Batters 'Up'

Sports-playing kids have higher self esteem

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HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Aug. 28, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Got sports? A new study has found that middle-school kids in inner-city neighborhoods who play organized team sports have a higher sense of self worth and better social skills than their less athletic peers.

What's more, 13-year-old boys who were involved with a sport during the previous year were less likely to report using marijuana. The findings by researchers at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., were presented this week at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in San Francisco.

The study definitely broke new ground, says James McHale, director of clinical training in Clark's psychology department and one of the study's authors. "There's been hardly any work done with middle school kids in urban settings," he says.

The study, which was the brainchild of undergraduate psychology student Loren Bush, looked at an ethnically diverse sample of 445 7th-grade boys and girls at three middle schools in high-crime, impoverished areas of Worcester. The children anonymously filled out questionnaires that related to self-esteem, delinquent behavior and drug use. Their physical education teachers were asked to weigh in with information related to the students' social skills.

In addition to the self-esteem findings, boys, not surprisingly, were found to be more aggressive than girls, although sport-involved kids of both sexes were not more aggressive than their non-sport-playing peers. In general, aggressiveness did not seem to be related to the type of sport played, although teachers said girls in Little League baseball and basketball were more aggressive than girls in other sports.

Finally, some gender differences showed up in self-esteem. Sports-involved boys ranked higher than girls in that area. Social skills were the same, regardless of sex.

The study does beg one age-old question: Which came first? Do kids think better of themselves because they're involved in sports, or do they get involved in sports because they already have higher self-esteem? "It's difficult to swoop into a one-time study and then determine whether the kids have better self-esteem to begin with," says McHale.

"One of the difficulties is that you don't really have a baseline measure of these things so you don't know if the kids gravitated to it because of those characteristics initially or whether sports made a difference," says Leonard Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist at Boston University. Nevertheless, he says the findings are important.

The Clark researchers says the study could have far-reaching implications. Kids living in poor urban neighborhoods have, on average, 40 hours of unstructured, unmonitored time each week, and organized team sports could be a positive alternative to drug use and other delinquent activities, they say.

"That population is so crucial because how do we keep them out of trouble?" asks Zaichkowsky. "With sound leadership, involvement in sports has the potential to teach them these psycho-social, feel-good-about-themselves values that they can accomplish things, learn how to work together as a team, understand the importance of commitment, learn how to become leaders and followers. It's an incredible way to teach a lot of life skills."

The study identified one problem about access to organized sports in impoverished neighborhoods. "My sense is that there are probably some barriers to sport involvement for urban kids," says McHale. "The kids talked about not having enough money to pay registration fees, not having a way to get to sports, a lot of things you don't hear in suburban settings."

McHale and his colleagues hope the study is "a starting point. It's a big sample. It's an ethnically diverse sample in an at-risk neighborhood, and I think it's enough to get the government behind it," says McHale. "We ought to be focusing on kids who are least likely to have access to these types of sports."

What To Do

For more information, check this article about how parents can help kids deal with the wins and losses inevitable in sports. And here's a conversation with a psychologist on sports and self esteem.

And here are some tips on how to boost your child's self esteem.

SOURCES: Interviews with James McHale, Ph.D., director of clinical training, Clark University, Worcester, Mass.; Leonard Zaichkowsky, Ph.D., sports psychologist at Boston University School of Education, Boston; presentation Aug. 25, 2001, at the 109th annual convention American Psychological Association, San Francisco

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