Head Games: Psychiatric Disorders and Youth Sports

For youth, the relationship between sports participation, genetic risk for psychiatric disorders, and problematic behaviours is a complex one.


Can sports participation during childhood reduce behavioural issues and psychopathology in youth?

Various studies have highlighted the positive influence that physical activity patterns have on a child’s behaviour, mental health, and brain development. However, the effects of certain sport types on childhood behavioural development remain nuanced. For example, one study found that youth who play contact sports were more likely to show problematic behaviours.

Taking this into account, and considering the role that genetics plays in youth psychopathology, a new study aimed to assess the intricate relationship between sports participation, genetic risk for neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders, and problematic behaviours in a large sample of youth. This research study was led by Research Analyst Melissa C Misztal from the Krembil Centre for Neuroinformatics at CAMH in Toronto and was published in Psychiatry Research.

The study analyzed nearly 5,000 individuals aged 9 to 10 years from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development study. The authors analyzed the participants’ genetics and sports participation (frequency and type of sport) as well as their behavioural scores across two visits.

Polygenic risk scores for 21 neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders were computed using the participants’ genetics. For more information on how polygenic risk scores are generated, see our previous R2R post on this topic.

The Body Keeps the (Polygenic) Score

Cross-sectional analyses revealed that polygenic risk scores for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and major depression disorder were linked to increased rule-breaking behaviour, attention problems, and various other behavioural issues.

Different sports showed distinct associations: non-contact and team sports were correlated with reduced problematic behaviours, whereas contact sports were linked with increased attention problems and rule-breaking tendencies.

High sports frequency was correlated with decreased internal problems such as social difficulties and low self-esteem. Additionally, greater sports participation was associated with decreased rule-breaking behaviour in individuals with a genetic risk for obsessive and compulsive disorder (OCD). In other words, the more time children spent participating in sports, the greater the benefits.

Longitudinal findings indicated that non-contact sports were linked to reduced withdrawn and depressed symptoms over time, while increased sports involvement corresponded to continual improvements in these symptoms.

This study underscores the complex relationship between nature (genetics) and nurture (sports participation) in shaping behaviour during a child’s formative years. Understanding these dynamics is pivotal for designing effective preventative measures for youth at risk of various neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders.

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Alexandria (Alex) Samson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto. She completed her BSc in Neuroscience from Dalhousie University. Alex is a strong believer in open science and is passionate about making scientific research accessible to all audiences.