Playing Team Sports Could Mean Fewer Mental Health Issues in Children

Children working together to score a goal in soccer

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Key Takeaways

  • Playing team sports benefits the mental health of children and adolescents, according to a new survey.
  • This might be a combination of the social benefits of team sports and the benefits of exercise more generally.
  • However, playing individual sports can have the opposite effect, making mental health worse.

A new study has suggested that participating in team sports can benefit the mental health of children and young people more than playing individual sports, or no sports at all.

The research found that participation in team sports was associated with 10% lower anxious/depressed scores and 19% lower withdrawn/depressed scores than non-participation in any sports.

However, participation in individual sports was associated with 16% higher anxious/depressed scores and 14% higher withdrawn/depressed scores than non-participation.

A total of 11,235 children aged from 9 to 13 took part in the study. Parents and caregivers offered self-reports of their child’s mental health using the Child Behavior Checklist—this data was taken from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study.

Why Team Sports Benefit Mental Health

An earlier study supports the idea that participating in team sports can be beneficial to mental health; it found that participation in team sports had a positive effect on the mental health of adults who had adverse childhood experiences—it's not just children and adolescents who can benefit.

This might not be entirely surprising—the links between exercise and better mental health have been well-documented.

Exercise increases blood circulation to the brain and helps in the growth of new neurons in some areas of the brain, something that’s thought to help boost mental health.

“Youth participation in sports is associated with multiple benefits to health, both physically and mentally, and confers wide-ranging impacts that are not limited to decreased risk of obesity, prevention of chronic disease, scholastic and cognitive benefits, and increased positive adolescent behaviors," explains Emily Pluhar, PhD, child and adolescent psychologist at Harvard Medical School.

"It also helps in decreasing risk of participation in activities that can negatively impact health and well-being,” she says.

Team sports—and exercise more generally—can both help people already living with mental health conditions as well as improve the mental health and well-being of people who already feel as if their mental health is in a good place.

From lowering stress hormones to boosting confidence and even improving sleep, exercise can help to maintain good mental health.

Team Sports vs. Individual Sports

While the evidence supports team sports being beneficial for the mental health of young people, the fact that participation in individual sports appears to be linked to poorer mental health is perhaps more surprising. However, there could be a few different explanations for this.

One study found that whereas those participating in team sports tended to play them for fun, those participating in individual sports were more likely to play them for goal-oriented reasons.

While nervousness before a competition or game is normal and manageable, this might mean that they’re more likely to put pressure on themselves to achieve, something that, when taken to extremes, can impact mental health and really stress young people out.

This might also be because individual sports lack the camaraderie and sense of belonging of a team sport.

Emily Pluhar, PhD

Youth participation in sports is associated with multiple benefits to health, both physically and mentally...It also helps in decreasing risk of participation in activities that can negatively impact health and well-being.

— Emily Pluhar, PhD

For children and young people, playing team sports helps them develop valuable social skills and learn how to be part of a group.

While there are arguments in favor of individual sports—that it encourages concentration, mental strength, and self-reliance—losing can result in feelings of shame or guilt.

Neil Hardy, learning and development lead at High Speed Training, describes team sports as being a "really important aspect of building connections with others."

"Children that participate in sports will connect and collaborate with a variety of people, including coaches and mentors. There are many small and brilliant things that happen in team sports, such as building friendships, support networks, resilience, and self-esteem," he explains.

When Team Sports Are Less Effective

There are undeniable benefits to playing team sports for children, but there are always going to be exceptions too.

Team sports might foster a greater sense of belonging in children and young people, but what about those children who might feel left out? Or children who feel excluded from team sports, for whatever reason, to begin with?

Some children might bully or ostracize teammates, perhaps if their performances don’t meet a standard they deem as acceptable, or a child or young person might be put off from taking part in team sports in the first place—perhaps due to a lack of confidence or concerns that they won’t fit in.

Neil Hardy

The child's needs and wishes should always be considered. Pushing a child into team sports without their agreement is unlikely to yield a successful outcome.

— Neil Hardy

For some young people, individual sports might be a better fit, and playing an individual sport can still have benefits. While playing team sports might seem to be more beneficial for mental health, it won’t be right for everyone.

When it comes to children deciding on the sports they want to play, parents and caregivers should keep an open mind.

"The child’s needs and wishes should always be considered. Pushing a child into team sports without their agreement is unlikely to yield a successful outcome for either party," says Hardy. 

There are a lot of sports and physical activities out there, all with their own benefits, and while the benefits of team sports are clear, individual sports shouldn’t be discounted either.

Hardy finishes, "With the right support and an awareness of every child’s needs, participation in sports can be an excellent way to support children’s physical and mental health, social skills, and self-esteem."

What This Means For You

Everyone can benefit from exercise and playing a sport, both physically and mentally. However, different people will enjoy different sports, and your child may want to try multiple sports before finding one that works out. If your child does play a sport, be it team or individual, encourage them not to put excessive pressure on themselves or their teammates.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Easterlin MC, Chung PJ, Leng M, Dudovitz R. Association of team sports participation with long-term mental health outcomes among individuals exposed to adverse childhood experiencesJAMA Pediatr. 2019;173(7):681-688. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1212

  3. Thomas BP, Tarumi T, Sheng M, et al. Brain perfusion change in patients with mild cognitive impairment after 12 months of aerobic exercise training. de la Torre J, ed. JAD. 2020;75(2):617-631. doi:10.3233/JAD-190977

  4. Anderson E, Shivakumar G. Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxietyFront Psychiatry. 2013;4. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027

  5. Pluhar E, McCracken C, Griffith KL, Christino MA, Sugimoto D, Meehan WP. Team sport athletes may be less likely to suffer anxiety or depression than individual sport athletesJ Sports Sci Med. 2019;18(3):490-496.

  6. Marracho P, Pereira AMA, Nery MVDG, Rosado AFB, Coelho EMRTDC. Is young athletes’ bullying behaviour different in team, combat or individual sports? Motricidade. 2021;17(1):70-78. doi:10.6063/motricidade.21129