Neuroscience Intern, The Avielle Foundation
Biochemistry Junior, Middlebury College
Here at TAF, we’re committed to preventing violence and promoting brain health through research and community education. What goes into preventing violence, however, is more than just eliminating its risk factors; it’s identifying and building protective factors that lead to kindness, connection, and compassion as well. We’re not only talking about ways to prevent violence, but taking time to appreciate nutrition and fitness because of the strong connections between brain health and healthy, fit bodies, and with satisfaction with life. With this in mind, we wanted to take a scientific approach to the commonly held belief that exercise – particularly playing sports – is one of the protective factors we’re looking to encourage. Often we hear parents explain that they encourage organized sports for their children to “keep them out of trouble.” But does it actually prevent violence?
There is clear evidence that the physical fitness derived through sports participation has many benefits.
The benefits of keeping our kids physically fit and active so profoundly outweigh any risks there is no question it should be enthusiastically encouraged. We also know that participation in sports has benefits to brain health in terms of increasing our ability to learn and remember, building coordination, decreasing stress hormones, and increasing the discipline to control yourself (executive function). But what do we know about organized sports participation and violence prevention? You may be surprised to find that scientific research studying the effects of sports participation as a protective factor for violence prevention is weak at best. While we don’t yet know enough about the neuroscience of violence to study the effects of sports participation on the brain, there are a handful of studies exploring the effects of sports participation on violent behaviors.
One such study took place in 2010, led by Dr. Taylor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis titled The Impact of Sports Participation on Violence and Victimization among Rural Minority Adolescent Girls. In this study they surveyed not only participation in organized sports, but also drug and alcohol habits, responses to anger (called reactive violence), and violent victimization (such as sexual victimization and physical domestic violence). The Taylor research team hypothesized that organized sports participation will lessen violence and the chances of victimization. They found that sports participation was associated with fewer instances of physical violence, but an increase in reactive verbal and physical violence in response to anger. While aggressive reactions to anger may be considered more “acceptable” on the field, the problem is, as kids learn a certain aggressiveness to compete in their sport, this aggression may “run-off” into their daily life beyond the field or court. The Taylor group also found that female participation in sports correlated with fewer instances of physical as well as sexual victimization. Aside from the obvious benefit of avoiding victimhood, lowering rates of victimization might also be a preventative measure for violence: Victims of violence are more likely to act out violently in the future.1,2
While we lack scientific data supporting that making your child try out for the basketball, football, or soccer team will lead to an angelic, violence-free existence, we need not fear that a kid’s new set of soccer cleats will turn her into an angry Hulk off the field. While sports may potentially affect violence and victimization, the key to sports participation positively influencing an athlete is the presence of a good role model. For a child to learn prosocial norms, their coach and role model must be engaged, and must understand his or her role in the lives of the players. Recognizing emotional intelligence (being aware and in control of your emotions and interactions with others) and shaping appropriate responses on the court is the most crucial job a coach has. While building a player’s skills, coming up with new drills, or strategizing new plays are important, nothing is as essential as instilling an understanding and sense-of control over one’s emotions: Whatever behaviors are encouraged, supported, or modeled on the court, will be reflected off of the court. Sports authority and sports psychologist Dr. Jerry Lynch points out, “The influence of a coach is NEVER NEUTRAL!”3 A coach’s ability to not only build sport-specific skills, but more so their ability to connect with, motivate, and challenge a player is critical to a child’s experience.
Note that only 5% of children who play for a properly trained coach quit the next season, while 26% drop out after playing for inadequately trained coaches.4
The coach, however, isn’t the only influential part of a team or sport. While shaping the learning of players through sports seems to be beneficial, we must acknowledge that some other research has advocated for the contrary. Sports participation – particularly in males – may be positively related to substance abuse and other risky, violent behaviors. While more research needs to be done in this arena, the identity some assume in joining a team – the “jock identity” – may actually explain an increase in delinquent behaviors in association with sports.
Being a part of a team is a huge contributor to the adolescent identity. You’re no longer just a kid, teenager, or young adult. You become a team player; a member of a special culture and community. In an effort to remain within the realm of this team identity, athletes sometimes give-in to the peer pressure of their teammates and their behaviors suffer, becoming violent, risky, or dangerous. Cue instances of binge-drinking, hazing, and bullying controversies in athletic circles that frequent the news. Shaping emotional intelligence and understanding in youth may be preventative for violent behaviors as kids grow up. The influence of an invested, responsible coach and team leader that is willing to cultivate the prosocial and emotional learning of players (and their peers), as well as helping to shape a healthy team culture is highly underrated. Being taught how to appropriately behave in a competitive setting as well as seeing these behaviors modeled within a healthy team will encourage emotional responsibility and discipline throughout life.
