The Benefits of Playing Sports

Environment Could be a Factor According to a Recent Study

The benefits of sports involvement may be different for young people growing up in urban vs. rural areas, according to the results of two studies being presented at the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 109th Annual Convention.

One study involving urban youth shows sports involvement can have positive influences on social competence and self-esteem and may deter early marijuana use. Another study involving rural African American girls finds that sports involvement may increase the likelihood of delinquent behaviors and substance use.

Urban Middle School Youth and Sports

In a study of 445 seventh-grade youth from economically depressed inner-city neighborhoods in central Massachusetts, researchers at Clark University found several advantages for sports-involved boys and girls. Those involved in organized sports reported higher overall self-esteem and were judged by their teachers to be more socially skilled and less shy and withdrawn. They also found that 13-year-old boys who had been involved with a sport during the past year were less likely to report having experimented with marijuana than 13-year-old boys who had not played a sport during the prior year.

Most earlier studies of team sports and adjustment tended to focus on high school or on college-aged youth or on children growing up in rural or suburban areas, according to the authors, leaving out younger middle school children from high-crime inner-city neighborhoods, where they spend a large amount of time without any specific commitments.

“Our findings should spark the interest of those charged with helping to motivate at-risk youth through the challenges of a major age-related transition period in their lives, a time during which they no longer receive the same levels of monitoring from families and schools as they did during the elementary school years.”

The writers do caution that it is important not to overreach when interpreting the advantages of sports. For example, contrary to reports from some prior studies, children in the study who played sports did not report engaging in any less delinquent activity than those not involved with sports.

The researchers say their findings from the ethnically diverse group of children also indicate that those students who were involved in sports—including the ones who played contact sports like football—were no more likely to tend toward aggression than non-sport-involved youth.

“Clearly, sweeping announcements about the benefits or risks of sports involvement are not warranted based on the current data,” said the researchers. “That said, the news from this project is generally quite heartening, with multiple indicators of positive adjustment favoring youth who are involved in sport.”

Rural African American Girls and Sports

A study involving approximately 4,000 high school female African American students (grades 9–12) from rural communities (population of less than 10,000) finds that sports participation may actually increase the likelihood of delinquent behaviors and substance use. The study also indicates that sports participation did not appear to provide a deterrent to gang involvement, which itself was strongly related to delinquency and substance use.

Data in the current study came from a previous sample used in a study of rural adolescent drug use (“Drug Use in Rural America,” Ruth W. Edwards, PhD, Colorado State University). The students were asked to report on their alcohol and drug use, along with questions dealing with self-reported and peer violence, gang involvement, and sports involvement.

It is obvious from the results of other research that some rural girls do benefit from sports participation, according to Dr. Taylor, and that it can be a deterrent for substance use and delinquency. However, he says the reasons for the different influences of sports participation require additional research. “I think that the influence of sports is quite indirect, and researchers should look at a variety of other variables such as peer groups and ultimately the meaning behind sports participation and competition, which may explain the difference in benefits of sports participation for rural and urban youth.”

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