4 Powerful Benefits Of Kids' Sports (That Have Nothing To Do With The Sport Itself)

Reality check: Your kid probably won't ever be a top athlete. But they're building some surprising skills they may keep for life.
Kids can benefit from organized athletics, even if they don’t excel at their sport.
Peter Muller via Getty Images
Kids can benefit from organized athletics, even if they don’t excel at their sport.

An estimated 60 million American children take part in organized sports every year, and nearly 8 million play for their high school teams. Among those, few go on to play in college. For example, 93% to 95% of high school soccer players don’t do the sport at the college level. The odds of becoming an Olympian are more like 1 in 500,000.

Those kinds of numbers are a potent reminder to families that playing at the highest levels should probably not be the end goal for most children who participate in organized athletics. But kids can benefit, even if they don’t really excel at their sport.

“There are many developmental benefits to sports for children that extend beyond the benefits of actual physical exercise,” pediatrician Dr. Krupa Playforth told HuffPost. Here is a look at four powerful ways kids benefit from sports.

1. Playing sports can lower children’s risk of depression and anxiety risk throughout their lifetime.

“Regular exercise in children (or anyone) [can] translate into better mental health, which is particularly pertinent with today’s challenges,” Playforth said.

Indeed, there’s definitely plenty of evidence that exercise can ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Studies suggest that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants as a first-line therapy for some people with mild to moderate symptoms.

But there’s also a lot of research looking at the specific benefits of sports for children’s mental health. A 2019 study found that children who had been through traumatic experiences — like neglect, household dysfunction, or physical, sexual or emotional abuse — were less likely to have grappled with depression or anxiety during their lives if they’d also participated in sports, and were less likely to be experiencing symptoms of depression in adulthood. The authors concluded that team sports appear to be a really “important” “resilience builder.”

Anecdotal data from the pandemic certainly bears that out. One survey of parents found that nearly half said their children’s mental health improved when COVID-related restrictions on sports were lifted.

2. Playing a sport as a child can help foster a lifelong love of movement.

Playing sports certainly offers kids physical benefits in the moment, including helping them improve cardiovascular health and work on things like dexterity and coordination. But athletics may have an even more powerful role to play in children’s lives in the long run.

Researchers have found that kids who engage in a range of physical activities — from team sports to weightlifting — end up enjoying physical activity more, which helps set them up to enjoy physical activity throughout their lives. Also, while it’s certainly possible to learn a new sport or physical skill in adulthood, the vast majority of people who play recreational sports after the age of 30 played when they were kids.

All of that is important, because most American adults fall short of public health guidelines that recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise per week, which can have an impact on everything from heart health to cognition. Of course, exercise can look very different in adulthood than it does in childhood: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say adults can hit those goals by taking brisk walks, riding a bike or even mowing the lawn.

3. Kids who play sports may be less likely to be lonely — even as adults.

Participating in team sports in particular has been tied to stronger sense of self and connection, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The team environment provides a setting for athletes to bond socially, identify with peers, and engage in personal growth and development,” the AAP says, noting that kids who play sports tend to score higher on measures of overall social functioning.

And those potential benefits extend into adulthood. One study found, for example, that children who played sports in 10th grade reported less social isolation in adulthood. That may be because playing sports in childhood gives kids lots of opportunities to work on communication, conflict resolution and even empathy, the AAP says. Research focusing on adaptive sports — recreational sports for people with disabilities — have shown powerful social benefits too, with 80% of participants in one study (most of whom were children) saying that athletics had positively improved their social life.

Of course, sports are not magic. The AAP points out that there are very real risks of burnout, as well as of hazing or bullying and risk-taking behaviors within the team setting as kids get older. But when they’re taking part in a sport they really enjoy, with teammates who help them learn about compromise and connection, children can develop social skills that help them throughout their lives.

“Children who play sports learn how to navigate team relationships and work together, take turns, and focus on a joint goal, which are especially important skills that can translate into academics and even the workplace environment over the years,” Playforth said.

4. Kids who play sports are better at time management.

Time management is an essential lifelong skill, one that has become increasingly important with so many demands on our collective time.

And according to a 2020 report from the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition Science Board, children who play sports have improved time management skills compared to those who don’t. It makes sense — kids have to learn early on how to balance practices, school, friends and family with their need for downtime.

Keep in mind: The biggest benefits for kids come when they’re having fun.

Despite the popularity of sports in early childhood, 70% of children quit by the time they’re 13, according to the National Alliance for Youth Sports. Their top reason for throwing in the towel is that it simply isn’t fun anymore.

If your child wants to quit sports, do some self-reflection on why. (Is it doing them harm? Are they playing for themselves, or for you? This piece has some great questions to consider.) Also remember: Health experts are really wary of young kids (like 10 and under) focusing exclusively one one sport. It can cause burnout and physical injury due to overuse of certain muscles and bones.

If your kiddo simply doesn’t seem to be into organized sports at all, that’s OK. Try to find a league or class that’s really low-key, and remember there are plenty of other ways to tap into the physical and emotional benefits that sports offer. Free play can be a powerful thing. Give kids plenty of opportunities to run, ride bikes, shoot hoops, hike, dance — whatever your kid gravitates toward — in an informal way. The goal is to find something they find really fun and exciting — and hopefully they’ll learn a thing or two along the way.

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