4 powerful benefits of sports for children (that have nothing to do with the sport itself)

A estimated at 60 million American children participate in organized sports each year and nearly 8 million play for their high school teams. Of these, few continue to play in college. For example, 93% to 95% secondary soccer players do not play the sport at the college level. The odds of becoming an Olympian are more like 1 in 500,000.

These numbers remind families that playing at the highest level probably shouldn’t be the end goal for most kids who participate in organized sports. But kids can enjoy it, even if they don’t really excel in their sport.

“Sports for children have many developmental benefits that go beyond the benefits of actual physical exercise,” pediatrician Dr Krupa Playforth says HuffPost. Here’s a look at four powerful ways kids benefit from sports.

1. Playing sports can reduce the risk of depression and anxiety in children throughout their lives.

“Regular exercise in children (or anyone) [can] translate into better mental health, which is especially relevant with today’s challenges,” said Playforth.

Indeed, there is certainly plenty of evidence that exercise can relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies suggest that exercise may be as effective as antidepressants as first-line treatment for some people with mild to moderate symptoms.

But there is also plenty of research on the specific mental health benefits of sport in children. A 2019 study found that children who had experienced traumatic experiences — such as neglect, family dysfunction, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse — were less likely to have struggled with depression or anxiety in their lifetimes. they had also participated in sports, and were less likely to experience symptoms of depression as adults. The authors concluded that team sports seem to be a real “important” “resilience builder”.

Anecdotal data from the pandemic certainly confirms this. A survey of parents found that nearly half said their children’s mental health improved when COVID-related sporting restrictions were lifted.

2. Playing sports in childhood can foster a lifelong love of movement.

Playing sports certainly provides kids with in-the-moment physical benefits, including helping them improve their cardiovascular health and working on things like dexterity and coordination. But athletics may have an even more powerful role to play in children’s lives in the long run.

Researchers have found that children who participate in a range of physical activities – from team sports to weightlifting – end up benefiting more from physical activity, which helps them enjoy physical activity throughout their lives. Also, while it is certainly possible to learn a new sport or physical skill as an adult, the large majority of people who practice recreational sports after the age of 30 practiced when they were children.

All of this is important because most American adults do not follow public health guidelines that recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise per week, which can impact everything from heart health to cognition. Of course, exercise can look very different in adulthood than in childhood: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say adults can accomplish these goals by brisk walking, biking, or even mowing the lawn.

3. Children who play sports may be less likely to feel lonely, even as adults.

Participation in team sports in particular has been linked to a stronger sense of self and connection, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The team environment provides a framework for athletes to socialize, identify with their peers, and engage in personal growth and development,” the AAP saysnoting that children who participate in sports tend to score higher on measures of global social functioning.

And these potential benefits extend into adulthood. A study found, for example, that children who played sports in grade 10 reported less social isolation as adults. That may be because playing sports as a child gives kids plenty of opportunities to work on communication, conflict resolution and even empathy, according to the AAP. Adaptive Sports Research – recreational sports for people with disabilities – also showed powerful social benefits, with 80% of study participants (most of whom were children) saying athletics had positively improved their social lives.

Of course, sport is not magic. The AAP points out that there are very real risks of burnout, as well as hazing or bullying and risk-taking behaviors within the team as children get older. But when they play a sport they really love, with teammates who help them learn compromise and connection, kids can develop social skills that will help them throughout their lives.

“Children who play sports learn to navigate team relationships and work together, take turns and focus on a common goal, which are particularly important skills that can translate into academics and even l work environment over the years,” said Playforth.

4. Kids who play sports are better at managing time.

Time management is an essential skill throughout life, a skill that has become increasingly important with so many demands on our collective time.

And according to a 2020 report of the Presidential Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, children who participate in sports have improved time management skills compared to those who do not. It makes sense – kids need to learn early to balance practices, school, friends, and family with their need for downtime.

Keep in mind: the greatest benefits for children come when they are having fun.

Despite the popularity of sport in early childhood, 70% of children quit by the time they are 13, according to the National Youth Sports Alliance. Their main reason for throwing in the towel is that it just isn’t fun anymore.

If your child wants to stop playing sports, think about why. (Is it hurting them? Are they playing for themselves or for you? This piece has some good questions to consider.) Also remember: Health experts are really suspicious young children (like 10 and under) focusing exclusively on one sport. It can cause exhaustion and physical injury due to the overuse of certain muscles and bones.

If your child just doesn’t seem to like organized sports at all, that’s okay. Try to find a league or class that is really low-key, and remember that there are many other ways to harness the physical and emotional benefits the sport offers. Free game can be a powerful thing. Give kids plenty of opportunities to run, bike, shoot hoops, hike, dance – whatever your child gravitates towards – informally. The goal is to find something they find really fun and exciting – and hopefully they’ll learn a thing or two along the way.


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Richard V. Johnson