An estimated 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% of high school 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 at their sport.
“Sport for children has many developmental benefits that go beyond the benefits of actual physical exercise,” pediatrician Dr. Krupa Playforth told 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, domestic dysfunction, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse — were less likely to have struggled with depression or anxiety during of their lives if they had also participated in sports, and were less likely to show symptoms of depression as adults. The authors concluded that team sports appear to be a truly “significant” “resilience builder”.
The anecdotal data from the pandemic certainly confirms this. A survey of parents found nearly half said their children’s mental health improved when COVID-related restrictions on sports 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 enjoying physical activity more, which helps them prepare for physical activity throughout life. of their life. Also, while it’s certainly possible to learn a new sport or physical skill as an adult, the vast majority of people who play recreational sports after age 30 have done so when they were children.
All of this matters because most American adults are falling short of public health guidelines that recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week, which can impact everything from heart health to cognition. . Of course, exercise can be very different in adulthood and in childhood: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say adults can achieve 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.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, participation in team sports in particular has been linked to a stronger sense of self and connection.
“The team environment provides a framework for athletes to bond socially, identify with their peers, and engage in personal growth and development,” says the AAP, noting that children who participate in sports tend to score higher on measures of overall social functioning.
And these potential benefits extend into adulthood. One study found, for example, that children who played sports in 10th grade 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. Research focusing on adaptive sports – recreational sports for people with disabilities – has also shown powerful social benefits, with 80% of study participants (most of whom were children) saying athletics had positively improved their lives. social.
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 from the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Science Board, kids who play sports have improved time management skills compared to those who don’t. 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 early childhood sports, 70% of children drop out before the age of 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 great questions to consider.) Also remember: health experts are very suspicious of young people. children (like 10 and under) who focus 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 play 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.