Sports Team Participation As A Predictor For Self-Esteem In Adolescent Females

Stephanie Campbell
Darlene Haff*

Nevada State College

Key Words: Sports, Sexual Activity, Substance use, Adolescent, Females


This study examines how sports team participation on one, two, or three or more teams is correlated with female adolescent reports of feeling sad and/or hopeless for two or more weeks, being hit by a boyfriend, the number of sexual partners, and substance abuse using the Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System. A total of 8,280 female adolescents were drawn into the sample. Chi-square tables were used to analyze feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness for two or more weeks, being hit by a boyfriend, and the number of sexual partners. A one-way ANOVA and post hoc test were used to analyze the substance abuse index. Overall, this study found that feelings of sadness and/or hopelessness and substance abuse were significantly reduced with sports team participation. There was a non-significant increase in the percentage reported to not have been hit by a boyfriend between those who did not play on a sports team and those who played on one sports team. Lastly, females with no sex partners or a lower number of sex partners were more likely to be involved with sports team participation.


The Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS) seeks to monitor inadequate physical activity as a contributing factor for death and disability among US adolescents. The Centers for Disease Control (2009) recognized that nearly half of adolescents, ages 12-21 years, were not physically active and inactivity was more common among female adolescents. Additionally, although it is important to understand the direct factors physical involvement can have on adolescents, it is equally important to recognize the indirect contribution physical involvement can play, particularly for females.

Adolescence is a critical time for separation from relationships from parents and other caregivers that allows for the establishment of independence during childhood. Although becoming more self-reliant, males and females adolescents must also establish their own unique identity formation. Further, female adolescents must also consider cultural expectations and their own adoption of feminine behavior. This puts females at risk for depression, eating disorders, poor body images, and a significant decline in self-esteem. However, when female adolescents are able to participate in school-organized sports, they have higher self-esteem and have a more positive body image (Jack, n.d.).

This study aimed to examine all sports involvement as a correlate for self-objectification in the form of at-risk behavior for females in grades 9-12; specifically, understanding whether sports involvement will correlate with less at-risk behavior. The hypotheses tested within the study were:

H1: Adolescents who report less feelings of consecutive sadness or hopeless for two or more weeks have less sports involvement.

H2: Female adolescents who report less physical violence from a boyfriend will report greater sports team participation.

H3: Adolescents who report fewer sexual partners will report greater sports team participation.

H4: Adolescents who report less substance use will report greater sports team participation.

Literature Review

Past studies have demonstrated that sports participation during adolescence can affect the individual's health and well-being during adolescence. Dodge and Lambart (2009) evaluated the variables of physical activity during adolescence and subjective health in young adulthood using the data and sample collected from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent health, in an effort to determine a possible beneficial relationship. It also aimed to present evidence using a controlled variable to bridge the gap from past studies where physical activity in adulthood has been specifically tied to sports participation in adolescence. Data from in-school questionnaires and in-home interviews were used in 1994-1995 (wave I), then in-home follow-up interviews a year later (wave II), and finally, nearly 15,000 at home interviews six years later in 2001-2002 (wave III). Sports participation was evaluated by questioning the participations past week's physical activity; positive self-beliefs were measured as the participant agreed or disagreed with indicative statements. Subjective health was rated by participants by using a 1-5 scale, from poor to excellent. The findings yielded evidence that indicated sports participation in adolescence was associated with higher levels of physical activity as well as higher ratings of subjective health in young adulthood. Additionally, participation in sports was the only predictive variable. Lastly, organized sports participation correlated with positive self-beliefs a year later.

