Children who participate in sports have better mental health
The Sector > Research > Children who participate in sports early have better long-term mental health

Children who participate in sports early have better long-term mental health

by Freya Lucas

September 08, 2023

A new study from the University of Queensland has found that children who regularly participate in sports from a young age will have better long term mental health. 


Led by Associate Professor Asad Khan from UQ’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, the study analysed the data of more than 4,200 Australian children over an eight-year period gathered as part of the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.


“Consistent participation in sports from childhood is associated with better mental wellbeing amongst adolescents,” Dr Khan said.


“Our research looked at the benefits of team sports such as football, cricket, or netball, and individual sports like karate, tennis, or gymnastics.”


“We found there was a positive impact on mental health regardless of the type of sport, however children who played in a team experienced greater benefit.”


This, he believes, is likely due to the social aspects of team sport, such as being surrounded by supportive peers, opportunities to form friendships, and working towards a collaborative goal.


According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, around 14 per cent of children aged between four and 11 years experience a mental disorder in Australia, with boys commonly more affected than girls.


The research found children who internalise their emotions and have difficulties socialising with their peers greatly benefit from playing sport in a team setting.


“We found that boys who played team sports experienced fewer psychosocial difficulties and better health-related quality-of-life, while the benefits of team sport participation was lower among girls,” Dr Khan explained. 


“At ages six and seven, around 59 per cent of boys participated in team sports, compared to only 26 per cent of girls,” he added, calling for more to be done to attract girls to playing sport.


Some possible explanations for their absence in team sports include a lack of self-belief and confidence in sporting ability, or the common stereotype of team sports being a male-dominant activity.


“It could also be due to a lack of opportunity for girls to participate in team sports, or a lack of diversity of sports offered in schools and co-curricular programs,” Dr Khan added.


Researchers hope their work will inform strategies to promote children’s sports participation and further investigation into why young girls are less likely to participate in team sports.


The research is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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