Exercise and sports participation has been established as an important factor in reducing the risk of many physical problems such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and obesity (Schiffman, 1994). Current research suggests that sustained exercise may also enhance psychological or emotional well-being as it is often called, and therefore can be used as an additional therapy in the treatment of some psychological disorders (Pelham, Campagna, Ritvo, & Birnie, 1993). The most consistent message derived from the adult literature is that, kept within healthful limits, there is often a positive relationship between exercise and emotional well-being, generally confirming the "feel good" effect often reported by regular exercisers (Kremer & Scully, 1994).
The literature in the area of sport, exercise, and emotional well-being has focused primarily on the relationship between exercise, sports participation and anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and more recently on psychosocial stress (Biddle, 1992). Since these are among the most common problems brought to the attention of mental health professionals, the idea that exercise and sports participation may alleviate some emotionally related problems and improve self-concept is appealing.
Exercise has been found to improve mood in adults including alleviating many forms of depression (Schiffman, 1994; Cox, 1994; North, McCullagh, & Tran, 1990; Weinberg & Gould, 1995). Generally, the literature also supports a relationship between increased exercise and reduced anxiety in adults (King et al., 1993; Petruzzello et al., 1991). While research and meta-analytic findings of a beneficial relationship between anxiety and exercise, the evidence is not as strong as those claiming the benefits of exercise and sport on depression. It appears that aerobic exercise is more beneficial if one is anxious but for depression both aerobic and anaerobic exercise seems similarly effective.
Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety, and stress of course are not restricted to the domain of adults (Cantwell, 1982). While not as extensive, some research has examined the links between exercise and sports participation in children and adolescents and reduced emotional and behavioral problems. Research suggests that the sport environment can provide socialization opportunities and place adaptive demands that are similar to those of other important life settings (Smith & Smoll, 1991). Organized sport is believed to influence the development of important behaviors such as cooperation, unselfishness, positive attitudes toward achievement, stress management, perseverance, appropriate risk-taking, and the ability to tolerate frustration and delayed gratification (Smith & Smoll, 1991). Through playing with others, children and adolescents can build cooperative relationships and meet their need to belong (Estrada, Geltand, & Hartmann, 1988). Similarly, they learn key cooperation skills as they work together and perform specific team roles. This need to be accepted and successful in one's peer group can be very strong especially as children enter adolescence. One way a young adolescent can gain acceptance and status among peers is to be good at activities valued by other youth. Sport provides an opportunity outside the classroom to do this, since athletic ability is often considered by their peers to be a strong social asset (Brustad, 1992).
The idea that youth who participate in sport exhibit fewer behavior problems has been supported by empirical studies. For example, in a large American study, Jeziorski (1994) found that participants in sports earned better grades, behaved better in the classroom, had fewer behavior problems outside the classroom, dropped out less frequently, and attended school on a more regular basis with fewer unexcused absences as compared to nonparticipants. Furthermore, Jeziorski found what nonparticipants were more likely to drop out of school, more likely to use drugs, more likely to become teen parents, more likely to smoke cigarettes, and more likely to have been arrested than were sport participants. …