Slater and Tiggemann (2012) considered the objectification theory as theoretic framework to understand how developing within a culture that views and treats female bodies as a means for use and pleasure of others might lead young females to take on another's perspective on their body as their own. They longitudinally examined 141 adolescent females by survey focusing their time since menarche as well as the level of sport participation and the roles these variables would play as predictors of self objectification. The time since menarche was chosen as it is a less intrusive indicator of puberty, a time when a female and others within her culture develop opinions of her body changes. It was calculated by subtracting the age of menarche onset from participants' age. Sport participation was chosen since few studies have sought to longitudinally examine the potential relationship other studies suggest between being an athlete and lower levels of body shame. It was calculated by totaling the amount of time the participant spent on organized sport(s) each week. To measure self-objectification, participants rated the importance of five body attributes as well as five physical competence attributes. The survey was retaken one year later. The results indicated that there was no relationship observed between the time since menarche and self-objectification, yet girls who had begun menstruation had higher levels of self-objectification. Sports participation proved to have a negative relationship to self-objectification, proving to be the first study to provide evidence for sport participation as a factor against self-objectification. Additionally, girls who did not participate in sports had increased self-objectification levels from Time 1 to Time 2.

A decline of participation in physical activity of adolescent girls prompted Dwyer et al (2006) to study adolescent girls living in ethnoracially and socioeconomically diverse cities in an effort to identify barriers of Canadian adolescent girls. Participants completed a background survey in an effort to appropriately represent the city of Toronto's adolescent females. Seventy-three girls, ages 15 and 16, were chosen to participate in one of seven groups. The focus groups allowed for participants to explain why they moderately, vigorously, or seldom participate in physical activity, as well as the difficulties faced to participate moderately or vigorously, and finally, what the city could do to help them and other adolescents become more involved in physical activities. The factors identified as barriers were lack of time; involvement in technology-related activities; the influence of peers, parents, and teachers; a concern for safety; costs associated with activities; competition; and body-centered issues. The results did not support that different ethnicities faced different barriers.

Using the views Interpretive Phenomenology, Yungblut, Schinke, and McGannon (2012) sought to understand how girls experience and interpret physical activity as well as its lacking presence within their lives. Other studies have suggested that physical activity declines with age, especially during adolescence, and girls are less active than boys during all ages. Reflexive interviews, using a reflexive logbook and little-prompting techniques, were conducted on two cohorts: the first consisted of 15 girls, age12-14, and the second consisted of 20 participants, ages 15-18, with active and non-active girls equally represented in both groups. In an effort to trace decision patterns as participants made sense of personal and social worlds through their particular experiences, the interviews allowed for some non-bias probing in order to gain further insight on current and future physical experiences. The 45-minute interviews allowed for participants to discuss their experiences with physical activity; the themes and sub-themes within their responses were analyzed by a focus group of 6-8 individuals across the age cohorts. Responses from the interviews and focus groups were analyzed by a female youth panel to further create themes and sub-themes of five vignettes based on five identified themes: (a) friends or don't know anyone; (b) good or not good enough; (c) fun or not fun; (d) good feeling or gross; and (e) peer support or peer pressure. In summary, many social influences created adolescent views on physical activity; their views on sports participation were also focused on skill and performance rather than recreation. An important finding was the need for a friend to participate with them to alleviate possible embarrassment from not performing the activity well. Another important factor was feedback for social acceptability of the physical behaviors, in addition to the struggle to maintain appearances when participating in physical activities. Although these findings may not seem new, they indicated a clear need to reassess the structure of the programs as well as the social context in which they were offered from a top-down process, instead of ground up-.

Cultural stereotypes within the US associate sports and heterosexual masculinity for boys but use female sport success to question female heterosexuality. Little quantitative data explores a possible association between sport and sexuality as well possibility differences by gender. Particularly, by examining the extent to which sport and sexuality interact in adolescence, the relationship may impact one's perception of gender. Zipp (2011) used a feminist perspective to examine the Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health data to explore sexuality and sport participation for adolescent boys and girls in the US. The predictor variables were gender, grade in school (ranging from 7-12th grade), and sexuality, with sexuality specifying desire, affection, behavior, and fantasy as well as various interpersonal relationship factors. The outcome variable was whether the student participated in basketball, baseball, football, ice hockey, soccer, swimming, tennis, track/field, volleyball, wrestling, another sport, or not at all. These outcome variables represented team contact sports, team no-contact sports, as well as individual sports. The controlled variables were race/ethnicity, parent occupation, physical fitness, and body mass index. It was found that very few differences in degrees and sports type participation exists among sexual minorities and majorities of both genders. However, by analyzing the data using cross-sectional methods between grade levels, sexual minority boys were less likely to participate in sports while sexual minority girls were more likely.


