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Team Sports as Therapy for Adverse Childhood Experiences

Dr. Perri Klass’ latest column in the NYTimes describes the findings of a recent study that indicates that adolescents who have adverse childhood experiences would benefit from participating in team sports. Empahsizing that the study shows association, NOT causation, Dr. Klass writes:

In a study published in May in JAMA Pediatrics, people who had experienced traumatic events as children had better mental health outcomes as adults if they had participated in team sports during adolescence.

Dr. Molly C. Easterlin, the lead author of the study, which looked at a national sample of 9,668 people, said, “Among children affected by adverse childhood experiences, team sports in adolescence was associated with less depression and anxiety in young adulthood.” 

This gibes with my own personal experience as a child and a parent when faced with the “adverse childhood experience” of relocating. When I moved from one community to another– be it as a child or a young adult— I found that participation in organized sports provided a way to meet other children from all walks of life and connect with them based on a common passion. I was never a good enough athlete to play varsity sports, but I was good enough to play little league baseball in my late elementary school years and that provided me with a means to find friends quickly when I moved from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma. As a parent, I coached my daughters’ softball and soccer teams to ensure that they might have a similar experience as mine, playing with and getting to know other “athletes” by participating in team sports and when they showed the ability to succeed as varsity athletes I encouraged them to do so and went to as many of their contests as possible.

Given these personal experiences, the findings of researchers quoted by Dr. Klass resonated with me:

There are “a lot of life lessons that can be learned through playing team and group-based sports,” said Rochelle Eime, an associate professor of sport participation at Federation University in Australia. “You’ve got to train and work hard; you learn to win and more importantly learn to lose.” This helps children develop resilience, she said.

“They can learn so many life lessons, it can really help their social well-being and their psychological well-being as well,” Dr. Eime said. “They often have less stress in their lives, better social interactions, improved self-esteem.” She was the lead author of a review of studies which found that sports participation was associated with better self-esteem and fewer depressive symptoms. Being part of a team seemed to be associated with additional benefits because of the social interactions.

But, like almost everything that has to do with rearing children, the lack of equity emerges as an issue. My daughters and I all attended schools with decent-to-robust extra-curricular opportunities and attended them in communities that supported those kinds of activities. Too many children are raised in communities that either do not care about these kinds of activities or cannot afford them. Making matters worse, many communities charge user fees for sports, creating a barrier to entry for children raised in poverty. Quoting Dr. Alex B. Diamond, an associate professor of pediatrics and orthopedics and the director of the program for injury prevention in youth sports at Vanderbilt, and Dr. Easterlin, Dr. Klass concludes her article with this:

Overall, Dr. Diamond said, “Sports as a whole remains a positive and more than likely a protective activity for our kids and teenagers.” They need care and attention, for their physical and mental well-being, and they need the opportunity to participate in settings where they will receive that care and attention. And not all children get that opportunity.

“Making those activities accessible to all is very important,” Dr. Easterlin said. There can be disparities in sports participation, with some families not able to afford to have a child on the team.

“From a public health policy standpoint, there is some evidence sports are beneficial to children,” she said. “Child health advocates and policymakers should consider investing in these programs to make sure they are accessible, equitable and strong.

To those who see inter-scholastic sports as a frill and communities who believe participation in sports should be based on a fee-for-service model, an examination of this research is in order. Who knows… it might even lead to higher test scores!

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