The role of physical activity in combatting depression and anxiety is well documented, particularly when it comes to human physiology. Going out for a run can increase levels of serotonin, which regulates mental health. Physical activity releases natural-uplifting endorphins, reduces the stress hormone (cortisol), and stimulates norepinephrine, which improves mood. When children and teens get their exercise through organized sports, the benefits go beyond these chemical reactions. Here are three sometimes overlooked facets of youth sports programs that can go a long way in reducing anxiety and depression and promoting positive mental health.
They create a sense of community. Organized youth sports programs are not just about running sprints or shooting hoops. Properly structured programs can provide a safe, wholesome and nurturing environment for children and teens, instilling a sense of community where they feel supported and are engaged with adults who care about their mental and physical wellbeing. Youth sports teams should create community-building rituals, which can be game changing for young people struggling with stress at school or at home. Something as simple as circling up for a team “check in” before a game or practice eases the transition from the school day and provides a way to leave behind the day’s stressor and shift to a new and positive focus.
They foster authentic relationships and socialization. Organized sports may give children and teens an opportunity to socialize outside of their usual circles at school, in their neighborhood, and away from social media and screen time. As part of a team, young people have opportunities to forge meaningful bonds and relationships that can be more fulfilling than those built via texting and social media. If a child is having social difficulties at school, the positive social experiences of a team can be especially valuable in relieving social anxiety and lifting spirits. As anyone who has been part of a team can attest: off-the-field experiences, such as socializing over pizza after the game, can be just as important and memorable as the match itself.
They build resilience. Sports are like life. Athletic competitions and practices are full of ups and downs, wins and losses. They are also a safe place where young people can make mistakes, experience the “failure” of a botched play or missed pitch, and persevere. In the process, they build resilience, which is critical to bounce back from life’s disappointments and adversities. Building resilience is key to maintaining mental health and can serve young players well for their entire lives.
When children head out to the field for organized sports, they are not just promoting physical fitness and “letting off steam.” They are laying the groundwork for lifelong fitness habits, amassing experiences that can alleviate and protect against anxiety and depression and keep both bodies and minds healthier.
That’s a win for everyone.
 Newport Academy
Cristiane Carraffa Chiacchio is Head of Personal Accident at AIG Accident & Health Specialty markets, a leading provider of customized Accident & Health solutions for youth sports teams and a proud sponsor of USA Football.
For information about the accident & health insurance solutions the AIG companies offer for amateur sports organizations, recreational organizations, and educational institutions, visit aig.com/us/accident.