The Centers for Disease Control is responsible for an on-going study that administers a one-time survey to adolescents in grades 9-12. The survey, known as the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBSS), aims to assess six at-risk behaviors which contribute to the leading causes of death and disability among youth and adults. These behaviors include those that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence, sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection, alcohol and other drug use, tobacco use, unhealthy dietary behaviors, and inadequate physical activity as well as asthma and obesity. The study was administered by means of paper-and-pencil questionnaire to the nationally representative sample of 16,435 students attending public and private schools. The questionnaires were self-administered, and the responses were recorded on computer-scannable answer sheets.


Sports participation. During the past 12 months, on how many sports teams did you play? (Count any teams run by your school or community groups.) (0 teams; 1 team; 2 teams; 3 or more teams)

Feelings of sad and hopeless. During the past 12 months, did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities? (yes; no)

Hit by Boyfriend. During the past 12 months, did your boyfriend or girlfriend ever hit, slap, or physically hurt you on purpose? (yes; no)

Number of sexual partners. During your life, with how many people have you had sexual intercourse? (I have never had sexual intercourse; 1 person; 2 people; 3 people; 4 people; 5 people; 6 or more people)

Substance use. The following measures were summed into a composite measure, Substance Use Index, for which the Cronbach's alpha was .711, indicating reliability. The mean and standard deviation for the index were 13.02 and 4.93, respectively, with a range of 1-49:

Have you ever tried cigarette smoking, even one or two puffs? (yes; no)

During the past 30 days, on how many days did you use chewing tobacco, snuff, or dip, such as Redman, Levi Garrett, Beechnut, Skoal, Skoal Bandits, or Copenhagen? (0 days; 1 or 2 days; 3 to 5 days; 6 to 9 days; 10 to19 days; 20 to 29 days; All 30 days)

During your life, on how many days have you had at least one drink of alcohol? (0 days; 1 or 2 days; 3 to 9 days; 10 to 19 days; 20 to 39 days; 40 to 99 days; 100 or more days)

During your life, how many times have you used marijuana? (0 times; 1 or 2 times; 3 to 9 times; 10 to 19 times; 20 to 39 times; 40 to 99 times; 100 or more times)

During your life, how many times have you used any form of cocaine, including powder, crack, or freebase? (0 times; 1 or 2 times; 3 to 9 times; 10 to 19 times; 20-39 times; 40 or more times)

During your life, how many times have you sniffed glue, breathed the contents of aerosol spray cans, or inhaled any paints or sprays to get high? (0 times; 1 or 2 times; 3 to 9 times; 10 to 19 times; 20 to 39 times; 40 or more times)

During your life, how many times have you used heroin (also called smack, junk, or china white)? (0 times; 1 or 2 times; 3 to 9 times; 10 to 19 times; 20 to 39 times; 40 or more times)

During your life, how many times have you used methamphetamines (also called speed, crystal, crank, or ice)? (0 times; 1 or 2 times; 3 to 9 times; 10 to 19 times; 20 to 39 times; 40 or more times)

During your life, how many times have you used ecstasy (also called MDMA)? (0 times; 1 or 2 times; 3 to 9 times; 10 to 19 times; 20 to 39 times; 40 or more times)

During your life, how many times have you used a needle to inject any illegal drug into your body? (0 times; 1 time; 2 or more times)

Sample Characteristics

Table 1 describes the sample size as 16,435 adolescents; 50.7 percent being male and 49.3 percent being female. Also described are the valid percentages of participants within their grade levels: 25.4 percent were in grade level 9, 24.1 percent were in grade level 10, 25.1 percent were in grade level 11, and 25.3 percent were in grade level 12. Lastly, the table describes the ethnic differences between participants: 70.5 percent were of Non-Hispanic ethnicity, while 29.5 percent were of Hispanic ethnicity. Caucasians accounted for 42.8 percent while African Americans made up 17.6 percent, Asian and Pacific Islanders accounted for 5.8 percent, and American/Indian along with Alaska Natives totaled .9 percent.

Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for Socio-Demographic Variables (n =16435)___________

Variables Valid Percent
  Male   50.7
  Female   49.3
  Yes   29.5
  No   70.5
Grade Level    
  9th   25.4
  10th   24.1
  11th   25.1
  12th   25.3
  Caucasian   42.8
  African American   17.6
  Asian/Pacific Islander   5.8
  American Indian/Alaska Native   .9


Because the purpose of this research was to test study predictions using a female sub-sample, only cases that indicated female as their gender were selected for analysis (n=8,280). Table 2 describes the statistics for female sports team participation. Of the female participants, 43.8 percent of the sample had participated on zero teams within the last 12 months. Within this same time frame, 26.4 percent played on one team, 17.1 percent played on two teams, and 12.1 percent played on three or more teams.

Table 2.Descriptive Statistics for Female Sports Team Participation (n = 8280)___________

Variables   Valid Percent
On How Many Sports Team Participation Within the Last 12 months
0 Teams   43.8
1 Teams   26.4
2 Teams   17.1
3 or More Teams   12.1



Chi-Square Analysis

Sad / Hopeless. Table 3 indicates a significant correlation between feeling sad/hopeless in the past 12 months and sports teams (χ2= 41.72; p<.001). Specifically, as sports team involvement increased, the percentage of sad/hopeless female adolescents decreased, with exception of three or more sports teams. Across levels of sports teams, the percentage of absence of sad/hopeless feelings was greater than the percentage of presence of those feelings. In fact, for female adolescents on 1-2 sports teams, those not reporting sad/hopeless was almost 2.5 times greater than those who did.

Hit by boyfriend. Table 3 also indicates there was not a significant correlation between being hit by a boyfriend and sports teams. Although not statistically significant, the percentages of adolescent females who are on sports teams and were not hit by a boyfriend were higher than the percentage of those who were hit.

Number of sex partners. Lastly, Table 3 indicates a significant bivariate correlation between the number of sexual partners and sports teams (χ2= 53.02; p<.001). The Chi-Square results show that females with no sex partners or a lower number of sex partners were more likely to be involved with sports teams. Over half of the sample reported no (zero) sex partners regardless of level of sports participation.

Table 3. Chi-Square Results for Sad/Hopeless; Hit by Boyfriend; Sex Partners________

Sad/Hopeless: Yes Hit By Boyfriend: Yes Sex Partners: None Sex Partners: 1 Person Sex Partners: 2 People Sex Partners: 3 People Sex Partners: 4 People Sex Partners: 5 People Sex Partners: 6 or more
0 Teams
  Observed 2115.0 736.0 3126.0 1093.0 611.0 447.0 251.0 190.0 540.0
  Expected 1871.9 735.2 3103.8 1101.9 625.1 439.5 239.0 177.3 571.3
  Percent 49.5 43.9 44.1 43.4 42.8 44.5 46.0 46.9 41.4
1 Teams
  Observed 1105.0 421.0 19.13.0 691.0 371.0 253.0 132.0 82.0 323.0
  Expected 1125.3 441.3 1867.4 662.9 376.1 264.4 143.8 106.7 343.7
  Percent 25.9 25.1 27.0 27.5 26.0 25.2 24.2 20.2 27.8
2 Teams
  Observed 621.0 282.0 1150.0 407.0 280.0 188.0 104.0 80.0 230.0
  Expected 729.5 286.2 1209.7 429.4 243.6 171.3 93.2 69.1 222.7
  Percent 14.5 16.8 16.2 16.2 19.6 18.7 19.0 19.8 17.6
3 or more Teams
  Observed 429.0 237.0 901.0 326.0 166.0 116.0 59.0 53.0 212.0
  Expected 543.4 213.3 909.1 322.7 183.1 128.7 70.0 51.9 167.3
  Percent 10.0 14.1 12.7 13.0 11.6 11.6 10.8 13.1 16.2
  χ2 99.81*** 4.08 4.15**
**p<.01; ***p<.001

One-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) and Post Hoc Testing

Table 4 presents results from one-way ANOVA and post hoc testing (Tukey's Honestly Significant Differences). Results show a significant relationship between the number of sports teams and scores on the Substance Use Index (F = 4.15 [3, 15555]; p<.01). Post hoc testing showed that adolescent females who reported no sports team involvement had a significantly higher mean score on the composite measure than did counterparts who were on 1 team (p<.05). Table 4. One-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA)_________________________

Variable n Mean StandardDeviation
(a) 0 teams 6819 13.75b* 5.82
(b) 1 team 4101 13.41 5.08
(c) 2 teams 2660 13.50 5.31
(d) 3 or more teams 1979 13.78 6.34
Note: (b) = 1 team


The findings indicate that sports team participation is a significant correlate of risk behaviors defined by the CDC (1999). Participation on at least one sports team was statistically associated with less substance abuse, less sexual partners, and less feelings of sad and/or hopelessness as well as a non-significant correlate with less dating abuse. The study did not find statistical correlation between being hit by a boyfriend and the number of sports teams, but a noteworthy non-statistical correlation between participation on one sports team and participation on no sports teams.

The findings within the study may be due to the female adolescents' introduction to another culturally accepted view of being a female athlete and identifying themselves as more psychologically masculine (Jacks, n.d.). Further research of the sports-team participants' beliefs regarding their self-image would be beneficial for this purpose.

Another factor that may have influenced the correlations could have been lack of time and a reorganization of priorities. For example, while playing on one or more sports teams, the athletes may not be influenced by the media and societal thoughts about female body types and attitudes due to fewer opportunities to read magazines, watch television, and listen to the radio. Balancing time and sports as a priority may have also led to less opportunities to engage in substance abuse or sexual encounters. It should also be noted that participating on a sports team usually requires a drug-free and more academically pristine record. Lastly, by associating more with teammates who help accomplish collective goals and developing relationships with those who share similar identities, participants may have less reason to feel sad or hopeless for more than two weeks at a time.

One limitation to this study is the failure to incorporate two measurements within the substance abuse index. Questions from the YRBSS including, "During your life, how many times have you used hallucinogenic drugs, such as LSD, acid, PCP, angel dust, mescaline, or mushrooms?" and "During your life, how many times have you taken a prescription drug (such as OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Codeine, Adderall, Ritalin, or Xanax) without a doctor's prescription?" were not available for analysis. Further, a non-statistical correlation was found that as adolescents increased the number of sports team participation, their experiences with substance abuse increased. This may be due to the stresses of time management and pressure from coaches as well as sports injuries or experimenting to find an outlet to relax.

The potential benefits to sports team participation found within this study demonstrate a need for further investigation into the field. Several studies have been completed regarding physical activity, yet the relationships developed between teammates and coaches could be another influential indicator. It is important to uncover the exact causes as to why female athletes are at lower risk for hazardous behaviors. Further, discovering the key to balancing the right number of sports teams participation could serve as a predictor of self-esteem as well as a protector against such risk behaviors.


Center for Disease Control. (1999, Nov 17). Physical activity: A report of the surgeon general. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/sgr/adoles.htm.

Dodge, T., & Lambert, S. F. (2009). Positive Self-Beliefs as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Adolescents' Sports Participation and Health in Young Adulthood. Journal Of Youth And Adolescence, 38(6), 813-825

Dwyer, J. M., Allison, K. R., & Goldenberg, E. R. (2006). Adolescent Girls' Perceived Barriers to Participation in Physical Activity. Adolescence, 41(161), 75-89.

Jack, D. (n.d.). The impact of sports on adolescent development: The importance of title ix. Manuscript submitted for publication, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA, Retrieved from http://forumonpublicpolicy.com/vol1.no2.wr/jack.pdf

Slater, A., & Tiggemann, M. (2012). Time since Menarche and Sport Participation as Predictors of Self-Objectification: A Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Girls. Sex Roles, 67(9/10), 571-581.

Yungblut, H., Schinke, R., & McGannon, K. (2012). Views of Adolescent Female Youth on Physical Activity During Early Adolescence. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 11(1), 39-50.

Zipp, J. (2011). Sport and Sexuality: Athletic Participation by Sexual Minority and Sexual Majority Adolescents in the U.S. Sex Roles, 64(1/2), 19-31.


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