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Study Shows Playing Youth Sports Makes Happier Adults

Study Shows Playing Youth Sports Makes Happier Adults


A new study published in the Sociology of Sport Journal has considered the long-term mental health implications of organized youth sports participation and has concluded that adults who’d continually played organized youth sporting activities display fewer depressive and anxious symptoms when compared with those who’d never played at all, or those who played for a little while but later dropped out. It’s an important finding that seems to support the traditional view that youth sports are ‘character building’ and will help us to develop into more resilient adults. There are considerations, however.

How was the study carried out?

Data for the study was taken from the 2018-19 National Sports and Society Survey (NSASS), a resource that provides detailed sports and societal information from a large sample of U.S. adults. Within that NSASS data are the accounts of each subjects’ sports participation experiences while growing up. A such, the respondents were broken down into three groups:

  • Played organised youth sports continually until the age of 18 (24.02%)
  • Played organised youth sports for a time and then dropped out completely (41.25%)
  • Never played organised youth sports (35.03%)
Young child playing youth soccer
Mikkel Bigandt

How does organised youth sport participation predict mental health in adults?

The group that played youth sports continually until the age of 18 reported fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than either of the other groups. Interestingly, those who dropped out went on to develop poorer mental health outcomes than those that had never played at all. Experts believe that an explanation for this may be due to a bad experience in sports leading to self-confidence issues.

The ability for mental health issues to develop out of a sporting environment are certainly well documented and a shocking 7.8% of survey participants reported that they had been abused by a coach. Still, of those that dropped out of youth sports, the individuals that fared best were the ones that quit sports primarily to focus on their grades.

“Our results revealed a number of key findings,” explained the study authors. “First, we found that playing organized sport continually up until age 18 (i.e., not dropping out) was associated with the most favorable mental health outcomes, relative to both not playing organized sports at all as well as to playing but then dropping out.”

Scientists feel that while many youth sports setups are structurally or politically flawed, there are often important rewards to be had from sticking it out.

“It seems that the longer an individual is exposed to a typical sporting environment, the more likely they are to experience repeatedly encouraging environments, and are urged to develop habits, that are conducive to long-term mental well-being such as commitments to regular exercise and opportunities and abilities to collaborate with others,” continued the experts. “When sporting environments offer positive experiences, longer durations of exposure to sport appear to work in a cumulative fashion and can lead to mental health benefits that occur even decades down the road.”



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