Coached Activities Help Preteen Health

"Tweens" involved in coached extracurricular activities are less likely to try smoking

As students across the region prepare for fall athletic season, Dartmouth researchers are reporting that these activities can bring more health benefits than cardiovascular health and obesity prevention. "Tweens" (preadolescents aged 10-14) who participate in a coached team sport a few times a week are less likely to start to smoke. Their study on the relationship between extracurricular activity and youth health risk behaviors was published in the May issue of the journal Academic Pediatrics.

Coached activities can help shape healthy habits in tweens

Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, PhD
Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, PhD

"How children spend their time matters," said lead author Anna M. Adachi-Mejia, PhD, a member of Norris Cotton Cancer Center's Cancer Control Research Program. "In a nationally representative sample we found that tweens who participate in sports with a coach were less likely to try smoking. Parents and guardians may think that tweens need less adult supervision when they are not in school. However, our research suggests that certain coached extracurricular activities can help prevent smoking and drinking at a time in life when young people can start to get hooked."

Other studies examining teen extracurricular activity have focused on academic outcomes and adolescent development, or have focused on alcohol and marijuana use more than tobacco when examining health risk behaviors.

"Unlike those studies, we examined a younger age group, and we focused on the relationship between extracurricular activity and health risk behaviors," said Adachi-Mejia. "Rather than asking about sports participation in the context of activity only, we framed our questions to ask about team sports participation with a coach and participation in other sports without a coach—none of the other studies have asked specifically about coaching."

Tweens in coached team sports less likely to try smoking

In 2003 researchers conducted a national telephone survey of 6,522 students between 10 and 14 to study the influence coached extracurricular activities had on preteen smoking and drinking. More than half of the tweens said they played team sports with a coach a few times a week. Almost half of the students took music, choir, dance and/or band lessons a few times a week or more and over half of the students attended religious activities a few times a week or more.

Participating in team sports with coach a few times a week or more (compared to none or minimal participation) was the only extracurricular activity associated with lower risk of trying smoking. Participating in non-school clubs a few times per week or more (compared to never to a few times per month) was the only extracurricular activity associated with a lower risk of trying drinking.

More coached team options could reach more tweens

Adachi-Mejia notes that more research is needed to better understand the underlying reasons behind these differences, but she says the findings offer yet another reason to be thinking about what kinds of team sports offerings are available for youth.

"Unfortunately, in the transition from the tween to adolescent years, coached sports teams face pressure to shift from a philosophy of inclusion to a greater emphasis on winning," she said. "This shift potentially shuts out tweens with fewer skills and/or lesser interest in facing the pressures associated with increased competition. I'd like to encourage communities and schools to explore possibilities of how they might offer an option of noncompetitive, affordable team sports with a coach for youth who just want to play for fun."

This study was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute (NIH CA77026 and AA015591). Coauthors on this study are Jennifer J. Gibson Chambers, Zhigang Li, and James D. Sargent.