Sports Participation

A recent study by The Ohio State University has revealed a significant connection between continuous participation in organized sports during youth and improved mental health in adulthood. The research indicates that adults who played organized sports throughout their youth exhibit fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to those who either never played or dropped out.

The Impact of Dropping Out & Lack of Sports Participation

Interestingly, the study also found that those who dropped out of sports had poorer mental health outcomes than those who never participated at all. Chris Knoester, the senior author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University, emphasizes that continuous participation in sports is beneficial for mental health. In contrast, discontinuing sports participation seems to have a negative impact, and most children tend to drop out before reaching adulthood.

“If you play and stick with sports, it’s a positive for your mental health, but if you play and drop out it seems to be negative – and most kids drop out,” Knoester explains.

Reasons for Dropping Out

The study, published in the Sociology of Sport Journal, utilized data from the National Sports and Society Survey conducted in 2018 and 2019. The survey included responses from 3,931 adults across the United States, who provided information about their childhood sports participation and current mental health status.

The results were telling: 35% of participants did not play organized sports at all, 41% participated and then dropped out, and 24% continued playing sports until the age of 18. Those who continuously participated reported the lowest levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms, while those who dropped out had the highest levels, with those who never played falling in between.

The primary reason cited for dropping out was a lack of enjoyment, with nearly half (45%) of the respondents identifying this as their reason. Other common reasons included feeling inadequate as a player (31%), wanting to focus on academic grades (16%), health issues or injuries (16%), financial constraints (16%), conflicts with team members (15%), and interest in other activities (14%).

The Effects of Different Dropout Reasons

Lead author Laura Upenieks, assistant professor of sociology at Baylor University, highlighted that the environment in youth sports is often less than ideal for all participants. This suggests that greater attention can address the barriers to participation.

“Our findings about why kids drop out of organized sports suggest that the current environment is less than ideal for everyone, and that the barriers to participation need greater attention,” Upenieks said.

While dropping out of sports was generally present with poorer mental health, not all reasons for dropping out had the same impact. Interpersonal reasons such as not having fun, conflicts with team members, and abuse by a coach linked to higher levels of adult depression and anxiety. Those who dropped out due to financial constraints also showed poorer mental health outcomes. However, those who left sports to focus on their education actually reported lower depressive symptoms.

“Prioritizing education predicts better mental health as an adult,” Knoester noted.

The Importance of a Positive Sporting Environment & Sports Participation

This study is among the first to explore the mental health outcomes of youth who quit sports, highlighting the complexity of the issue. While playing sports is generally beneficial, the persistence in playing and the reasons for discontinuing are crucial factors.

“Unfortunately, it is not a simple story of playing sports is good for kids,” Knoester said. “It is complicated by whether kids stick to playing sports and the reasons why they do stick to it or quit.”

Upenieks emphasized the long-term benefits of a positive and encouraging sporting environment for youth, noting that such environments foster habits conducive to mental well-being, like regular exercise and teamwork.

“The longer that youth are exposed to a positive and encouraging sporting environment, the more likely they are to develop habits that are conducive to long-term mental well-being, such as a commitment to regular exercise and collaborating with others as part of a team,” she said.

Improving Youth Sports

The high dropout rate indicates that organized sports often fail to provide a positive experience. However, there are actionable steps that can be taken to improve this environment. Ensuring the safety of children in sports is paramount, especially considering that 8% of respondents reported dropping out due to abuse by a coach.

Moreover, the finding that nearly half of the children quit because they weren’t having fun, and about a third felt they weren’t good enough, should serve as a wake-up call.

“We need to improve youth sports so that it supports positive experiences for everyone and makes it more enjoyable,” Knoester said.

While competition is a natural part of sports, it is possible that adults overemphasize winning, thereby diminishing the enjoyment for many young athletes. Most children are primarily interested in having fun with their friends and receiving support and encouragement.

“Most kids are looking to have fun with their friends and support and encourage each other,” Upenieks explained. “It doesn’t have to be all serious.”

Knoester added, “Our results suggest that by taking away the fun and making kids feel they aren’t good enough, there could be cascading effects in terms of hurting self-esteem and confidence that could reverberate through to adulthood.”


The study from The Ohio State University underscores the importance of continuous participation in organized sports for maintaining mental health into adulthood. While the reasons for dropping out vary, the overall impact on mental health is clear. To foster a positive sporting environment, it is crucial to address the factors that lead to dropout and ensure that sports are enjoyable, inclusive, and supportive for all participants. By doing so, we can help children develop lifelong habits that promote mental well-being.

2 thoughts on “Sports Participation Linked to Better Mental Health in Adults”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *