Authors: Laura M. Morris1, Jason Foster2, Cara L. Sidman3, and Alyssa Henyecz1

1School of Health & Applied Human Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, NC, USA
2Former School of Health & Applied Human Sciences, University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, NC, USA
3College of Health Solutions, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA

Corresponding Author:
Laura M. Morris, EdD
601 S. College Road
Wilmington, NC 28403

Laura M. Morris, EdD, is an Assistant Professor of Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her research interests include leisure behavior, recreation/leisure in relation to lifelong health and wellbeing, happiness/positive psychology, and recreational sport and college student development.

Jason W. Foster, PhD, is a former Lecturer of Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His research interests include college student development, student identity development, student employment, and inclusive recreation facilities and policies.
Cara L. Sidman, PhD, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in Population Health in the College of Health Solutions at Arizona State University. Her research interests focus on wellbeing, online curriculum development and instruction, and college students.

Alyssa Henyecz is a recent graduate of the Recreation, Sport Leadership & Tourism Management program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. She is currently a graduate student at The University of South Florida.  

Campus recreation sport club participants: Exploring subjective wellbeing


This research examined the subjective well-being scores of sport club participants at a mid-sized Southeastern university. Understanding college student mental health is a growing concern among higher education administrators. Purpose: The goal of this study was to investigate the subjective wellbeing of university sport club participants by examining gender and team sport participation versus individual sport participation. Methods: A survey methodology was adopted to measure participant (N=181) perceptions of subjective wellbeing utilizing a valid subjective happiness scale. Results: No differences were found between gender or sport type and subjective wellbeing in this sample. All sport club participants indicated high levels of subjective wellbeing. Conclusions:As campus recreation professionals seek to enhance college student wellbeing and mental health, sport clubs may be a valuable option. While this study provides some insight into mental health and happiness within the context of sport club participation, additional research is needed to explore measures of wellbeing in this setting. Applications to Sport: Sport club programming at the collegiate level may provide a positive mental health activity for students.

Key Words: recreational sports, college students, happiness, mental health


Attending college may be one of the most stressful and pressure-filled time of a person’s life (2, 32). The number of college students with significant psychological problems, such as anxiety, depression and relationship concerns, is growing substantially (2). Contributing to mental health issues, college students’ psychological wellbeing is affected by stressors such as academics, financial responsibilities, social activities, new and independent experiences, or alterations with family and friends caused by beginning the college journey (32). The rise in mental health incidents has placed an increasing burden on campus counseling and student health resources which are limited, requiring emphasis also be placed on the prevention and promotion of positive mental health initiatives (14, 29). Consequently, higher education administrators are exploring various strategies to promote positive mental health programs and services to support students’ ability to flourish psychologically and academically (14, 33).

One way to assist students with positive mental health is through the provision of exercise and physical activity programs (5, 12, 32). Exercise has been well documented in its ability to reduce anxiety and depression by increasing self-esteem and other cognitive functions (5, 35, 40, 42). Further, research has purported that individuals who spend moderate to vigorous time exercising may be more psychologically well than those who do not exercise at all (5, 7, 40, 42).

Anxiety and depression are generally associated with a decrease in overall life satisfaction (32), while being more satisfied with life is a typical indicator of greater overall positive mental health (13). Participation in team sport and other leisure activities has been equated with exerting a positive influence on a person’s overall life satisfaction (12, 17). A study of athletes’ subjective, psychological, and social wellbeing found high rates of happiness and overall life satisfaction (22). Moreover, involvement in team sport has been documented as being positively associated with social acceptance, yet negatively associated with depressive symptoms (12).

Collegiate Sport Club Programs

Primarily, collegiate sport club programs are overseen by departments of campus recreation and housed within the division of student affairs, which are predominantly driven by tenants of student development and learning (4). It is estimated the number of students participating in collegiate sport club programs is greater than 2 million (31). Further, it has been suggested the number of club participants will continue to grow (21), which is supported by new factors such as the rapid growth of collegiate eSports programs (38) and the elimination of NCAA level athletic teams (30), meaning more students may turn to clubs for competitive athletic needs. With such a large number of collegiate level students involved in sport club programs, it becomes important to fully understand the effects of participation.

Sport club teams’structures vary by institution and between clubs. Unlike intercollegiate athletics, sport club programs require significant student leadership with minimal fan or media engagement (31). Sport clubs are more inclusive and less restrictive than intercollegiate athletics as most programs are administered without formal coaches (7) and practices are not mandatory. Finances are considerably different for sport club athletes as they pay dues and often various expenses related to participation (31). There are no scholarships, and participation in sport clubs is voluntary. The competition level also varies widely as some clubs are competitive while others are participation-based (7).

In terms of outcomes, collegiate sport club participation is thought to provide student engagement opportunities and improve student persistence (19). In addition, academic performance is often studied, yet with a common negative misconception regarding the impact of sport club participation. However, Kampf and Teske (19) found there was no significant difference between the academic performance of sport club participants and non-participants, and in fact, participants were more than two times as likely to enroll in classes the following year. Chu and Zhang (6) also connected sport club participation to positive academic performance and improved health and wellbeing.

Sport Participation and Measures of Wellbeing

There is considerable research related to sport participation and its impact on mental health and wellbeing (9, 12, 15, 26, 36, 37). Findings have been mixed, but most studies have indicated sport participation, especially team sports, reduces instances of depression and improves subjective wellbeing (12, 36, 37). Silva et al. (36) concluded that higher weekly frequency and longer duration of sports participation led to higher levels of subjective wellbeing.

When comparing sport participants to non-participants, Snedden et al. (37) found sport club athletes, intramural players, and college students who reported working out regularly all had higher mental component scores (MCS) and more positive mental health, on average, than physically inactive students. Yet, there was no difference on the MCS when comparing sport club participants, intramural players, and students who worked out regularly. Snedden et al. (37) findings suggest that participation in any sport and physical activity, regardless of competition level, may positively contribute to college students’ wellbeing.

There are limited studies specifically addressing measures of wellbeing for sport club participants in campus recreation settings. Chu and Zang (6), however, reported a positive association between sport club participation and health-related outcomes, particularly in regards to women and those classified as non-freshmen.

Gender and Sport Participation Wellbeing

Literature on gender and sport participation in terms of wellbeing has been well documented suggesting that female athletes are more likely than males to experience depression (34, 39, 41, 44, 45). Further, Schaal et al. (34) concluded elite female athletes were more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues than male athletes. These findings are consistent with mental health issues in the general population where females report more instances of depression and anxiety than males (1, 33, 46). Contrary to most studies on gender and sport participation however, Chu and Zang (6) found females who participate in sport clubs reported significantly higher subjective vitality levels (a positive feeling of self-generated energy) than males.

Team v. Individual Sport Participation

Research has demonstrated that athletes competing in individual sports were more prone to depressive symptoms than athletes competing in team sports (28, 41, 44). Snedden et al. (37) revealed undergraduate students who participated in team sports, but were not Division I athletes, reported higher mental health component scores (higher score relates to better mental health) with increasing sport and activity level affirming that team sport participation may provide students with mental health benefits.

Internal attribution may be one reason individual sport athletes have higher levels of depression (28). Success and failure are mostly based on the athlete’s individual performance, as they do not have teammates to blame or credit for personal results. Team affiliation, social interaction, and social support from teammates are also important components of team sport participation that impact mental health (9, 26). Armstrong and Ooman-Early (3) emphasized the importance of social support related to team sport participation as the key variable in lower depression levels of this group. 

Subjective Wellbeing

Mental health is often studied from a clinical perspective in relation to depression and anxiety. A positive theoretical approach for exploring mental health is to assess participants’ levels of subjective wellbeing (SWB), which is a scientific term for happiness and life satisfaction. The term relates to how individuals evaluate their own lives in respect to positive feelings and belief that life is going well (8).


The existing literature on subjective wellbeing and sport club participation in campus recreation settings is limited. The aim of this study was to investigate the subjective wellbeing of sport club participants at a mid-sized Southeastern university. Scores were analyzed on a subjective happiness scale by gender and in respect to team versus individual sport participation. Based on previous research related to mental health and sport participation, the following is hypothesized: (a) subjective happiness scores would be higher for men than women, and (b) subjective happiness scores would be higher for team sport participants than individual sport participants.



The sample population was comprised of sport club participants (n = 181) from a mid-sized (17,500) Southeastern university. After receiving permission from the Institutional Review Board and Campus Recreation, surveys were emailed to all 887 registered sport club participants for the spring 2020 semester (before-Covid-19 campus changes), with 181 students completing the subjective happiness scale (SHS) and demographic questions via online survey. This response represented a 20% return rate.


Subjective happiness levels among sport club participants were measured using a valid subjective happiness scale (SHS) (25). The SHS has been used in numerous other studies on happiness and wellbeing (10, 20). Sport club participants self-evaluated their subjective wellbeing while completing the instrument.


The SHS is a four-item instrument that uses a 7-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 7 (a great deal). One of the items uses reverse scoring. Sample items include: “Some people are generally very happy. They enjoy life regardless of what is going on, getting the most out of everything.  To what extent does this characterization describe you?” Test re-test reliability ranged from 0.55 to 0.90 (M = .72), while convergent validity had correlations of 0.52 to 0.72 (M = 0.62). Discriminant validity tests found all but one variable failed to reach statistical significance (14). Other research using the SHS (25) revealed an average college student score of approximately 4.88 (moderate to high happiness). While Lyubomirsky and Lepper (25) do not provide a norm scale for the SHS, they have published the following interpretation: “an average score runs from 4.5 to 5.5” (24, p. 34), depending on the group. Additionally, the authors note that, “college students tend to score lower (averaging a bit below 5) than working adults and older, retired individuals (who average 5.6)” (24, p. 34).

Questions related to sport and gender were also included in the survey. Club sport opportunities available at the university were listed and divided into two categories. Team sports (sports requiring two or more people on the same side coordinating movements) included baseball, basketball, cheerleading, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse, quidditch, rowing, softball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, volleyball, and water polo. Individual sports (sports requiring no coordination between individuals) included equestrian, golf, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, and triathlon. Respondents self-selected the sport club in which they participated. Students were also asked to identify their gender as male, female, or transgender.  

Data Analysis

Data analysis was completed using Jeffreys’s Amazing Statistics Program (JASP). Descriptive statistics for all variables in the study were provided. For bivariate analyses in Table 1, the participants were stratified into gender and individual or team sports, and the data were represented as mean ± standard deviation (SD). Independent samples t-tests were then used to compare the mean subjective happiness of gender and individual or team sports. For categorical variables, frequencies (number and percentage), SHS mean, and SD were calculated for the type of sport, and provided in Table 2.


The majority of the sample (65.75%) identified as female; one respondent identified as transgender, while the remaining 33.70% identified as male. Because only one student identified as transgender, this student was excluded from bivariate analyses examining gender. Freshmen (35.36%), sophomores (25.41%), juniors (23.20%), and seniors (14.92%) were represented. Specific sports were classified as either a team or an individual sport; 74.14% of the sample played a team sport (baseball, basketball, cheerleading, field hockey, ice hockey, lacrosse, quidditch, rowing, softball, soccer, ultimate frisbee, volleyball, or water polo), while the remaining 25.86% engaged in an individual sport (equestrian, golf, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, or triathlon).

Bivariate Analyses

T-tests were used to examine differences in subjective happiness by gender and individual or team sport. Males and females reported a very similar level of mean subjective happiness (M = 5.04 and M = 5.06, respectively). Participants engaging in team sports reported a higher level of subjective happiness than those participating in individual sports (M = 5.12 vs. M  = 4.96, respectively). These differences were not statistically significant. Overall, participants reported a generally high level of subjective happiness, with an average score of 5.04, and scores ranging from 1.25 to 7.0.  Table 1 presents the results of these t-tests.

Table 1: Differences in subjective well-being among club sport participants by gender and team or individual sport (n = 181)

  Subjective Happiness Score
Variable M SD t
Gender     -0.07
      Male 5.04 1.27  
      Female 5.06 1.23  
Team vs. Individual Sport     -0.78
     Individual 4.96 1.39  
     Team 5.12 1.16  
Subjective Happiness 5.05 1.25  
†p < .1.  *p < .05.  **p < .01.  ***p < .001.

Note. One participant identifying as transgender was excluded from comparative gender analysis (n = 180).  For the t-test comparing team versus individual sports, n = 174.

Finally, the number and percentage of participants engaging in each sport are provided in Table 2. While no statistical comparisons were made due to the small number of participants in each sport, mean subjective happiness scores are presented by specific type of sport.

Table 2: Subjective well-being scores, by sport (n = 174)

Type of Sportn%MSD
     Field Hockey74.025.910.77
     Ice Hockey31.724.670.38
     Ultimate Frisbee158.625.201.35
     Water Polo105.754.521.13


There is very limited research on the wellbeing of sport club participants. Thus, the goal of this study was to better understand the mental health and subjective wellbeing of this population. Overall, participants reported a generally high level of subjective happiness for college students with an average score of 5.04, and scores ranging from 1.25 to 7.0. Other research using the SHS (25) revealed an average college student score of approximately 4.88.

Gender and Happiness

The results of this study found males and females to have reported similar levels of subjective happiness (M = 5.04 and M = 5.06, respectively). This contradicts most existing literature that suggests female athletes are more likely to be anxious and depressed than their male counterparts (34, 39, 41, 44, 45). However, when specifically examining sport club participants, Chu and Zang (6) found females reported significantly higher subjective vitality levels than males. The current study found no difference in scores related to gender. Perhaps due to the unique structure of sport clubs, the associated social support, and intentionality of student development opportunities for all participants, sport club participation benefits males and females similarly. Results from this study warrant further research to replicate or build upon these findings. 

Team v. Individual Sport

Participants of team sports reported a higher level of subjective happiness than those of individual sports (M = 5.12 vs. M  = 4.96, respectively), but this difference was not statistically significant. Previous research has shown athletes competing in individual sports were more prone to depressive symptoms than athletes competing in team sports (28, 41). A lack of significant difference in this study may be due to the level of competition in sport clubs. Students receive the social benefits of being with club members (3, 9, 26), but not the added pressure that might accompany participation in individual sports at an elite level (18, 43). Perhaps because sport club athletes are not competing at “elite” status, the social benefits and physical activity outweigh the stress and negative events found in highly competitive environments (16; 22). Additionally, sport club participants are less concerned with scholarships and negative media attention (31), which can induce anxiety for college student-athletes (18). However, sport club culture does vary from club to club and across institutions. Some teams are under pressure to raise funds and compete on a national level.


There are several limitations of this study. This study used a relatively small sample size at a single university, thus reducing the generalizability or reliability of the results. The study relies on self-evaluation and self-reported data, thus reporting bias could have affected responses.


Sport clubs may provide a positive mental health opportunity for those who participate.  It may be additionally beneficial for women who scored the same as men in this study on the subjective happiness scale. As professionals working in student affairs departments explore ways to enhance student mental health, sport clubs may be a valuable option. Sport clubs provide the opportunity for physical activity, social support, personal growth and community (16, 22), which are elements that support subjective wellbeing (24). While this study provides some insight into mental health and happiness within the context of sport club participation, more research is needed as there may be benefit in further studying and connecting wellbeing to recreational sport clubs. A study comparing students who participate in sport club activities to those who do not participate is justified.

Applications in Sport

Despite the lack of statistically significant findings, the research provides additional information related to sport clubs and the potential mental health benefits for participants. In the future, researchers can use the findings to support new studies that explore wellbeing among collegiate sport club participants. Further, organizations such as the National Intramural Recreational Sport Association (NIRSA) can work to include subjective wellbeing as one of the many benefits of sport and recreation involvement among college students.

Further, with collegiate sport clubs sharing many similar characteristics with community sport league opportunities and serious leisure participants, the concepts from this study can easily be applied to other sport settings. Based on the participants in this study, it is likely the findings would be most applicable to other team sports, though there is reason to believe the analysis of subjective wellbeing in individual and non-team based sport activities, such as rock climbing or running, has merit. For example, the subjective well-being of individuals who participate in a given number of competitive running events each year could be weighed versus individual who do not participate in any type of competitive sport event.

Finally, while this study was limited to the exploration of subjective wellbeing among collegiate sport club participants, it is reasonable to assume such analysis would be applicable in other competitive sport settings.


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