Methods: Our study was conducted among a sample of 2,121 middle and high school students (M age = 15.29 years, 52.6% Male, 70.9% White) who completed school climate surveys in 2020-2021. In total, 57.8% of youth reported continued involvement in organized sport during the COVID-19 pandemic. Youth completed valid, reliable, self-report measures that captured perceptions of sport competence (self-efficacy), social competence (social skills), and internalizing and externalizing behaviors (mental health outcomes; see Amorose, 2002; Anderson-Butcher et al., 2013). Research questions were tested using path analysis in MPlus Version 8.1. We tested a model where sport participation had a direct effect on sport competence and social competence, each of which was predicted to influence adolescent mental health outcomes. Thus, sport participation was only modeled to influence mental health indirectly.
Results: Results indicated adequate model fit (Χ2(2)=7.03, p<.03; RMSEA = .03; CFI = 1.00). All the relationships specified in the model were significant (p<.01) and in the expected directions. Sport participation predicted sport competence (β=.61), which in turn predicted internalizing (β=-.27) and externalizing behaviors (β=.07). Similarly, sport participation predicted social competence (β=.21), which in turn predicted internalizing (β=.-.41) and externalizing behaviors (β=-.13). Overall, the model accounted for 11% of the variance in internalizing behaviors and 16% of externalizing behaviors. The total indirect effects of sport participation on internalizing behaviors were -.24, and externalizing behaviors was -.06, both of which were significant (p<.01).
Conclusion and Implications: Middle and high school students that reported continued participation in sport during the COVID-19 pandemic reported positive perceptions of their competencies that then predicted lower internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Our findings point to the role of school sports in helping adolescents develop a sense of self-efficacy that, in turn, can buffer risks for mental health concerns. Notably, The Aspen Institute estimated that 30% of children and adolescents who participated in organized sport before the pandemic are no longer interested in participating. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, our findings can help inform school officials, public health experts, and parents/caregivers about the potential social and emotional benefits of participating in organized sports. Our presentation will discuss future decisions for school sports in addressing the health and well-being of children and adolescents as we transition beyond the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.