With the Olympic and Paralympic Games piquing the public’s interest in sport, the publication of Making the Case for the Social Sciences: Sport and Leisure from the Academy of Social Sciences examines the complex impact of sport and leisure on society. Download the booklet for free as a pdf.
The booklet summarises a number of social science research case studies demonstrating their impact in the worlds of sport and leisure. At a Whitehall launch event, the Academy’s Chair Professor Cary Cooper observed that sport is an important part of our society, shown to contribute to health, community spirit, team work, stress reduction and more.
Commenting on the value of sport and the Olympics in particular was Sir Keith Mills, Deputy Chairman for LOCOG. Sir Keith commented on the very unique ability sport has to reach young people. He explained that during the bidding process, the committee decided to use the 2012 Games as catalyst to inspire young people around the world through sport. The aim is to inspire 12 million children in 20 countries, and in reality they will reach many more than that. Through his own Sported foundation, Sir Keith wished to extend those opportunities within the UK by supporting the large infrastructure of small clubs and organisations that already exists, helping them to work more effectively by providing specialist advice as well as financial support.
His comments were echoed by the Rt Hon Tessa Jowell MP, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Shadow Minister for the Olympics and current member of the Olympics Board. She paid tribute to the publication of Making the Case for the Social Sciences: Sport and Leisure, looking at the multitude of benefits that sport brings at every stage of our lives. In addition to the international inspiration project, Ms Jowell outlined the work being undertaken in Schools Sports Partnerships (SSP) in the UK, which brings trained, specialist coaches to ordinary schoolchildren, raising participation levels and, more crucially, their enthusiasm for sport. Noting the fundamental role played in developing young people’s life skills and its power to reduce offending, she expressed the hope that the Coalition Government would rethink their policy on SSPs. “Sport is not an optional extra,” she said.
Tessa Jowell went on to issue a further challenge, this time to funders, including the Big Lottery Fund and Sport England, for a reduction in the bureaucracy and other obstacles that hinder local sport initiatives. “We have an extraordinary window of opportunity,” she said adding that it was possible within the available structures to transform a generation of young people through sport.
The launch event heard presentations on two of the booklet’s case studies.
Professor Kathy Armour AcSS (Head of Department of Sport Pedagogy at the University of Birmingham) talked about a project which looked at the effect sport had on the lives of over 7,000 disaffected and disadvantaged young people. Though effective when used correctly, sport is not a simple solution and young people can have complex problems. Firstly Professor Armour emphasised the importance of asking the right questions – the needs that potential participants perceive may not be anything like those assumed by the organisers. She also emphasised that you can’t expect sport to have a magic effect, and it doesn’t work by itself. However, when wrapped with other elements, it can be amazing. The research identified a number of these other elements including taking a positive youth development approach, which diagnoses children’s particular needs as individuals. She described the benefits of developing relationships between young and adults outside of the normal school context and establishing positive relationships from which both children and adults benefitted. She also emphasised the need for extension pathways beyond the specific activity offered. Sport really can help young people, but a complex solution is needed to address the complex problem.
Professor David Lavallee (Head of the School of Sport at the University of Stirling) discussed his research into the transitions Olympic and Paralympic athletes make during and after their sporting careers. In particular he addressed the loss of identity associated with retirement from professional sport, typically at a relatively young age, and the ways the effects of this can be managed over the whole career. Whilst his work was helping many current and past elite athletes, the findings were also relevant to the issues faced by retiring servicemen and women in particular.
An extensive panel discussion ensued and the speakers were joined by Debbie Lye, International Development Director for UK Sport, and Steven Day, CEO of the Fulham Football Club Foundation, a charitable organisation working with disengaged young people in communities around London.
The role of sport as a force for good in society was the key theme. Debbie Lye noted the world-leading nature of the UK’s School Sports Partnerships initiative, which had attracted interest and imitation around the globe, whilst Steven Day talked about the role of sport-based initiatives in providing alternatives to gangs and criminal activity for disaffected young people; it is not the mass participation events that change lives, it is the smaller, intense programmes tailored to individual needs that make a lasting difference.
Tessa Jowell underlined the importance of sensitivity to gender and culture in sports provision, saying that we need to understand the micromanagement of the way sport is represented as well as ‘ask the right questions’ to uncover the true reasons for low participation rates amongst girls in particular. Clive Efford MP, shadow Minister for Culture Media and Sport, raised the issue of extending the use of existing facilities.
As well as highlighting the complex problem surrounding engagement in sport and the benefits from sport and leisure, audience members discussed some challenging issues: what is the proper role of the Academy, for example? Should we be providing critical knowledge or sport evangelism? Debbie Lye welcomed the role of the Academy of Social Sciences in bringing together disparate disciplines to communicate across the interface and so move understanding forward. The discussion noted the challenges posed by the interface between the research and policy communities. Promoting the knowledge economy is a key strategy of UK Sport, said Ms Lye. She discussed the evidence emerging from a UNICEF sports leadership project with women and girls in India which was transforming lives, expectations and cultural understanding of gender roles, but noted that assembling the evidence base that was vital to take the work forward was a very slow process.
One key question that arose concerned the role of social scientists in aiding policy development. Should social scientists be the ones who ask difficult questions and take the objective view, or should they respond to pressure to do work that strengthens policy decisions. Tessa Jowell observed that she was often presented with ‘inconvenient’ research evidence when in government and had felt that politicians cannot make decisions purely based on evidence. The politician’s role was to bring in analytical views and take political decisions. There needs to be mutual respect for these different perspectives, she stressed. Kathy Armour added a call for social scientists to work to overturn the perception that academic research is generally negatively critical and show how it can help take policy forward. Sir Keith Mills noted that policy makers were often looking for a steer towards more fertile possibilities rather than a complete answer to a complex question with many unknowns. Cary Cooper added the need to be honest with research findings and to resist the temptation to twist data to suit policy needs.
A further common thread amongst panel and audience was that it is not just policy and academic worlds that need to communicate better, but there is a need for greater sharing within those worlds too. Greater linking through sharing best practice, experience and even facilities can only be beneficial. However, Sir Keith observed that sport was a dysfunctional, disconnected discipline with no central strategy. This leads to poor communication with the politicians and the media and holds back change: sport needs, he said, to speak in a better connected manner to move beyond the media focus on professional sport to a wider public understanding of the key role in society of sport for all. An improved public awareness of sport and leisure’s role in improving public health, especially the quality of the extra years of life now available to us would only help. Cary Cooper suggested that it is a cost-benefit analysis that is required to help persuade the policy makers to focus more on this important area, although Debbie Lye noted that the long lead time for the benefits to appear in terms of wider improved health and wellbeing was an inhibiting factor for governments around the world.
A concluding thought was to remember the importance of looking beyond immediate benefits of sport to the longer term benefits: does sport have a longer term impact or just at the moment of engagement.
Panellists agreed on the importance of asking the right questions at the right time, and to examine the economic benefits of investing in sport. As Professor Lavallee remarked, UK sport and leisure research is world leading. It needs to be given more of a chance to be heard and used.