Sport participation and mental health among youth: A systematic review of prospective studies


The purpose of this systematic review was to examine prospective evidence that sport participation is associated with better mental health among youth. Following standard protocol, a systematic search of 4 electronic databases (Medline, PsychInfo, Scopus and SportDiscus) was conducted between May and June of 2014. Articles were chosen for the review if the study used a prospective-based, longitudinal design and examined relationships between sport participation and any measure of mental health over at least one year. A total of 20 studies were identified. Self-esteem was the most commonly evaluated mental health outcome (n=10) followed by depressive symptoms (n=8). Findings were mixed as to whether sport participation improved self-esteem over time.  The majority showed no association (n=6). Five out of eight studies reported that sport participation was associated with lower depressive symptoms over time. These associations were generally weak as was the proportion of variance explained in depression. Notably, there was some evidence that team, as opposed to individual, sport participation was protective.  Two studies reported a reduction in anxiety over time while one study reported an increase in health-related quality of life among children participating in sports.  Overall, evidence is mixed that sport participation improves mental health over time compared to non-participants.  It is also difficult to draw strong conclusions based on the existing evidence base given how sport participation is being assessed and that any positive relationships found may reflect a selective aggregation of individuals who bring fewer problems across different domains of functioning.  Research and program evaluations are needed to identify the processes involved within sporting contexts that maximise the likelihood that children and youth will experience mental health benefit.