Adolescence is a tumultuous time. Children have to adjust to their changing bodies, develop a unique, individual identity separate from their parents, and learn about the complexities of life and the world around them. Physical activity is proven to have many mental health benefits for teenagers, including a positive impact on well-being, resilience, and emotional functioning (Hale et al., 2021). A major avenue through which adolescents engage in physical activity is organized sports. Besides the obvious positive effects on physical health, organized sports can provide teens with a sense of peer belonging, help them develop a positive self-concept, and teach discipline. Thus, organized sports can help children master developmental tasks of adolescence and put them on a path towards becoming successful adults.
Peer Belonging: During adolescence, kids must step out from the confines of their immediate family and develop their sense of self within a group of peers. A sense of belonging within a group of friends or teammates helps inspire feelings of competence and provides community and support from peers who are going through similar experiences. Extracurriculars are the common ground on which teenagers can bond. They provide access to diverse groups of people from different racial backgrounds, ages, and even school systems.
Among the long list of extracurriculars, team sports provide the most robust array of mental health and social benefits (Oberle et al., 2019). While improving physical fitness and strength, teenagers in sports have opportunities to take on leadership roles and responsibilities that stretch their expanding physical, emotional, and intellectual abilities. Team sports provide opportunities to practice social and communication skills as teens work towards a common goal (Oberle et al., 2019). These opportunities foster bonding and a sense of peer belonging which explains why team sports have greater mental health benefits than individually oriented sports and extracurriculars (Oberle et al., 2019). Researchers found that consistent participation in extracurricular activities decreased adolescents’ proportion of risk-taking friends and predicted having a higher proportion of peers who value academic achievement and have strong educational goals (Oberle et al., 2019).
Positive Self-Concept: Adolescence is a time of intense change during which children work through questions about independence, identity, and their place in the world. Their changing bodies can induce intense insecurity and hyperfocus on comparing themselves and how they look to those around them. Sports help teens reorient how they think about their bodies. Instead of focusing on what they see as different, weird, or embarrassing, they are encouraged to focus on their strengths and ability to contribute positively to a team goal. Feelings of competence also come from seeing themselves acquire new physical skills through practice and hard work. Getting leadership opportunities through sports also gives teens a sense of responsibility, accountability, and purpose. These opportunities are crucial for the development of positive identity and confidence as well as navigating questions of individual identity and independence (Hale et al., 2021; Oberle et al., 2019; Bruner et al., 2017).
During adolescence, kids practice skills that they will need for the rest of their adult lives. Sports in middle school and high school are rich with important character-building experiences. Organized sports provide opportunities to develop resilience and self-reflection, as well as improve time management and organizational skills while working on a team. These are all skills they will need to be successful in college, the workplace, and when facing general life stressors.
Moral Development: Sports provide structure and positive role models, through coaches and peers, that teach them how to be a better person, teammate, and competitor (Agans et al., 2018). Researchers found that peers who put the team and their teammates before personal ambition promoted honesty, selflessness, and diligence in others (Gough, 2013). It is important that coaches promote these qualities in their athletes and that teens have the opportunity to interact with teammates who encourage them to adopt these qualities. Morality is a key aspect of character development and applies to many facets of life. Sports present athletes with many chances to establish values which guide their behavior, such as deciding whether to cheat in order to win or work hard and possibly lose with integrity. These are important character-building opportunities for teens. Repeated exposure to these experiences, coupled with guidance from coaches, can solidify their moral code (Gough, 2013). As is the case with physical skills, repeated practice making morally good decisions will become second nature and carry over into adulthood. Consistency and focus are key to creating these “moral habits” (Gough, 2013). Such discipline becomes ingrained in athletes and is a crucial skill to have when deciding between what is right and what is easy.
Resilience: Team sports also provide opportunities for children to face challenges and failure in a safe environment. Working through challenges and the emotions that accompany them, encourages resilience and perseverance that will help teens take on life’s uncertainties and “bounce back from adversity” (Luthans, 2002 in Michael, 2021). Approaching success and failure as a team promotes collective, team resilience which helps adolescents work through difficult emotions with the support of their peers, coaches, and trusted adults (Michael, 2021). The individual resilience that they gain from this experience can be applied both on and off the field (Michael, 2021). This skill also comes from the self-reflection and self-awareness that is ingrained in athletes during practice (Gough, 2013). They must acknowledge where they can improve and systematically work towards getting better. Instead of giving up and allowing failure to define them, athletes must move past the temporary set back and see how they can adapt and overcome in order to succeed next time. This increases feelings of agency, competency, and perseverance in the face of adversity.
Time Management & Life Skills: It is no secret that adolescents are juggling a lot. From friendships to school-work to college applications, being a middle schooler or high schooler is a stressful time. Sports have been proven to help teens develop life skills, such as goal setting, time management, problem solving, and decision making which can make balancing these responsibilities less overwhelming. In fact, students who participate in sports report that they gain these skills at a greater level and speed compared to their peers who are not involved in sports (Cronin & Allen, 2018). These skills will help teens successfully manage their increasing responsibilities in college and beyond.
Conclusion: During adolescence, children go through intense physical, emotional, and cognitive changes, which makes this a stressful and vulnerable time. Participating in sports can help buffer the stresses of adolescence by helping teens develop a sense of competence and by exposing them to a group of positive role models that can support them through this transitional period. Team sports foster resilience in the face of failure, self-discipline, and a strong sense of morality. These and other benefits that come from participating in organized sports can help create the foundation for a successful life of independence and achievement.
Agans, J. P., Su, S., & Ettekal, A. V. (2018). Peer motivational climate and character development: Testing a practitioner‐developed youth sport model. Journal of Adolescence, 62(1), 108–115. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2017.11.008
Bruner, M. W., Balish, S. M., Forrest, C., Brown, S., Webber, K., Gray, E., McGuckin, M., Keats, M. R., Rehman, L., & Shields, C. A. (2017). Ties That Bond: Youth Sport as a Vehicle for Social Identity and Positive Youth Development. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 88(2), 209–214. https://doi.org/10.1080/02701367.2017.1296100
Cronin, L. D., & Allen, J. (2018). Examining the relationships among the coaching climate, life skills development and well-being in sport. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 13(6), 815–827. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747954118787949
Gough, R. W. (2013). A Practical Strategy for Emphasizing Character Development in Sport and Physical Education. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 69(2), 18–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/07303084.1998.10605063
Hale, G. E., Colquhoun, L., Lancastle, D., Lewis, N., & Tyson, P. J. (2021). Review: Physical activity interventions for the mental health and well‐being of adolescents – a systematic review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 26(4), 357–368. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12485
Michael, M. A. (2021). Developing Collective Resilience in Teens Through Team Sports. 8.
Oberle, E., Ji, X. R., Guhn, M., Schonert-Reichl, K. A., & Gadermann, A. M. (2019). Benefits of Extracurricular Participation in Early Adolescence: Associations with Peer Belonging and Mental Health. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48(11), 2255–2270. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01110-2
This blog post was prepared with the help of Andie Stallman, a graduate student at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development who is concentrating in Clinical and Developmental Health and Psychology. A former collegiate athlete on the Tufts University Field Hockey team, Andie is passionate about finding ways to make sports and exercise more accessible, so that everyone can enjoy the numerous benefits of physical activity. Andie is particularly interested in developmental psychopathology, sibling relationships, and experiences of trauma. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology to help children and families develop skills that will enable them to confidently navigate life’s hardships and achieve their individual goals.