Think that getting high school students involved in team sports will help keep them away from drugs, alcohol and other unhealthy behaviours?
It's not entirely true, according to research presented today at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in Philadelphia in the US.
Team sports participation appears to have both "protective and risk-enhancing" associations for high school students, Dr Susan M. Connor of the Injury Prevention Centre, Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, Cleveland, US told Reuters Health.
Sports no panacea
"There is a lot of rhetoric," she said, "that promotes sports team participation as a complete positive - something that has no negative effects. Sports participation is kind of almost rhetorically positioned as a panacea for social ills; it will stop crime and alcohol and drug use. But all the bits and pieces of evidence suggest that's not really true."
Connor and her colleagues analysed survey responses from a representative group of more than 13,000 US high school students who participated in the 2007 Youth Risk Behavioural Survey.
"Our hypothesis was that sports team participation would not be overwhelmingly positive but it would have positive and negative effects, which is just what we found," Connor said.
Less smoking, more drinking
Roughly 60% of the boys surveyed participated in team sports in the past year. For these young men, sports team participation was associated with decreased levels of depression and smoking, but it was also associated with an increased likelihood of fighting, drinking and binge drinking.
Of the high school girls surveyed, 48% reported being on one or more sports team in the past year. For girls, the findings differed somewhat by race. For white young women, sports team participation was associated with decreased levels of fighting, depression, cigarette smoking, marijuana use, and unhealthy weight loss practices, Connor and colleagues found.
There was no association between sports team participation and drinking for white female students. However, for black high school girls, sports team participation was associated with increased levels of binge drinking.
"This was unexpected and something that needs follow up," Connor said. "You'd think that sports participation would have no effect or a protective effect on drinking in black female athletes the same as it did for white athletes. I would imagine that it has more to do with socioeconomics than with race," she added.
Type of sport
Another big unknown, Connor added, is which particular sports may have protective or risk-enhancing effects on teen athletes. "I would imagine that the type of sport, the level of competitiveness, the social environment of a community all plays a role," Connor said. "I think when we break it down by sport we will find some explanations for the observations we found."
The Youth Risk Behavioural Survey, Connor noted, "gives us huge numbers and access to a lot of kids in a lot of different places. It's a wealth of information on the one hand, but on the other hand it does not go into a lot of detail so the study almost raised more questions than it answered." - (Reuters Health, November 2009)