Childhood Sports Participation Influences Adult Creativity

The kind of sports participation you engage in during childhood influences your level of creativity later in life, according to research findings from The University of Texas at Austin's College of Education.

In a study published last month in Creativity Research Journal, assistant professor Matt Bowers found a significant negative relationship between overall creativity and hours spent playing organized sports and a significant positive relationship between overall creativity and hours spent on unstructured sports activities.

To determine whether there is a link between sports involvement and creativity, Bowers and his research team explored the amount of time their adult study participants spent in various leisure activities during childhood and their current creative aptitude. Bowers was particularly interested in the amount of time they spent playing organized sports compared with unstructured, informal, pickup sports.

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

According to his analysis, which included 99 upper-division undergraduate and graduate students ranging in age from 19 to 33, 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.

"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, who is in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education.

To measure the relationship between creativity and childhood leisure and sport participation patterns, Bowers used two instruments: the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults (ATTA) and a childhood leisure activities questionnaire. The ATTA 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 documents context-specific sport and leisure participation rates.

Researchers found that 14 percent of the difference in participants' overall creativity could be attributed to the amount of time they spent playing organized and informal sports.

On average, study participants who spent about 2,041 hours playing organized sports throughout their childhoods and adolescence saw a roughly 10-point deduction in their creativity from the mean (a score of approximately 67 on the ATTA).

On the other hand, those who spent only about 1,264 hours playing informal sports saw a 10-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.

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

"If the 1,264 hours are spread over, say, 12 years, only two hours per week of playing informal sports is required to see a relatively dramatic shift in creative potential," he said.

Bowers stressed that the paper is not an indictment of organized sports. It simply highlights some of the potential value in less structured sports activities, which, according to Bowers, are rapidly disappearing from many children's lives.

"The implications of this aren't a complete rejection of the current sport 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."