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Team Sports, Happiness, and Health

Adolescents who participate in teams sports are happy and healthy.

I am a member of a team, and I rely on the team. I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion.
- Mia Hamm

A study by Keith Zullig and Rebecca White (2010) was recently reported, finding that US adolescents (7th and 8th graders) who participated in team sports rated both their life satisfaction and physical health more highly than did their peers who did not participate in team sports. The research was regrettably stark, relying just on self-report and gathering all information at a single point in time. The temptation is of course to conclude that participation in team sports causes happiness and health, but things could be the other way around. Or some unmeasured third variable like being coordinated or having access to resources could be responsible for the apparent associations.

Be that as it may, the patterns held for males and females, and an additional finding was that vigorous physical activity (not necessarily participation in team sports) was linked to happiness and health among females but not males. So maybe we can say that there is something about being on a team that is beneficial.

The physical activity inherent in sports is the most obvious benefit, but perhaps playing a role as well are the shared identity that is formed on a team, important lessons about cooperation, and more generally the social communion that team sports allow.

I remember the last time I formally participated in a team sport, decades ago as a faculty member at Virginia Tech. A bunch of us from the Department of Psychology got together to play basketball in a community league. We stunk, although we published lots of papers in professional journals (as if that mattered on the court). Our coach had actually played big-time college basketball back in the day. Coaching us was no doubt a humbling experience for him, although he never said so.

We were winless until the last game of the season, when we actually found ourselves with a comfortable lead and only seconds to go in the game. Our coach called a timeout. He told us, "Guys, when the game is over, please act like you've won before." One of the players objected, "But we've never won before." Our coach reflected, smiled, and said, "Okay. You're right. Go crazy."

And we did.

Being a member of this team is one of the fondest memories I have, and it was not because we won our last game. That makes for a good story, but it was everything else about the team that made us happy. And healthy? Who knows, although we are all still alive and kicking and missing wide-open shots some thirty years later.

I love this game ... any game ... as long as it is played with others.


Zullig , K. J., & White, R. J. (2010). Physical activity, life satisfaction, and self-rated health of middle school students. Applied Research in Quality of Life.