Why then – in a generation where children are profoundly sedentary and overweight – are physical activities not a higher priority? In light of the clear cardiovascular health benefits and great potential for pro-social skill and character building, why are our physical education and athletic programs the first to be cut from community and school budgets? If playing sports boosts social support, can introduce positive role models, and can additionally correspond with fewer violent behaviors and victimization, in addition to the numerous health benefits, then why are today’s youth becoming less active and less healthy than the generations that precede them?5 When schools suffer budget cuts, funding for physical education and the arts are the first to go. By cutting physical education, for some kids their only opportunity for physical activity, you’re effectively cutting them off from a critical resource. Empowering students to take ownership of their physical health and nutrition by actively participating in gym and sports can not only combat the obesity crisis, but also has the potential to go one step further and help combat the crisis of violence in our society.
An enjoyable, effective, and informative physical education program frequently serves as an introduction between a child and sports they go on to play. The potential power of cultivating both brain health and physical fitness makes the value of playing sports immeasurable. The problem is we don’t know enough to claim this to be true. Research can only boast a correlation between fewer instances of violence and participation in organized sports. People are willing to investigate everything from the “potentially addictive” properties of Oreos to the influence of drugs on the brain or a drug’s relationship with violence: so why not brain health and sports!
There is no guarantee that playing sports has any direct effect on brain health as it pertains to violence, but what if it did? It would be a shame if years from now we found that playing sports directly reduced instances of violence through changes of brain structure and biochemistry, and we neglected to study it for so long. Furthermore, how easy, affordable, and accessible would it be to set-up a series of recreational sports programs in communities? How “worth-it” would it be to trade even a few shootings or instances of bullying, hazing, and sexual violence for hours of kicking a soccer ball around under effectively trained coaches in a healthy team environment?
1. Taylor M, Wamser R, Sanchez M, et al. “The Impact of Sports Participation on Violence and Victimization among Rural Minority Adolescent Girls.” Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal. Spring, 2010.
2. C. S. Widom and M. G. Maxfield. An Update on the “Cycle of Violence”. Ed. J. E. Samuels. NIJ, U.S. Department of Justice, Report, 2001.
3. O’Sullivan, John. The Ostrich Effect.
4. Smoll, SL. and Smith, RE. Effects of Enhancing Coach–Athlete Relationships on Youth Sport Attrition. The Sport Psychologist, 6:111-127, 1992.
5. G. Hulsegge, H. S. Picavet, A. Blokstra, A. C. Nooyens, A. M. Spijkerman, Y. T. van der Schouw, H. A. Smit, and W. Verschuren. Today’s adult generations are less healthy than their predecessors: generation shifts in metabolic risk factors: the Doetinchem Cohort Study. Eur.J.Prev.Cardiol. 21 (9):1134-1144, 2014.
About the Author
Emily is a junior at Middlebury College in Vermont. Originally from New Jersey, the move to such a beautiful rural area has made her increasingly appreciative of the environment and people around her. She has always had a passion for science, and is majoring in Biochemistry with a minor in Psychology. Coincidentally, Vermont has helped her recognize the science in nature and apply her knowledge in every day life. With this newfound appreciation for the environment, Emily was inspired by the idea of informing communities to make the world a better place, and she was drawn like a moth to a flame to the Avielle Foundation’s mission. After numerous psychology, chemistry, and biology classes, Emily continued to wonder about the complexity of the link between the brain and behavior. Hearing about tragedies on the news—like Sandy Hook and many others—made her question not only how such violent behaviors could occur, but also the brain’s involvement in the violence. TAF’s research into the relationship between the brain and behavior seemed to be grounded in exploring her questions and she couldn’t be more excited to learn!
Emily is also a member of the Middlebury College volleyball team. While she loves to play volleyball, she has a more general passion for sports and fitness. When she isn’t in the lab, you can find her exercising, playing a sport, or exploring the outdoors with friends. She is a strong believer in the link between healthy body and healthy mind, and appreciates how TAF incorporates fitness into their understanding of brain health. Emily is interested in investigating and learning more about how healthier lifestyles can influence the brain.