October 25, 2016

Researchers Examine the Role of Sport in the Lives of Elite Athletes from Tough Backgrounds

Meredith Whitley, assistant professor of Exercise Science, Health Studies, Physical Education And Sport Management, knows that sport has the power to teach more than just physical skills; it has the potential to help young people overcome extraordinarily difficult situations. She and her colleague William Massey, assistant professor at Concordia University Wisconsin, both athletes themselves, have seen it first hand. Now, their research looks at sport as one component of an interrelated system that impacts youth development—and they have found that its impact is incredibly nuanced.

“At the start of this study, we felt there was a gap in the literature related to the complex role of sport in under-resourced communities,” she said. “Sport isn’t just on its own, isolated. There is a lot of interplay between sport, family, school and community, so there has to be a bigger focus on this interplay.”

In their early research, Whitley and Massey conducted 10 in-depth interviews with athletes who grew up in under-resourced areas, played at an elite level in their sport (including the NBA and NFL), and feel they are now living a healthy and/or fulfilling life. Through these interviews, sport wasn’t always discussed as a positive influence, and that it certainly didn’t stand alone.

“It’s really complex. Being athletes ourselves, we like to focus on the positive role that sport can play in the lives of all people,” she said. “But that’s not always the case.”

For example, some of the athletes they interviewed reported feeling as though their abilities and skills in sport were viewed as a “lottery ticket” by their families, and they were pushed to play sports not for fun or development, but as a way to get out of a problematic community. For others, sport simply was a neutral factor—it wasn’t a bad experience, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the chaos and turmoil at home.

However, sport does have the potential to be incredibly beneficial to young people who find themselves in difficult situations, Whitley explains. It just has to be done in the right way.

“Sport can serve as a space that is structured and consistent, where kids can feel a sense of belonging,” she said. “Many of the participants talked about entering sport not just because it’s fun, but because it’s a place to escape from what is going on at home and in their neighborhoods. It provided a place to be where things make sense and are predictable. Things add up in sport when, in other parts of life, there is a lot of chaos.” 

Positive relationships with coaches and peers also helps to create that safe space.

“Many of the athletes had coaches who would hold them accountable—if they showed up late, or fell behind in school, there’s someone who’s paying attention and cares about them as people, not just athletes,” she said. “Coaches believed they could excel, which created an overwhelming sense of support.”

And that sense of support and accountability is a key to success in other areas of life, too.

“It showed them, ‘You can improve and become successful’, not just in sport, but in other parts of their life as well. That develops a sense of confidence that can transcend sports, transferring to other domains, like school and work,” said Whitley. “These athletes started imagining a different future for themselves.”

This article includes information from two journal articles:

Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, Whitley, Massey, & Leonetti, 2016

Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health, Massey & Whitley, 2016

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