Children in sports: The benefits and risks of childhood sport


Children in sports: The benefits and risks of childhood sport

What are the benefits of childhood sports participation?

Physical activity is important in developing the health and wellbeing of children as it promotes a wide range of effects that support growth and development.  Studies have shown that physical activity is not only good for a child’s physical health, but also their mental wellbeing. [1]  It’s also no secret that most young children are full of energy and have an uncanny knack for picking up new skills. But, what sports are good for children? How young is to be involved in sports?

For a country with so many choices of sports, so much room for activities and literally thousands of kilometres of uninterrupted coastline, it is really disappointing that nearly a third of all Australian children or adolescents are overweight.[2] With childhood obesity rates rising, commonly accompanied by childhood depression and learning difficulties, it is important to ensure our kids are being active.

Physical activity improves classroom activity

On top of the mental positives of physical exercise in children, recent studies have revealed that physical activity can also help to improve classroom behaviour and cognitive function as well.[3] These studies show that physical activity improves children’s attention and executive function which leads to higher academic achievement and much higher chances of sustained academic success in the future.[4]

Team and individual sports affect the brain in different ways

In the same way that different sports develop different muscles, individual and team sports have been shown to develop different social and cognitive skills. Studies have shown that individual sports require more focus than team sports because children don’t have team mates to rely on and have to do all of the work themselves.[5] This means that children must focus intensely for longer periods of time, in the same way they should be focussing in class. Individual sports can be great at building focus and burning off extra energy, but it’s not as efficient as team sports at building camaraderie, group inclusion skills and social skills.[6] These latest studies show school functioning scores were higher for those who participate in both team and individual sport, or in team sport alone, compared with individual sport alone. Sports like AFL, soccer, rugby and cricket are all sports that use this team dynamic and have a positive effect on children’s lives.

Common Childhood Sports Injuries

All sports come with physical risks and children can be susceptible to sports injuries for a variety of reasons. Children younger than 8 years old are typically less coordinated and have slower reaction times than adults because they are still growing and developing. As children get older and size disparities become more pronounced there may also be an increased risk of injury. As children grow bigger and stronger, the potential for injury increases, largely because of the amount of force involved. The most common types of injury suffered by children include:

  • Sprains – an injury to a ligament. One or more ligaments can be injured at a time during a sprain with ankle sprains are the most common injury.
  • Strains – an injury to either a muscle or a tendon.
  • Growth Plate Injuries – commonly occur in the developing tissues at the end of the long bones in growing children and adolescents. When growth is complete, during adolescence, the growth plate is replaced by solid bone.
  • Overuse Injuries – The quicker overuse injuries are diagnosed and treated, the less chance they have of developing into chronic problems. Depending on the type of injury, your child’s technique or training schedule may need to be adjusted to prevent the injury from flaring up again.

If your child has any of the following symptoms, you should seek diagnosis and treatment from a musculoskeletal or sports physio:

  • Pain that is escalating or sharp in nature
  • Pain that gets worse with activity
  • Pain that lasts longer than a few days without activity
  • Pain that stops them from participating or causes them to modify their activity
  • Pain that affects their sleep

Physical activity and organised sports are essential to helping our children grow into the most well rounded adults they can be. With such a broad range of activities and sports to participate in, there is no reason for kids to not be involved. If your child has suffered an injury or is unable to play sports because of an injury or physical condition, an expert sports physio will be able to undertake a full body assessment in order to help them to participate in the right sports using the right techniques to avoid any further injuries. A musculoskeletal physio is also trained to identify risk factors that are linked to specific sports.

The sooner children are involved in sports, the longer the benefits will last.

[1] Okely T, Salmon J, Vella S, Cliff D, Timperio A, Tremblay M, et al. A systematic review to update the Australian physical activity guidelines for children and young people. In: Report prepared for the Australian Government Department of Health, editor. Canberra, Australia: Commonwealth of Australia.2012


[3] Erwin H, Fedewa A, Beighle A, Ahn S. A Quantitative Review of Physical Activity, Health, and Learning Outcomes Associated With Classroom-Based Physical Activity Interventions. Journal of Applied School Psychology. 2012;28(1):14–36.

[4] Howie EK, Pate RR. Physical activity and academic achievement in children: A historical perspective. Journal of Sport and Health Science. 2012;1(3):160–9.

[5] Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD): The National resource on ADHD. The Benefits of Sports on ADHD Can Be Golden 2018.

[6] Vella SA, Cliff DP, Magee CA, Okely AD. Sports participation and parent-reported health-related quality of life in children: longitudinal associations. The Journal of pediatrics. 2014;164(6):1469–74. Epub 2014/03/25. pmid:24657117