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Children and adolescents who participated in team sports in the United States have fewer mental health difficulties compared to kids who did not participate in organized sports, but children who participated only in individual sports had worse mental health outcomes compared to those who don’t play any sports, according to a recent study published in the open-access journal Plos One.

The researchers analyzed self-reported data from parents or guardians regarding their children’s mental health difficulties using the Child Behavior Checklist.

They categorized the 11,235 participants, who were 9 to 13 years old, in four groups based on their participation in organized sports, which were: 1) team sport, 2) individual and team sport, 3) individual sport and 4) non-sport participation.

WILLIAMSPORT, PENNSYLVANIA – AUGUST 29: Team Michigan players sit outside the dugout before the 2021 Little League World Series game against Team Ohio at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on August 29, 2021, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. 
(Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images)

Examples of team sports were volleyball, soccer, basketball, while examples of individual sports were gymnastics, tennis and wrestling.

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Previous research suggests participation in organized sports can protect against mental health difficulties, but other studies have linked sports participation to worse mental health outcomes.

The purpose of the study was to delve more into the association between participation in organized sport and mental health difficulties among children and adolescents in the United States.

The study controlled for several potential confounding variables, including age, sex, race/ethnicity and family household income as well as overall physical activity levels.

The researchers found children who participated in team sports compared to those who didn’t participate in any sports were less likely to have signs of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, social or attention problems, which was consistent with their hypothesis.

WILLIAMSPORT, PENNSYLVANIA - AUGUST 29: Team Ohio players watch from the dugout in the fifth inning of the 2021 Little League World Series against Team Michigan at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on August 29, 2021, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. 

WILLIAMSPORT, PENNSYLVANIA – AUGUST 29: Team Ohio players watch from the dugout in the fifth inning of the 2021 Little League World Series against Team Michigan at Howard J. Lamade Stadium on August 29, 2021, in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. 
(Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images)

The female participants who had participated in both team and individual sports had a decreased likelihood of rule-breaking behavior than non-sports participants.

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But they were surprised by one result.

“Children and adolescents who played exclusively team sports, like basketball or soccer, had fewer mental health difficulties than those who did not participate in any organized sports. However, to our surprise, youth who participated in only individual sports, such as gymnastics or tennis, had more mental health difficulties compared to those who did not participate in organized sports,” the study said.

“The findings complement previous research suggesting that team sport participation may be a vehicle to support child and adolescent mental health,” the researchers added.

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The cross-sectional design of the study does not allow the study to make a causal link between the relationship between participation in organized sports and mental health difficulties.

Dublin , Ireland - 4 June 2022; Seán Cronin of Leinster with his children Finn, Cillian and Saoirse in the team huddle after their side's victory in the United Rugby Championship Quarter-Final match between Leinster and Glasgow Warriors at RDS Arena in Dublin.

Dublin , Ireland – 4 June 2022; Seán Cronin of Leinster with his children Finn, Cillian and Saoirse in the team huddle after their side’s victory in the United Rugby Championship Quarter-Final match between Leinster and Glasgow Warriors at RDS Arena in Dublin.
(Photo By Harry Murphy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

So the results do not mean participation in team sports improves children and adolescent’s mental health or that mental health scores can predict if a child will be more or less likely to participate in different types of sports.

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“Additional research is needed to determine to what extent, and under what circumstances, participation in individual sport may be problematic for younger cohorts,” the researchers concluded.

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