Study Investigates Connection Between Sports Participation and Creativity

October 14, 2014

The type of sports participation children engage in can influence their level of creativity in adulthood, according to a new study out of the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. The research was conducted by Matt Bowers, a clinical assistant professor in kinesiology and health education, and published in Creativity Research Journal last month.

“I’ve always had an interest in creativity on the one hand, but also sports,” said Bowers. “I’ve really been fascinated by the question: Can we use sports to do things we don’t normally associate with it? For example, does it have an effect on something like creativity? And if so, does that effect differ depending on the setting in which the sport is played?”

To determine if there might be a link between sports participation and creativity, Bowers and his team explored the amount of time a select group of adults spent in various leisure settings during childhoods and their current creative aptitude. Bowers was particularly interested in the amount of time they spent participating in organized and unstructured sports settings.

“I’ve coached at a number of levels and been involved in youth sports for a long time, and I’ve seen it get to a point where I’m uncomfortable with the level of professionalism and the kinds of demands placed on kids,” he said. “I started to wonder if this was having a corrosive effect on what sports can do for kids

“Given my interest in creativity, I began to consider whether people who spend a lot of time playing organized sports see different creative development than people who spent more time playing a lot of informal neighborhood and pickup sports. This was an exploratory study to see if we could tease out any kind of relationship between sports participation and creativity.”

Bowers began the study with little expectation of definitive findings, but the results were surprisingly clear-cut.

According to his analysis, which included 99 upper division undergraduate and graduate students, hours spent in organized sports settings was negatively related to creativity as an adult, while time spent in unstructured sports settings positively correlated with adult creativity.

The sample of participants consisted of 64 men and 34 women, ranging in age from 19 to 33.

“We chose that age range because previous research suggests for many individuals the developmental peak in creative thinking occurs between the ages of 21 and 29, the typical range for upper-division undergraduates and most masters-level graduate students,” said Bowers.

The study used two instruments to measure the relationship between creativity and childhood leisure and sports participation patterns: the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA) and a childhood leisure activities questionnaire. The ATTA is a shortened version of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking that quantifies the subject’s creativity by assessing skills such as the ability to produce unique, relevant ideas, embellish those ideas with details, and process that information in different ways.

The childhood leisure activities questionnaire consisted of context-specific sport and leisure participation rates during childhood that gathered demographic information and measured the sports experiences of participants over the lifespan of their academic careers.

The researchers found that there was a 14 percent difference between the creativity of those who played organized sports versus the ones who engaged in informal sports activities.

“I really didn’t think we would be able to find as robust a relationship as we did,” Bowers said. “We were very conservative in the way we designed and analyzed the study. Even though it is a retrospective, non-experimental study, we still found a strong relationship between the time spent playing in these unstructured settings and their creative aptitude as adults.”

Most notable was the finding that there is a significant negative relationship between overall creativity and hours spent playing organized sports, and a significant positive relationship between overall creativity and hours spent playing informal sports.

On average, with all else equal, participants needed to spend about 2,041 hours playing organized sports throughout their childhood and adolescence to see a roughly ten-point deduction in their creativity from the mean (which is a score of approximately 67 on the ATTA).

On the other hand, they needed to spend only around 1,263 hours playing informal sports to see a ten-point increase in their creativity. Given the ATTA scoring rubric, these standard deviations from the mean can represent the difference between those individuals displaying below-average creativity and those displaying above-average creativity.

Bowers stated that although the hour totals may appear substantial, when spread over the course of an entire childhood and adolescence, they reflect moderate participation patterns.

“For example, in order for an adult participant to see a shift from average creativity - about 67 on the ATTA scale - to relatively high creativity - about 77 on the ATTA scale - the participant needed to spend only, on average, 1,263.58 hours playing informal sports, all else being equal,” he said. “If these 1,264 hours are spread over, say, 12 years, only about 105 hours per year – or about two hours per week – of playing informal sports is required to see a relatively dramatic shift.”

Bowers is quick to point out that the paper is not an indictment of organized sports and, instead points to some of the potential value in the less structured sports activities that seem to be disappearing for many youth.

“The implications of this aren’t a complete rejection of the current sports system,” he said. “We found that it’s really about balancing the time you spend in different settings. Our results suggest that you don’t have to play exclusively in unstructured settings. If you find a balance between those and other leisure activities, that suggests a stronger connection to higher levels of creativity.”

- Jason Gelt, jgelt@austin.utexas.edu

Last updated on November 4, 2014