A recent study has found that kids enjoy better overall mental health playing team sports and are less likely to experience depression, anxiety, or social withdrawal. Dr. Sue Varma, a board-certified psychiatrist who works with children, suggests the reason for better mental health for kids playing team sports includes “gaining a sense of community, a sense of cohesion…social skills are better…and you are relying on other people for your success.” While all of these benefits are great, these experiences do not happen passively but instead occur when the adults who run youth sports commit themselves to creating a safe, fun, and meaningful sport experience built upon sportsmanship, development, and growth — not just winning.
Adults make — or break — the youth sport experience
While it is nice to see a study support the value of team sports as they apply to kids and their mental health, a variable that seems to have been overlooked is the quality of adult leadership overseeing youth sports. Whether it is team sports or individual sports, the outcomes of youth sports are dependent on adults committed to safe, fun, and meaningful experience. Adults committed to providing kids a great youth sport experience achieve this outcome through dedication, support, and empathy — regardless whether it is individual or team youth sports. Conversely, adults can also create unnecessary problems when too much emphasis is placed on winning, sports feel more like a job than they do fun, and sportsmanship is disregarded. So the question of what type of sports, individual or team, provide for the most optimal youth sport experience may actually be more dependent on adult leadership than type of sport.
Take an audit of your child’s league
So how does your child’s sport league grade out when evaluating for the impact on kid’s and their mental health? Are the kids enjoying the experience and having fun, or regularly stressed because of tough coaching, angry parents, and the inability to find quality sport officials? Youth sports are inherently fun, and the experience can be meaningful as well but that only occurs when we pay attention to the following concerns:
- Parents with unrealistic expectations. It is important that parents guide their kids in youth sports so that the experience and life skills development are emphasized, while pressures to get a D-1 scholarship are tamped down. Youth sports are not mini-professional sports, and expectations for elite coaching expertise and perfect officiating need to be reduced accordingly.
- Coaches who push too hard. Similar to parents having expectations that are realistic, coaches need to do this, too. Emphasis should be on fun, learning new skills, developing social relations with teammates and developing stress and resiliency skills for when faced with adversity.
- Lack of quality officials. We are facing a national shortage as it applies to youth sport officials, and this is a very important aspect of healthy youth sports. Good officials are supportive, safety-conscious, and maintain a healthy consistency and fairness for all competitors. When we lose these officials, we are left with a greater chance for cancelled games, or adult replacements who are not equipped to manage games as well as dedicated and trained officials do.
- Little emphasis on sportsmanship. Sportsmanship is more than just shaking hands after the game, it also includes training/playing with integrity, obeying all rules, and accepting the outcomes of games regardless who wins or loses. Positive youth sport leagues consider sportsmanship a foundational component to a healthy sports league, and regularly message about teaching kids these important lessons and values.
While a recent study has found team sports to be advantageous toward kids improved mental health, it is important to note that quality adult oversight might be an even more important variable, regardless of whether it is team or individual youth sports. When we inspire kids, support them through tough times, and empathize with the unique pressures that they face, we can in turn provide the best youth sport experiences possible. On the other hand, when we place too much value on winning at any cost, disregard potentially dangerous situations, and belittle referees at every turn, kids are the ones who lose out on what would have been a great life experience.