How Sports Can Be Therapeutic For Students

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Physical activity is vital for students’ mental health.

Childhood trauma is more widespread than you may think. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study examined 17,000 participants ages 19 to 90. Nearly 64 percent of participants experienced at least one traumatic event, and of those, 69 percent reported two or more incidents. The study also demonstrated the connection between instances of childhood trauma and anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and other conditions.

A new branch of the therapeutic sciences, however, may offer a solution: sports therapy.

The Benefits of Physical Activity

The physical benefits of exercise are well documented, but physical activity is also vital for maintaining mental fitness. Those pursuing a master’s in athletic administration online should understand the psychological benefits sports can have on students off the field, including:

  • Controlling Emotions
    Children who have experienced trauma often have difficulty controlling their emotions, sometimes resulting in behavioral problems or internalized stress reactions — which can often lead to depression, anxiety, or anger.Involvement in any team activity, be it boxing, bowling, chess, or the online video game Fortnite, can provide an outlet for negative emotions and substantially reduce the likelihood of children acting out their behavioral problems. By teaching children to win and lose with grace, coaches can help children control their emotions off the field as well.

    Keren Shahar, a Ph.D. student at Tel Aviv University, conducted a study of more than 600 children from low socioeconomic backgrounds to determine the effects of sports programs on self-control, discipline, and feelings of aggression. Her results showed an improvement in participants’ self-observation, problem-solving skills, and delayed gratification — which ultimately led to a decrease in the incidence of aggression.

    “Sports are more effective than verbal therapy at teaching children to regulate emotions,” Shahar said. “While verbal therapy helps children learn to control their behavior, physical activity can reduce the tendency to act out by providing an outlet for negative emotions, particularly aggression.”

  • Developing Relationships
    Oxytocin plays a key role in the development of relationships, but its production can be inhibited in victims of childhood trauma, who often have difficulty developing and maintaining relationships.A new study from Dr. Gert-Jan Pepping for the Center for Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands indicates sports may aid in the production of oxytocin. An examination of penalty kicks made by professional soccer players found that when initial shooters celebrated a goal, their teammates were far more likely to score on subsequent attempts than when no celebration took place.

    Pepping and his colleagues surmised that players had experienced a sudden rush of oxytocin as a result of the celebration, deepening the bond between players and helping them perform better when their turn came.

  • Boosting Self-Esteem
    Poor relationships and prolonged periods of stress can harm the development of a healthy self-image, with shame, guilt, and low self-esteem all common among children who have experienced trauma.
    Mina Samuels, author of the book Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives, has asserted that developing sports skills can lead to a sense of personal effectiveness and feelings of autonomy, both key ingredients in the development of self-esteem.”I wasn’t just physically stronger than I expected,” she wrote, “I thought of myself as a different person, as someone with more potential, broader horizons, bigger possibilities. … The competition in sports, as in life, was not with someone else, it was with myself.”

    Researchers tend to agree. Data collected in the Swiss Multicentric Adolescent Survey on Health found that adolescents in sports clubs were better socially adjusted, felt less anxious, and were generally happier about their lives.

    Similar findings were reported in a study published in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences on children who claim a Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Cuban heritage, where a strong correlation was found between sports participation and self-esteem.

Coaches and administrators working to build or improve sports programs that leverage the therapeutic benefits of sports should ensure that programs are configured to address the needs of trauma victims. Dr. Mitch Abblett, clinical director of the Harvard-affiliated Manville School, a therapeutic day school program for children and adolescents with emotional, behavioral, and learning difficulties, said these efforts should entail:

  • Crisis training
    Children who have experienced trauma are prone to act out in periods of high stress, and staff or coaches need to handle such crises in a calm and consistent manner. Abblett suggests creating an inventory of each child’s individual “triggers” can aid in early intervention and may help avoid some crises entirely.
  • Creating internal feedback loops
    Working with traumatized children can be taxing, but unnecessary drama and lapses in communication only decrease a team’s effectiveness. Having systems in place to ensure internal conversations remain authentic and constructive — regularly scheduled check-ins, for example — will keep staff in sync even when tensions run high.
  • Debriefing after an incident
    Those involved in an episode should debrief as soon as possible to create a timeline of the incident that identifies what went wrong and what could be done differently in the future. If possible, athletic administrators should connect with the child and his/her family and work together to develop a plan for avoiding similar incidents.
  • Burnout avoidance
    Burnout can pose a serious threat for staff or coaches who do not take precautions. Administrators should promote positive internal conversation to ensure coaches’ long-term mental health — and by extension, students’ as well.

The social activity, physical fitness and discipline associated with sports have many positive impacts on children but can be especially helpful for victims of trauma, including reduced stress, increased emotional control, and improved mood and self-esteem.

For those pursuing a master’s in athletic administration online, understanding the impact sports can have on students’ well-being off the field can be invaluable to a successful career as a leader in an interscholastic sports department.

Learn More About Ohio University’s Online Master’s in Athletic Administration

Ohio University houses one of the first academic programs in the nation to offer post-graduate educational options in the field of sports administration. Since its inception, OHIO’s Master’s in Athletic Administration online program (MAA) has consistently graduated skilled athletic directors who understand the importance of sports on students’ well-being off the field.

OHIO’s teaching staff focuses on preparing interscholastic athletic directors to nurture student-athletes and run athletic departments fairly and successfully. MAA coursework includes the Management and Leadership in Sports course, which covers strategies for building teamwork and fostering effective communication techniques, both necessary components of successful sports therapy programs.

Ohio University’s MAA program is accredited by the Commission on Sport Management Accreditation (COSMA) and prepares students for National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association (NIAAA) certification. For more information, visit Ohio University’s MAA page.

Recommended Reading:

Teaching Fair Play and Sportsmanship to Youth at All Levels

Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle for Interscholastic Athletes

Athletic Directors: Top 3 Benefits of Having an MAA Degree



Sports Helping Young People Heal From Trauma: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

The Top Mental Benefits Of Sports: Healthline

Sports Can Help Kids Defuse Anger: Psych Central

Depression: Can Sports And Exercise Help?: National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine

Social And Emotional Benefits Of Playing Sports: Work In Sports

6 Mental Health Benefits Of Playing Sports: Thriveworks

The ‘Love Hormone’ As Sports Enhancer: The New York Times

Do Sports And Other Physical Activities Build Self-Esteem?: Psychology Today

The Effects Of Trauma: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

Sport Activity In Adolescence: Associations With Health Perceptions And Experimental Behaviours: Oxford Health Education Research

Predicting Adolescent Self-Esteem From Participation In School Sports Among Latino Subgroups: Hispanic Journal Of Behavioral Sciences

Physical Activity Reduces Stress: Anxiety And Depression Association Of America

12 Ways To Help A Developmentally Traumatized Child: Crisis Prevention Institute