2023 In-Depth

Little wins, big impacts

A close up of a pair of pink kid's shows on a basketball court.

The benefits of sport for kids: health, growth and life

The team is down by a point. One basket, that’s all they need to win the game. There’s less than 30 seconds on the clock, and suddenly, 9-year-old Kayla (a pseudonym) finds the basketball in her hands. She freezes. Up until now, it’s been a blur of pink-laced shoes squeaking up and down the hard wood floor.

Up until now, the last 30 seconds of her fifth game, Kayla hasn’t taken a shot. Instantly, something clicks. She runs down the court, dribbling uncontrollably until she makes it close to the basket. There’s 12 seconds left, and no one to pass to. She shoots. The ball spirals through the air, all eyes on her. The ball falls a metre short from the ring, the buzzer sounds, and the bench erupts.

Kayla has missed. They’ve lost the game. But you wouldn’t have been able to tell.

Parents and teammates on their feet, screaming, jumping, and clapping. Kayla just launched her first shot of the season, five weeks in, and the smile on her face is a sight better than winning.

Kayla is one of the millions of kids in the Territory whose lives have been impacted by these little sporting wins. Along with physical wellbeing, kids in Canberra are learning important life skills and improving their mental health, confidence, and abilities simply through participating in sport every week.

It has been clinically proven that sport and exercise have a variety of psychological benefits for people of all ages. For children especially, participation in organised sport not only keeps them healthy, but can contribute immensely to achieving key early life outcomes. Through participating in a team sport, children are more likely to develop sound techniques to control their emotions and mitigate negative feelings. Additionally, children who play sport that requires perseverance and resilience to learn new techniques can actively transfer these skills to the classroom and other hobbies. 

These benefits do not start at winning. In fact, it has nothing to do with being the fastest, or the strongest, or beating every single team in the competition. Rather, it has everything to do with just showing up. In a recent study conducted by the Child Mind Institute, Clinical Expert James Hudziak emphasised the importance of sporting environments for children. “We don’t support children being on sports teams because we want to create the next great athlete… We do it because of the benefits of being in a goal directed environment with peers who expect you to behave well.”

Child running and dribbling with ball
Child running to the basketball hoop to shoot the ball.
Child shooting a basketball

Karen Ayers has been a children’s basketball coach for 18 years, and coached over 40 teams. She is a prominent figure at Tuggeranong Southern Cross Basketball Club. In this time, she’s seen it all. From kids who are just a bit too angry, to those who would probably rather do homework than speak to other kids, Karen has been there for all the highs and lows. Currently coaching the under 12s team, Karen was right there on the bench when Kayla performed the move that sent the crowd wild.

“It would probably be one of my favourite parts about coaching, when someone shoots a goal. And sometimes that can take all season. The joy on their face when they actually do something that they have been working all season for, it’s just lovely” 

Karen Ayers

“You’re trying to raise really good adults who belong to the community and feel part of the team, who feel that they’ve got value and that they are valued. What you notice is that a lot of kids turn up, they’re brave, they walk into a stadium, they don’t know who they’re going to run into and they don’t know what’s expected. And some of them are so nervous they can’t do anything. By the end of the training, their eyes are lighting up, there’s a huge joy, they’re no longer scared, and they’ve faced their fears.”

In 2013, The International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity assessed the association between participating in a team sport and emotional wellbeing. The assessment found that as a whole, greater participation in team sport was associated with a lower risk of emotional distress. Additionally, the research concluded that participation in physical activities reduced the risk of body image issues, and increased positive feelings of self-worth, physical appearance, and physical self-esteem.

These generalised studies provide us with expert advice on how most kids respond to sport, but what about those that aren’t in the majority. The ones who don’t like sport because they find it hard to make friends, or because they are too scared to try something new. Does this research, these positive impacts, apply to them? 

Karen’s experience in coaching has shown her that children learn important social skills through playing team sport. She’s watched as her most introverted participants are brought out of their shells simply because they see their teammates twice a week. Karen has seen kids who refused to let go of their mum’s hand sprint into the stadium with confidence three weeks later. She’s noticed that ‘angry’ problem child stop and help their opponent back to their feet, showing kindness they’ve never been able to express before.

“The ability to learn is something that is a lifelong skill. So that anxiety, self-worth, the confidence they get when they actually do something they haven’t been able to do before, that they work on and work on and work on, and the pride that they get when they do that.”

And Kayla, our star who missed the winning goal of the game? She shoots at least once a game now. And while they don’t all go in, and some are probably a bit too ambitious, she does so with a big smile on her face, because she knows she can do it.

For more information about the benefits of playing sport and being active for your children, please visit the Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care.