By Ken Reed

A new study reveals that kids who only play individual sports tend to have more mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, than peers who participate in team sports exclusively or play no sports at all. Moreover, children who only play team sports also have fewer mental health challenges than peers who don’t play sports at all. In addition, the study revealed that kids who participated in both team and individual sports were no more or less likely than those who abstained from sports altogether to have mental health challenges. The study was published in PLoS ONE.

The findings are based on a data base of 11,000 kids, ages 9 to 13, from across the United States. Matt Hoffman, the study’s lead author and a sports psychologist at California State University, Fullerton, says the study shouldn’t lead to parents discouraging kids from playing individual sports. But he says it should encourage parents of kids that only participate in sports like swimming, tennis, wrestling, golf, track and gymnastics to be aware that their child’s sports experience might be causing excess stress and anxiety. He suggests parents of individual sport athletes regularly check in with their young athletes to make sure they are enjoying their sports experience and that their stress levels are reasonable.

It’s important that individual sport athletes focus on development and enjoyment and not exclusively on winning or meeting certain performance standards, according to Rochelle Eime, a behavioral epidemiologist at Victoria University in Australia.

“Individual sports tend to be judgement-based, weight-focused, often appearance-heightened sports that heighten social comparison, competitiveness, and individual striving,” says Catherine Sabiston, a sports psychologist at the University of Toronto, who wasn’t involved in the study. “There is no one to ‘blame’ or ’thank’ other than yourself, and the pressure to perform is heightened.”

Hoffman says a good strategy for parents is to encourage participation in a broad range of activities — sports and non-sports — and to discourage specialization in a single sport at an early age.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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