Sports & Behavior

Sports has always been a topic of joyful memories as well as concern for parents. On one side, children in sports have the opportunity to get physically active while doing something they find enjoyable.

Being part of a team and being able to interact with your peers creates memories and friendships that can last a lifetime. On the other hand, early exposure to certain sports can become a dangerous thing. An article from the American Psychiatric Association titled Early Exposure to Football May Have Long-Term Behavioral Consequences shows how early exposure to sports like football can have long-term behavioral consequences.

This study, headed by Nick Zagorski and Dr. Yorghos Tripodis, found that “Participation in tackle football before age 12 increased the odds for having problems with behavioral regulation, apathy, and executive functioning by two-fold and increased the odds for clinically elevated depression scores by threefold.” Their research showed a connection between an early start in a physically grueling sport and long lasting behavioral impact like later psychiatric disorders, cognitive problems, and the neurodegenerative disorder CTE. Dr. Tripodis also adds, “This study adds to growing research suggesting that experiencing repeated head impacts through tackle football earlier in life can lead to both short-term and long-term effects on the brain.”

After reading through this study and hearing about these things, you are probably on your way to pull your children out of sports all together, encase them in bubble wrap, and keep them safe and sound under your roof. It is a legitimate concern as these are real problems that should not be taken lightly. It is not wrong to be worried and take precautions. Before you do this, though, understand that while sports can have some negative behavioral consequences, they also can have a plethora of positive effects as well. Dr. Tripodis notes, “However, it is really important to note that participation in sports and athletics can have so many important benefits, including the development of leadership skills, self-confidence, social skills, and work ethic, not to mention the tremendous health benefits from exercising. Our goal is to make sure that children can take advantage of all of the benefits of sports participation without the risk of difficulties later in life.”

Dr. Jeremy Burnham, a board certified orthopedic surgeon fellowship trained in sports medicine, shares, “It is important to realize that anything we do in life has risks; we have to weigh the pros and cons, and there are so many benefits to sports. As we navigate the world, we should be very deliberate in finding ways for children to be active and participate in sports.” Just as there is potential for negative behavioral consequences, there is also plenty of potential for good as well.

Participating in sports doesn’t just have an impact on one’s physical health; it does wonders for children from a mental and social standpoint as well. When children are participating in sports, there is a positive association between that and better social behavior, as well as children judging their own health and well-being more positively. Dr. Burnham also discusses how children who participated in team sports have demonstrated lower levels of depression and anxiety.

The benefits of participating in sports doesn’t stop at competitive team sports. Rachael Tullier, a local instructor at American Family Martial Arts, works with children of various age groups, so she knows just how much of a positive behavioral impact Karate can have. She shares, “Karate helps kids increase their confidence as they learn to believe in their abilities. They learn respect. They learn how to listen and follow instructions.”

Karate teaches them to set goals and allows them to experience failure in a safe environment. Looking back on her time as an instructor, Tullier reminisces, “It’s awesome to see a student smile with confidence when they achieve a skill they have struggled with or had doubts about.”

Perseverance, respect, confidence, and always giving their best effort are all the positive behavioral effects that even more individual-oriented sports like karate can have on children. American Family Martial Arts believes in that and looks to offer lessons tailored for kids’ age-specific needs.

Sports and how they can potentially affect behavior in children isn’t the greatest concern. Dr. Burnham observes, “There are disparities in access to sports participation. Youth who come from families without extensive financial resources have more difficulty participating in organized sports. In some cases, there is also a lack of athletic trainer or sports medicine coverage in lower income communities, meaning that these children may not have the same access to injury care and injury prevention, resulting in more time being out of sports due to injury.”

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how much of a positive impact that sports had on children by showing the effects of having it taken away. Losing out on that social interaction with their peers took a toll on them as they have had to endure months of social isolation. These social interactions help children develop mentally and socially in a way that is both fun and physically active. The problem isn’t sports; it is coming up with safe and creative ways for children to enjoy sports instead of outright eliminating them. ■

This article was originally published in August 2022.

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