Do Teen Sports Increase Risk of Teen Drinking and Violence?

Young men who participate in team sports may be more likely to fight and drink.

November 6, 2009, 5:58 PM

Nov. 9, 2009— -- Conventional wisdom has always been that team sports build character, cooperation, and leadership skills. But new research suggests that being on the school football team may also be hurting your teen, especially boys.

In a study presented today at the American Public Health Association's 137th Annual Meeting and Exposition in Philadelphia, teen sports may be associated with risky behavior.

Researchers examined survey responses from 13,000 high school students concerning unhealthy behaviors such as engaging in violence, drinking and binge drinking as well as smoking.

What they found was that the young men who participated in team sports were found more likely to participate in these risky behaviors compared to those who were not involved in sports.

Conversely, young women participating in sports were found to have fewer rates of depression, marijuana use, and smoking.

"Sports team participation appears to have both protective and risk-enhancing associations," said Susan M. Connor, lead researcher on the study.

But some child development experts caution that the research does not prove that participation in organized sports causes risky behavior. George Scarlett, assistant professor of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University in Boston, explains, "[These] findings are based on correlations -- and correlations never establish cause and effect.

"The impression given is that sports somehow cause risky behavior, but the correlations do not say this," he continued. "They merely say the two co-occur."

Yet others in child development agree that this finding may not be so far-fetched. Prior studies of certain sports -- particularly high-contact sports such as football -- have also shown correlations between participation and a higher likelihood of violence in males.

"Coaches, characteristics of the sport itself, local cultures, and other factors can make significant differences in how sports participation impacts kids," said Judith Myers-Walls, associate professor of Child Development and Family Studies at Purdue University in West LaFayette, Ind.

Teens May Have Trouble Coping with 'Sports Icon' Status

Through a complex interplay of these factors, she explains, a "gang" mentality may develop.

"Some cultures and teammates may focus on competition, power issues, and the feeling that they are special and don't need to live by the rules of 'ordinary' people," she added.

As the director of Sports Medicine at Akron's Children Hospital, Dr. Joseph A. Congeni works with adolescent athletes. All too often, he observes attributes that build positive characters in team sports get overshadowed by preferential attitudes. In turn, these attitudes may promote more risk-taking behavior.

"These athletes begin being 'put on a pedestal,'" he said, "and [are] receiving preferential treatment and attention and adulation even in the late junior high school years."

Is it a case of too much, too soon? Are we building immature egos into egotistical, dangerous young men? Myers-Walls noted, "It can be developmentally inappropriate to throw them into adult status or icon status."

But, Myers-Walls said, "Parents and coaches can have an important influence by helping teens to focus on the values that they believe are critical."

In other words, she said, relationships with the coaches and team-building characteristics may be at the center of this debate -- and if this relationship promotes unhealthy behaviors, it may not be good for your child.

"Those adults can also step back and make sure they are keeping a perspective on youth development and community rather than become overzealous and losing themselves and their values in the midst of competition," Myers-Walls said.

And Congeni said that when it comes to sports, it may not be wise to conclude the risks of participation outweigh the benefits.

"There still are so many positives to be gained when sports are kept in balance," Congeni said.