Participation in sports isn’t just about developing athletic skills. According to a new study by faculty at l’Université de Montréal, healthy competition, teamwork and structured activity has a protective effect on mental health by helping children develop well-rounded social and emotional skills.
According to study co-author Linda Pagani, a professor in the school of psychoeducation, although the findings of the study may seem obvious to parents who have seen first-hand the positive effects of participation in sports, previous research on the subject was not robust enough to make a convincing case that these effects weren’t related to other factors such as child temperament, family income, or other influences. “It’s the business of science to test these intuitions parents have,” Pagani said.
Published in the May issue of Pediatric Research, the study revealed that the children between the ages of 6 and 10 who participated consistently in structured sports facilitated by an instructor or coach were less likely to demonstrate difficulty managing social and emotional stress in class as tweens. The study controlled for pre-existing individual and family characteristics that would offer alternative explanations for the children’s behaviour.
“We’re wired to be interactive with people,” Pagani said. “We’re like elephants. We are a pack animal. This study shows that participation in sports in childhood in a consistent way leads to less anxiety in different forms.”
The study’s conclusions are based on an examination of the data from a cohort of children born in 1997 or 1998 who are part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Child Development coordinated by the Institut de la Statistique du Québec.
From ages 6 to 10, mothers reported whether their child participated in organized physical activity. At age 12, teachers reported on the child’s levels of emotional distress, anxiety, shyness, and social withdrawal at school. The study found children who engage in organized physical activity at a young age are less likely to have emotional difficulties by the time they turn 12.
Pagani and her team were able to control for variables that could have provided alternative explanations for the data such as temperament, family income, family size, maternal depression, child BMI, eating habits, and mental health before they participated in sports.