How Youth Sports Helps Kids

How Youth Sports Can Help Shield Every Kid—for Life

A National Youth Sports Strategy to increase physical activity among America’s kids is slated to come out of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) this month—and it can’t come too soon.

The reasons that our kids should participate in sports are many—from boosting cardiovascular health, to  helping them develop self-control, to the positive impact that exercise has on academic performanceBut today, the most pressing reason to encourage sports participation among our youth is their mental health.Our kids are struggling—and the data isn’t looking good.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death for America’s youth—spanning the precious ages of 10 to 24. The number of suicides for 10- to 14-year-olds has more than doubled since 2006. And every day, on average, 30,041 high schoolers—grades 9 to 12—try to end their lives. 

Overall, more U.S. adolescents and young adults are experiencing serious psychological distress, major depression, and suicidal thoughts—and more have attempted suicide and taken their own lives, a recent study revealsResearchers—who compared data from the late 2010s and mid-2000s—believe there’s been a generational shift in mood disorders and suicide-related outcomes. These trends are weak or nonexistent among adults 26 years and older, they say.

The numbers attached to the study are even more unsettling. In the years between 2005 and 2017, there was a 52% increase in 12- to 17-year-olds experiencing symptoms of major depression. Worse yet, between 2008 and 2017, suicides among 18- to 19-year-olds jumped 56%, suicide attempts among 20- and 21-year-olds increased 87%—and there was a 108% surge in 22- and 23-year-olds attempting to take their own lives.

Mental health and what influences it is extremely complicated and multifaceted. And much of what feeds—or strains—the mental and emotional well-being of our youth is deeply entrenched in genetics, culture, environment, experiences and issues of the day.

But exercise is at least one powerful shield—and fortifier—of mental health to which all children, adolescents and young adults should have access. In a world that often feels outside of our control, as a society, we do have the means to provide to our young people the opportunity, resources and support for regular physical activity.

A compelling lineup of research links exercise to resilience, the ability to cope with stress, and emotional health. One meta-analysis of 33 clinical trials found that resistance exercise training—weight lifting—was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. Another found that physically active adults had fewer days of poor mental health—especially those who participate in team sports. Still more research shows physical inactivity as a risk factor for depression and anxiety.

Researchers from the University of Vermont Medical Center have even gone as far as suggesting that mental health facilities have gyms onsite and that health providers prescribe exercise before psychiatric medications.

Of greatest relevance, perhaps, are the findings released just last month that team sports provide the greatest mental health benefits of any other extracurricular activity, including individual sports. The researchers—who looked at the impact of exercise on kids in the fourth and seventh grades—believe the sense of peer belonging fostered by team sports is what gives it the added edge over other forms of exercise.

What’s more, researchers found that higher levels of sport and physical activity were associated with more positive mental health in undergraduate college students, with Division I athletes experiencing the highest scores. Not surprisingly, as physical activity levels dropped, so did the mental health scores, with the lowest among the physically inactive students. Campuses can raise the overall mental health of students by promoting physical activity, the researchers believe.

Yet, the number of 6- to 12-year-olds regularly playing team sports has fallen to 38%―down from 45% a decade ago.

The science on exercise and the positive impact that team sports can have on youth of all ages is clear. The challenge is accessibility.

All youth of all socioeconomic backgrounds, living in all parts of the country, and of all physical abilities and skill levels need easy opportunity for participating in team sports. That means eliminating barriers like pay-to-play and reining in the hypercompetitiveness that has come to dominate youth sports—stripping them of the inherent fun and eliminating any openings for those who’ll never be on the sports scholarship track.

Almost 3 out of 4 kids (70%) drop out of team sports by the time they’re 13—because it’s no longer fun. We need to rethink how we can use team sports to bolster the mental health and well-being of our children—because, really, the greatest benefit that team sports offer is their capacity to help prepare our youth for managing all that life will throw their way.

Very soon, HHS will unveil the National Youth Sports Strategy. Chances are, the timing had nothing to do with September being National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month—but it is apt.

I look forward to what HHS has to say. But regardless, each of us needs to come up with solutions—in our own backyards, neighborhoods and communities—for how we can make every kid a welcome, participating and confident part of the team.

We owe them that.