It turns out that generation after generation of parents, coaches, and gym teachers alike have been right all along: playing team sports really is good for you, and especially when you’re at a young age. These are the key findings of a major study that, through meta-analysis and systematic review of multiple previous studies, has drawn clear conclusions about the benefits of playing team sports, and especially when the athletes in question are young.
Playing team sports is shown to be good for physical health, for improving social skills, and also to provide myriad mental and emotional health benefits for each person on the team.
The Scope of the Team Sports Benefits Study
The scientific study in question, shared by the National Institutes of Health and titled “The behavioral, psychological, and social impacts of team sports: a systematic review and meta-analysis,” was audacious indeed. The researchers and looked at approximately three dozen studies sourced from 10 nations spread across four continents and spanning many decades. The timeframe of the studies considered dates all the way back to 1950 and ran up until as recently as the year 2020, and the subjects in question were athletes under the age of 25.
Such a truly longitudinal study allowed for the control of many factors, thus the data gleaned is more reliable. And indeed, many of the findings were pleasantly surprising, as well.
Playing team sports improves mental health
The researchers found, unequivocally, that involvement in team sports is a net positive for mental and emotional well-being for young people.
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Those youths who were involved in team sports were found to have lower instances of depression and anxiety, they showed fewer instances of anorexia, and the team sport athletes expressed lower rates of suicidal ideation than peers who did not participate in team sporting activities.
Team sports involvement reduces the likelihood of self-destructive behaviors
Young athletes who are regularly involved in team sports tend to be more averse to risky, potentially dangerous or damaging behaviors than those of similar ages who were unaffiliated with any teams. The study found young team players (so to speak) were less likely to use tobacco, were less prone to use alcohol or illicit drugs, and were less likely to engage in delinquent or even criminal behavior.
Team sports can motivate you to get (and stay) fit
Playing team sports can do wonders for motivation, which is for many people the hardest part of physical fitness writ large. Someone who may loathe the idea of heading out for a run on their own or may have trouble sticking with it through a solo workout at the gym may find it easy to power through a game or even to run laps and execute drills during practice because of the motivation of camaraderie.
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When you share common goals with you teammates and go through shared experiences, you will work harder in the moment and you will take more away from a game or a practice than you would from a solo experience, which leads to positive reinforcement associated with exercise.
In other words, if playing team sports is the best way for you to find the motivation to stay fit, then by all means join (or stick with) that team – your body will thank you.
Team sports are good for individual fitness
You know how listening to great “pump up” music seems to help you push harder and longer when you’re working out? That’s not just an illusion, it’s a physiological reality: the right kind of music can, according to Scientific American, genuinely help you get in more intensive and more productive exercise sessions because workout music can distract you from pain, elevate your mood and motivation, and even set goals for you – think: “I’ll sprint at the chorus” or “I’ll keep doing reps until the song ends” for example.
Now, if a song piping through a pair of earbuds or over a gym speaker system can help you feel better and work harder, just imagine the benefits to individual fitness when sporting activities are shared with other people. When you’re pulling not just for a lively chorus or powerful guitar riff but for your entire team’s victory, you’ll find you have more to give and, therefore, more to gain.
The (Few) Disadvantages of Team Sports for Youths
All told, the net benefits to physical and mental health that team sports can foster for youngsters far outweigh the few drawbacks, but there are indeed a few drawbacks to team sports for some people, according to Psychology Today, and these deserve noting.
First and foremost, note that young athletes compelled to play a sport against their will are extremely unlikely to enjoy any of the benefits enumerated above and may indeed end up suffering more anxiety and depression and may be more prone to harmful behaviors for the experience. So too can a glut of pressure put on a young athlete, whether by coaches, parents, or fellow players take the fun and the benefits out of team sports, and that’s true whether or not the player is a fully willing participant or they have been pressured to play.
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Even for the most committed, driven athletes, team sports can cause both physical and mental harm. A player who plays or trains too hard puts herself or himself at heightened risk of injury, which can be detrimental physically and emotionally. So too can a young athlete who strives too hard at their sport end up suffering mental anguish at losses or at missed opportunities, such as a failure to be selected for a more elite program or a missed scholarship program, for example.
And in those cases where a young athlete excels in his or her sport, there can still be a problem: achievements on the field or court can create a false (and unpleasant) sense of superiority in a young athlete, and that can end up damaging their relationships with teammates, peers in school, and friends, and it can create a complex that lasts into later life.
Team sports for young players are about fitness, camaraderie, learning about winning and losing with grace, and of course about fun. When playing on a team is proving a net positive experience for a young athlete, it should be encouraged and facilitated; when team sports seem to simply not be the right fit for a given youngster, pushing the reticent athlete to participate anyway can be the exact wrong approach.
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