A group of children laughing together on a basketball court.

How Kids Benefit From Getting Their Heads in the Game

With a brighter spotlight shining on kids' mental health, new research suggests that team sports can ward off anxiety, depression and social problems.


Team sports are a great way for children to improve their physical health, and according to a new study, they may have psychological benefits as well. The research showed that children between the ages of 9 and 13 who participated in team sports were less likely to experience anxiety, depression, and social problems than their peers.

The study included contributions from scientists at the University of Ottawa and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, and was published in PLOS ONE.

Studies have shown that sports are beneficial in everything from physical health to behavioural issues for children and adolescents. But when it comes to mental health, are certain sports more beneficial than others? This is the question that the team behind the study set out to investigate.

To learn more, the researchers surveyed parents and guardians of more than 10,000 children between the ages of 9 and 13. The parents and guardians were asked about their children’s hobbies as well as their emotional and behavioural development.

Of the children surveyed, about one third didn’t participate in any sports at all. Another 30% of the children participated in team sports, while 21% participated in individual sports (for example, swimming or gymnastics).

The researchers found that children who participated in team sports reported lower levels of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, social problems, and attention problems than children who participated in individual sports or no sports at all. In particular, these children were 10% less likely to be anxious or depressed, and nearly 20% less likely to exhibit social problems.

Surprisingly, the researchers also found that children who only participated in individual sports had higher levels of mental health issues than children who didn’t participate in sports at all. These children were 16% more likely to experience anxiety and depression, and 12% more likely to experience social problems, than their peers.

The researchers believe that the pressure of having to perform individually may be contributing to these high levels of mental health issues. Rather than having teammates to rely on, children who participate in individual sports often do so alone.

“One can certainly appreciate how assuming all responsibility for sport-related failures could contribute to decreased mental well-being,” the authors said.

This study highlights the positive impact that team sports can have on children’s mental health. When organizing team sports for children, however, it’s important to keep in mind ways to prevent children from feeling left out.

We also need to make sure that team sports are affordable and accessible for all children across Canada. Organizations like KidSport Canada provide grants for sports-related costs to make sure that all Canadian children can participate.

For parents and guardians of children who are interested in individual sports, this study is a reminder to keep an eye on their children’s mental health. Many children don’t know the warning signs of mental health issues, so it’s important for parents and guardians to teach them when and how to seek help.

Coaches of individual sports can also do their part to make sure that athletes are supported. The benefits of any type of physical activity for children, whether team-based or individual, are huge. To make sure that individual athletes get these physical benefits while maintaining their mental health, coaches can give these athletes frequent positive reinforcement. They could also consider having athletes train together even if they won’t be competing together.

Canadian children are at a greater risk of mental health issues than ever before. Providing children with access to safe and inclusive team sports is a great way to address these issues, while also promoting children’s physical health.

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.