The Positive Effects of Basketball on Child Development

With the recent emphasis being put on concussions in youth sports (and rightly so!) it’s easy to see the dangers that contact basketball benefits and child developmentsports can have on a child’s developing brain.

The risks of concussions are real and they should be addressed. But I feel that recently, such fear of these injuries has cast a shadow on the benefits that youth sports and exercise have on children’s brains.

A great synopsis of the effects exercise has on the human brain was written by Heidi Godman and can be found here in the Harvard Health Letter:


“Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.”

Sports and physical fitness, in general, have been found to have direct, positive effects on children’s brains as well. As Dr. Gwen Dewar points out in this article:

“Studies also indicate that fit children tend to have greater brain volume in the hippocampus, a brain region associated with memory (Chaddock-Heyman et al 2014), and these kids show signs of enhanced long-term retention. In one study, kids memorized new places on a map equally well, regardless of their fitness levels. But when they were tested on their retention the following day, the higher fitness children performed better (Raine et al 2013).”

Dr. Dewar goes on to discuss long-term benefits of consistent physical activity and explains that correlations have been found in children between such activity and attention span, self-discipline, mood and math skills just to name a few. Through their research, scientists have been able to link an increase in brain activity with physical activity.

This is something that former President John F. Kennedy understood well. The video below explains JFK’s beliefs on physical fitness and its effects on mental health.

JFK believed, correctly in my opinion, that physical activity is an integral part of functioning society. Obviously, the images of PE classes in the video are a far cry from what we see in schools today. 

As Americans, we should work to conserve the belief that a certain level of intense activity is an important part of children’s development and that after-school/club sports, like basketball, are a great way to make-up for what we have eliminated from school activities.

What would Americans look like should we allow our kids to avoid physical activity?

We all know the health risks, diabetes, heart disease, etc., of a sedentary lifestyle. But now we must bring back into focus the direct effects that physical activity has on the human brain.

In some ways, I equate this with my dog. If I do not regularly give him the exercise he needs, he’s an out of control terror that is a menace to my household. When he is walked and gets a chance to run, he is happier and well behaved. His behavior can be traced to chemical reactions in his brain when he gets his exercise…or doesn’t get his exercise.

Ok, now back to humans. Yes, there is a certain level of risk in allowing children to play contact sports and I am not arguing that such sports are the only way to realize the brain-building benefits that I have mentioned above.

I only hope to point out that while there are dangers in sports (as in everything in life), the dangers of allowing kids to not be physically active have not been given the proper attention. Physical Education is declining in America and a lot has been made of the negative aspects of youth sports. 

Basketball incorporates running, jumping, lateral sliding and mental strategy. Combine that with the fast pace of play and basketball becomes one of the most demanding team sports there is. On a personal level, of all the sports I played growing up basketball was the most physically challenging (although I did run the 800 in middle school track and it put me on the Cognitive and Emotional Development Through Basketballground!)

When you combine the physical and mental demands of basketball with the life skills and social benefits it can instill in kids, the rewards outweigh the risk. Add on top of all of that the direct health benefits to a child’s developing brain and the risk-reward is not even close. 

I believe these factors should be our main focus when encouraging kids to play sports. Not dreams of riches and fame, not adults reliving their glory years, not the desire for personal admiration and attention, not bragging rights amongst parents, but the physical, mental and social health benefits of physical activity.

If we are physically and mentally healthier individually, we are physically and mentally healthier as a society. If there was ever a time in recent history that we need a mentally healthy America, it is now!

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