Team sports better for kids’ mental health than playing alone

Social sports, but not solo sports, may help kids avoid mental health issues.

Not only is sport good for our physical health, we know it also benefits our mental wellbeing. But a new study has found that some sports are better than others: those who participate in team sports are less likely to experience mental health difficulties, compared to kids exclusively involved in individual sports.

Parents of over 11,000 children and adolescents (aged 9-13) in the United States provided assessments on their sports habits and mental health measures. The results reveal that kids playing in teams were less likely to show signs of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, attention issues or social problems. The kids playing individual sports, like tennis or wrestling, showed greater signs of mental health issues – even more than children who played no sport at all.

Participation in team sports may help mitigate the development of mental health issues through positive social interactions. Humans are social creatures, and in general, require regular social interaction for mental wellbeing – just look at the impacts that COVID-19 isolation have brought on. It may be that the children who compete in team sports experience closeness and cohesion with their teammates, which may be beneficial for their mental health and development of social skills. This may also be why playing sport alone does not produce the same benefits as team sport, as it’s missing this social component.

Biological sex revealed little differences among all the groups, except that females who played both team and individual sports both had a lower likelihood of rule-breaking behaviour than females who played no sport.

The findings show that playing team sports is positively associated with better mental health for children and adolescents. Further research could clarify the relationships between playing alone and mental health difficulties, and whether this may just be a consequence of people already socially isolated preferring solo sports over playing in a team.

Children can still enjoy solo sports like running or yoga, but inviting a friend along could have an added health benefit, as well as being more fun.

This research has been published in PLOS ONE.

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah

Qamariya Nasrullah holds a PhD in evolutionary development from Monash University and an Honours degree in palaeontology from Flinders University.

Read science facts, not fiction...

There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.