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Community Development: In sport, we trust

Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be less socially connected and experience lower levels of happiness and wellbeing. New research from charity Sported shows that sports clubs can play an important role in turning this around. Sported’s CEO, Nicola Walker, explains the findings

Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 3
Sported looked at the link between sports and community development
Sported looked at the link between sports and community development

Over the last three years estimates show that local councils have reduced spending on youth services by an average of 40 per cent, with some councils even reporting cuts as high as 91 per cent. Since 2010, over 600 youth and sport clubs have permanently closed, leaving young people in some of the most economically deprived areas of the UK with nowhere safe to go and nothing to do.

One of the most visible and high-profile consequences of these closures has been the rise in serious youth violence, but the ripple effects extend much further.

Visit a local sports club and you will hear countless examples of how young people’s lives have been transformed. And yet the corresponding quantitative evidence of sports groups’ impact on the lives of young people and, more specifically, on community development is less prevalent and robust. Indeed, Sport England’s 2016 Sport Outcomes Evidence Review cited the latter as “one of the hardest outcomes to evidence” and noted “there is considerable scope for building the evidence base further around community development”.

To contribute to this gap in the evidence and – most importantly – highlight what’s at stake if more grassroots sports clubs and community groups are allowed to fail, we commissioned new research to investigate the link between sports club membership and wellbeing and social capital. We undertook an innovative analysis of five nationally representative UK datasets, labelled as: Understanding Society (total sample size: 140,845), Community Life (36,330), Taking Part (27,447), Sport England Active Lives (107,469) and Understanding Society Youth (11,929). Here’s what we found…

The findings
Our research found that a trust deficit is dividing the UK and damaging community life. Young people from lower socio-economic groups (LSEG) are 23 per cent less likely to trust their neighbours, despite talking to them more, compared to those from higher socio-economic groups (HSEG). They are also less socially connected and their pool of friends is less diverse (at least according to Understanding Society data). Furthermore, young people from LSEG are considerably less likely to volunteer compared to HSEG.

The good news is that sports clubs have an important role to play in bridging this trust divide. Our analysis concludes that when young people are members of a local sports club there is a positive impact on the following outcomes:

• Trust – trusting people in general, trusting neighbours

• Social connections – having friends, number of close friends, relying on friends, satisfaction with friends

• Community cohesion – talking to people in the local area, belonging to local area, satisfaction with local area

• Volunteering – consistently positive and significantly so across all datasets; in particular formal volunteering

• Perceived ability to achieve goals (perseverance) – in the Active Lives data.

• Life satisfaction (in all datasets) and happiness (wherever measured)

• Health (in all datasets).

Importantly, the data reveals that those from disadvantaged backgrounds have the most to gain. When young people are part of a local sports club, those from LSEG report a ten-time higher increase in trust and a three-time higher increase in life satisfaction compared to those from HSEG.

Controlling for socio-economic factors in sport
It is important to acknowledge that affluence and earnings are positively associated with all of the five wellbeing outcomes from the 2016 Sporting Future strategy: physical health, mental wellbeing, individual development (education, skills, confidence), community development (trust, social mixing and volunteering) and economic development (eg monetary spend on playing, watching sport). So, we need to ask the question: is it playing sport and membership of sports clubs that is improving health, wellbeing and trust or is it simply the higher income, education or socio-economic background of sport players?

To isolate the association between sports club membership and wellbeing for young people (as much as possible in the current datasets), we used multivariate regression analysis. This means that we’re not just reporting simple correlations between sport and trust, wellbeing or life satisfaction. By controlling for other factors, this work goes one step further in establishing the direct benefits for young people of being part of a sports club, and the impact this has on the ‘Community Development’ outcome sought by the DCMS 2016 Sporting Future strategy.

The importance of trust
Trust matters. It underpins many of the social outcomes that sport and grassroots sport groups deliver. It’s because of trust that a coach can challenge negative behaviour patterns and divert young people away from potential trouble. If young people trust those around them, they feel more free to express themselves and to open up about their difficulties. It’s trust that forms the foundation for key employability skills such as leadership, communication and teamwork. To put it simply, trust forms the foundation for every successful relationship at home, work or school.

Building trust does, of course, take time. It’s not something that is achieved overnight. It’s earned through hard work and commitment. It’s the fundamental reason why grassroots sports clubs are so effective at building trust, because they are there for their communities over the long term. Young people know they can attend their local club at the same time and same place every week and see the same familiar, friendly faces. Sport itself provides a ‘collective, purposeful endeavour’. It brings people of different backgrounds together around a common cause and helps challenge any stereotypes that may have previously kept them apart.

Securing the future
Our research demonstrates that the uplift associated with participating in a sport group is often significantly higher for people from lower socio-economic groups as opposed to those from higher socio-economic groups. This suggests that lower socio-economic groups have significantly more to gain from sports club membership. The reasons for this are as varied as the social issues that these clubs are helping to tackle – they provide a safe haven away from the streets, as well as stability and the time and attention of trusted adult authority figures, to name but a few examples.

It’s important that we recognise that community sport groups can play a significant role in reducing the sizeable inequalities that exist in our society, but they can only succeed at this if they’re able to survive over the long-term. By focusing investment, resources and support on those sports groups that are operating in the most deprived communities or working to tackle pressing local problems such as youth violence or social integration, we can maximise the social return on investment and help contribute to the equal, just society we all want to see.

Association between sport groups and outcomes by socio-economic class
For more information

See Sported’s full report, In Sport, We Trust, at

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