A new study from Tel Aviv University suggests sports participation can improve a child’s cognitive, emotional and behavioral well-being every bit as much as his or her physical fitness.
Keren Shahar, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University, said that over the course of her study, which included 649 children from low socioeconomic backgrounds, a continuous program of various sports helped improve self-control and discipline and lowered feelings of aggression in the children overall.
“We set out to determine whether sports training would have a positive impact on these children by lowering aggression, and how this result can be achieved,” said Shahar.
Using sports to control aggression is more effective than verbal therapy, she said, because while verbal therapy encourages children to control their behavior, research indicates that it does not reduce negative emotions. The introduction of sport, however, can reduce aggressive behavior by quelling negative emotions.
In 25 schools across Israel, Shahar and her fellow researchers analyzed a 24-week-long after-school program based on sports.
Half the participants made up a control group that did not receive sports instruction, and the other half were systematically introduced to a variety of sports for five hours a week. Three times a week, students ranging from grades 3-6 played group sports such as basketball or soccer. Twice a week, they participated in martial arts, including judo and karate.
After 24 weeks of programming, Shahar compared questionnaires and evaluations executed at the beginning of the program with the same tests administered at the end.
Her results demonstrated an improvement in traits relating to participants’ self-control, such as self-observation, problem-solving skills, and delayed gratification — which ultimately led to a decrease in the incidence of aggression. Only those children who exhibited higher levels of self-control also demonstrated the decline in aggression.
An interesting finding in the study was that boys benefited from sports participation much more so than girls.
Statistically, there was little change in the female population. Shahar reasons that girls do not often suffer from the same aggression problems as boys, and are less likely to exhibit a passion for sport.
But the research still applies, Shahar said. The key is to introduce children to something they love to do.
“Find something that motivates them,” she said. A strong connection with any activity gives children a sense of purpose and decreases the likelihood that they will “act out” their behavioral problems.