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Short Fuses: Do Some Sports Make Kids More Violent?

New research challenges the conventional wisdom that youth sports are universally beneficial for kids.

On the heels of the Olympics, while we're still giddy having witnessed all that astounding human accomplishment, while many high school kids—full of ambition—are just beginning to try out for their varsity teams, the connection between youth sports and violence is getting a closer look. Pump money into youth sports programs and you'll decrease anti-social behavior and fighting, right? Well, the truth is far murkier, points out Elias De Leon from Youth Radio.

De Leon zeroes in on a couple of recent longitudinal studies that upend some deeply held conventional wisdom when it comes to youth sports and their social benefits. University of Colorado sports sociologist Jay Coakley questions the empirical support for these "mythical beliefs" in the universally beneficial impact of athletics, writes De Leon.

Since the 1970s, Coakley has edited a textbook on what social science tells us about sports, including a chapter on violence that analyzes all the latest research. He says the best studies are longitudinal, following athletes and non-athletic peers through their adolescent years and then comparing incidents of violence.

Some of the most recent research to do that is from Xin Jiang, a PhD candidate at Ohio State, who studied data provided by more than 13,000 teens from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Her study, published this year in the Journal of Youth Adolescence, did not find "across-the-board advantages"—in other words, lower odds of being involved in violence—for young people who participated in sports-centered extracurriculars.


GOOD created the above chart with the help of Youth Radio's reporting to illustrate some of the more striking findings of the recent research into contributing factors behind youth violence. If curtailing fighting is the goal, it would appear that schools could do worse than beefing up funding for chess club and the tennis team. The big takeaway though, is that contact sports increase the chance of fighting dramatically. These sports, of course, need not simply be organized violence, perpetuating the disorganized variety. Coakley points out that truly effective coaches do have the ability to curb aggression.

"If you want to create sports that actually have a chance to reduce violence," said Coakley, "there has to be this explicit emphasis on anti-violence kinds of norms and approaches to life." In other words, coaches would need to coach about life skills and not just sports skills in order to make any measurable difference in their players’ risk of violence.


High school athletics are sanctified in our country. Scores of Hollywood films have spun heatfelt coming-of-age tales out of events on the football field or in the gym. How many movies have you seen about the Chess Club or the Mathletes? Youth Radio's De Leon doesn't dispute the benefits of school athletics—he played football for his Brooklyn high school and fondly recalls "the rush of being on a battlefield"—but he raises some interesting questions and rightfully challenges youth sports evangelicals to take a closer look at the stats.

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