When I arrived in England a few years ago, I tried to find a soccer team for my older daughter. She is a perpetual-motion-kind-of-kid, and she is competitive. Soccer seemed like a healthy, outdoor alternative to non-stop wrestling with her sister and full contact hide-and-seek. But there were no all-girls’ teams around us. I was disappointed and outraged: the country that invented football didn’t seem to think girls were up to the task. Mostly, I worried she would miss out on something healthy and fun.
Science has proven my hunch.
Researchers from the University of Quebec in Outaouais and the University of Montreal found that kids who participated in organized extracurricular sports in kindergarten had higher levels of self-control at the end of fourth grade (age 10), including the ability to listen and follow directions, persist with a task, and ask questions. A wave of recent research shows higher levels of self-control better predict student achievement than even IQ.
Organized sports, it seems, might be helping kids build better brains.
The study, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion, randomly selected 2,837 infants born between 1997 and 1998 in Quebec. The researchers whittled down the group to 935 who had sufficient information from teachers and parents about the kids’ self-control, such as listening, being engaged, and getting things done. They crossed that against information from parents about what extracurricular activities the kids did, such as gymnastics and dance (structured physical activity) or music (structured non-physical activity). They looked at all these measures at the end of kindergarten, at about six years of age, and the end of fourth grade, at about 10 years of age.
The bottom line: children more involved in organized sports in kindergarten had 6% higher classroom engagement scores. “What surprised me was that only physical activities and not other types of structured extracurricular activities were related to classroom engagement,” Geneviève Piché, the lead researcher, told Quartz via email. The authors explain their findings this way:
Children involved in team sports, in particular, may develop a unique sense of belonging to their group of peers and coaches. Being part of a special group that has a common goal of thriving to win may heighten the importance of respecting the rules and keeping responsibilities. Also, as postulated earlier, the complex cognitive demands placed on children involved in team sports may promote acquisition of highly regulated behaviors and emotions, which then transfers to other contexts.
The research, which controlled for socioeconomic status, maternal education levels, and cognitive ability, does not prove causation. And the sample of 985 kids was relatively small and white. But the fact that the effect applied to structured sports and not to other structured activities, or unstructured sports, suggests that early participation helps to facilitate self-regulation skills such as being goal-directed, and self-disciplined, the authors argue. (The study also showed that children better engaged in the classroom in kindergarten participated in more structured physical activities in the fourth grade.)
Should parents rush to sign their kindergarteners up for organized sports? Piché says yes. “It seems to help develop different skills related to self-regulation and self-regulation skills are important for academic success but also, for several important components of adult life, such as getting and keeping a job, social and family relations,” she told Quartz.
As for my daughter, I persisted with the search. We found co-ed teams, but none for just girls. By age six, she didn’t want to play with the boys anymore so we stuck to dance and tennis. But I had a nagging feeling that she would really love team sports, if I could just find some.
This autumn, we discovered the Barnes Eagles, an all-girls team for seven-year-olds. I was thrilled for reasons I couldn’t quite pinpoint. She was not: she didn’t want to go. But after 15 minutes of her first practice, she was beaming. She loved it. She is by no means the strongest player on the team—I recently heard her ask another girl on the team how long her braid was in the middle of a match—but she revels in the camaraderie, physicality, and consistency of it. Even in the freezing cold rain. That’s science enough for me.