Kids who Drop out of Sport are at Higher Risk of Developing Mental Health Problems


This week in Australia at the Sports Medicine Australia’s “Be Active 2014” conference, researchers from the University of Wollongong will be presenting their findings on the apparent negative impact of primary school kids dropping out of organised sport. It’s terrific research, but I’d like to put a slightly different spin on it.

Quit Bagging Out Screens!

Firstly, I get a little miffed when I hear people bagging out kids for being in front of screens too much because they need to be more active. Yes, there are times when it might be appropriate, but I think we’ve developed quite a negative bias towards it and my concern is that, in doing so, that we are actually being disrespectful to the child, their passions and desires – disrespectful to something that might be really important to them. And the way we go about it can be not only disrespectful, but also damaging to our relationship with the child.

I love the idea of relating to my kids from a position of mutual respect, although in reality I can only have control over one half of that equation: my own! What I have found, however, is that a person is far more likely to reciprocate with respect if they are treated with respect.

Anyways, enough on that. Check out this little post from my wife’s blog about a novel approach she took to dealing with screens one night when we were out for dinner. And let’s not forget, there’s a bunch of amazing research highlighting the benefits of screens and gaming etc (but that’s for another post).

It’s about more than just “Sport”

Secondly, I think what the researchers discovered is actually about something more than simply participating in sport. I think there’s a bigger picture here.

Let’s get back to the research. These researchers were able to demonstrate that the risk of developing a mental health problem increased by up to twenty percent (20%) within three years of the child dropping out of organised sport.

Now, we know there are multiple benefits to participating in organised sport for kids: physical activity, teamwork, confidence, respect, self-esteem, and some studies have even suggested that it improves academic outcomes.

But what else does participation in organised sport do?

Through research and experience, we have discovered that one of the best things you can do for your mental health is to belong to a community, to find a sense of belonging, meaning, purpose and acceptance. No doubt that’s exactly what happens when a child is part of an organised sports team, so therefore, if they drop out of the team, they are also losing that sense of connection with that community.


If you’ve read, “The Blue Zones” by Dan Buettner you’ll know what I’m talking about. Belonging to a tribe or a community is one of the key lifestyle factors that’s been associated with a long, happy life (and belonging to a tribe that supports good lifestyle choices is also key).

Why do Kids Drop Out of Sports?

So why do kids drop out of sports? Well, there are lots of reasons. Perhaps they realise that they don’t actually like the particular sport, or they’ve become bored with it. Perhaps they’ve decided the effort is not worth the benefit. Perhaps the coach is a mean old grump!

Putting those reasons aside, we know that if a young person really likes doing something such as sport and they drop out, it’s quite possibly a sign of depression. So before you cajole them into attending or, worse, threaten them with some sort of punishment if they quit, find out what’s really going on for them.

I was horrified a few years ago when a father I had always respected told me about how he was punishing his son because he didn’t want to play cricket anymore. This highly educated, articulate man grounded his son indefinitely and refused to pay him pocket money until his son started playing again! The father was a cricket nut and was determined that his son would take after him and his passion. His son never re-joined the team and I was not surprised to hear recently that he is now at university and not playing any sport at all. He may not have any interest in sport, but what he does have is an extremely fractured and dysfunctional relationship with dad. What a terrible outcome!


Here in Australia, we live in a society that is dominated by the sporting culture, but not everyone is into sport, not even all boys. And that’s okay!

The westernised model of masculinity we live by is, well, bloody stupid! A documentary about this issue, called “The Mask You Live In,” is due for release in 2015 and I highly recommend signing up at the website to be notified of the film’s release. You can also follow the makers of the film on Facebook.

The important thing, I think, is not just the sport itself; it’s about helpings kids to feel like they belong, that they contribute meaningfully to a group, that they are valuable and important to the functioning of that group and that they find a sense of purpose in it.

So where can you find that outside of sport?

There are many more opportunities, of course, but these are some ideas to get you started.

So in summary, when thinking about the mental health and well-being of young people in particular, try to think beyond the surface issues and see what lies beneath. Look beyond the expected pathways that are suggested or expected by society, such as being on a sporting team, and remember:

  • Don’t make screens the bad cop and sport the good cop
  • Don’t disrespect your kids
  • Know that community is important, not just sport
  • And finally, make sure there’s nothing else going on for the child.

Here’s to finding a great community and good mental health.

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