Kids in Sports, Part 5: Can sports help shy kids to make friends?

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Regular readers know that I'm a big believer in extracurricular activities for kids with social difficulties - having a supervised activity in an area of interest, with clear expectations and rules, can be an excellent opportunity to practice social skills and to reduce anxiety... and when you think about extracurriculars, chances are, you're thinking about organized sports. Previous research has linked sports participation to improved self-esteem and peer relationships, along with decreased anxiety. There is even some evidence that involvement in sports is related to a reduction in aggression in boys, but data about the impact of sports on kids with different interpersonal styles is limited. Leanne Findlay and Robert Coplan from Carleton University investigated the effect of sports participation on shy kids in a 2008 study in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. Shy kids are thought of as having a desire to play with others, but anxiety gets in the way of their social interactions. Shy children may avoid social situations, limiting the development of their social skills and potentially increasing anxiety about future interactions. There is some evidence that shy kids are more likely to be rejected by their classmates, which might confirm their fears and further increase their anxious reactions. Clearly, shy children are likely to have trouble in team sports, where it is difficult to avoid interacting with teammates; Findlay and Coplan found that kids who were more shy participated in fewer organized sports than their more outgoing peers.

In general, the results indicated that children who were involved in sports were more assertive, had greater confidence in their skills and physical appearance, and reported more positive feelings than those who didn't participate. Even though shy kids were less likely to join a team, those who did had higher self-esteem than shy children who didn't join in; Findlay and Coplan theorized that shy people who participate in organized athletics might feel more "valuable and competent in their social network," resulting in increased self-esteem. The major finding was this: shy children who were involved in sports over the course of a year reported a significant drop in anxiety about social situations. In fact, after a year, the social anxiety of the shy kids who played on a team was no different than the anxiety of kids who weren't shy!

This finding is another indicator that organized sports can have major benefits for kids, perhaps especially for those who are shy. A potential difficulty for parents might be convincing shy children to join a team, since they might prefer to avoid a potentially anxiety-provoking situation. We recently wrote a five-part series of articles about childhood anxiety, and some of those suggestions might be helpful for shy kids as well. Exposure is important, since avoidance can increase worry about anxiety-provoking situations; however, if a child is extremely scared of something, he or she will probably need some strategies to cope with anxiety before facing their fears. A consultation with a psychologist or a family doctor would usually be recommended in that case.

Parents might be able to increase their child's interest in a particular sport, though, which might motivate him or her to try it out. Watching games on TV, or bringing your kids to local games could work. Some kids become excited about a sport if their parent plays. A reader recently sent me a link to a post about getting involved in local sports, and some of those suggestions might be helpful as well!

You can read more about Findlay and Coplan's study here.

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