in youth sports and Vanderbilt, says, “mental health is a part of physical health, a part of sports medicine. In the past we focused on physical health so much, we neglected the mental health and behavioral health aspect of our athletes.”
Overall, Dr. Diamond said, “Sports as a whole remains a positive and more than likely a protective activity for our kids and teenagers.” They require attention and care for their mental and physical well-being, and the opportunity to participate in settings that are conducive to them receiving that attention and care. This, for children, is not always the case.
“Making those activities accessible to all is very important,” Dr. Easterlin said. Socioeconomic conditions often cause disparities in sports participation, where many families cannot afford to have their children involved.
“From a public health policy standpoint, there is some evidence sports are beneficial to children,” she said. “Child health advocates and policymakers should consider investing in these programs to make sure they are accessible, equitable and strong.”