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The most recent Olympics had the world talking about whether young ice skaters were under too much pressure. If you’re a bit concerned about your children’s emotional resilience, you might wonder if sports would be too much pressure or, on the other hand, help build up their confidence.
A study published this month with more than 11,200 U.S. kids aged 9 to 13 may help you answer that question.
Previous research has been mixed, with some studies showing that participation in sports is tied to better mental health and others suggesting the opposite.
The new study drilled down into the effects of different kinds of sports. Drawing on data from forms filled out by parents, the researchers found that kids involved in team sports like basketball and soccer were less likely to have signs of anxiety, depression, withdrawal, social problems, and attention problems.
That was what the research team expected to find. But then the study produced a surprise. Students who only participated in sports like wrestling or gymnastics, where they competed as individuals, tended to have more emotional difficulties than children who played no organized sports at all.
Competition is rough—even, or more so, when you’ve already achieved great success. The entire world witnessed this when fifteen-year-old Russian Kamila Valieva shocked Olympics observers in Beijing this year by making repeated mistakes in her long skating program.
How Much Does Participation in Team Sports Help Kids?
Getting your children to practices and sports events can be demanding, so you might want to know just how big the benefits could be. Quite a bit. In this study, children who played a team sport (compared to children who didn’t) had 10 percent lower scores on a measure of anxiety, 19 percent lower scores on a measure of being withdrawn, 17 percent less difficulty socially, and scored 12 percent better on attention issues.
Source: Photo by Nima Sarram/ Unsplash
What Are the Potential Risks of Individual Sports?
Let’s say your preteen wants to compete in gymnastics. Imagine, too, that she’s anxious and underweight but thinks she’s fat, and you’re concerned that the pressure could make her more anxious, particularly about her weight.
That may be a wise instinct. In this study, participation in individual sports was linked to 16 percent higher scores on anxiety, 14 percent higher withdrawn/depressed scores, 12 percent higher social problems scores, and 14 percent higher attention problems scores.
The new research found that children who competed in both individual and team sports were comparable in mental health to children who didn’t play sports. So if your daughter is dead set on gymnastics, it might be a good idea to ask her to play soccer as well.
Coaching makes a difference, too. It was tough for many spectators to see Valieva’s coach berate her as she left the ice. To see what your child will be up against, a good next move might be to speak to coaches to get a sense of their attitude: Are they primarily focused on achievement, or do they know how to encourage and award students who do less well but are improving?
It’s also helpful to give perfectionist, competitive kids room to talk openly about their problems. Explain that even the best athletes feel the pressure. A positive example is American skater Gracie Gold, who won bronze at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Three years later, she entered mental health treatment to fight her depression, anxiety, and eating disorder. Then she came back and skated at the highest levels.
Ideally, sports could teach your child emotional resilience skills that will apply throughout her life—in school work, dating, and eventually, the competition he’ll face in a career or workplace. The surest bet for emotional resilience is to learn how to fit into a team.