Posted by: Norman Brook | January 3, 2010

Positive Youth Development & Sport-in-Development

The International Platform on Sport and Development recently conducted an e-debate about Sport-in-Development, with the sub-topic of health providing the context for the discussion.  The debate was conducted through three rounds with each round focused on two key questions.  The main theme of the debate centred on the balance between the sport and educational (life-skills) components of sport-in-development programmes.

Despite growing acceptance that sports based programmes provide a means of addressing wider development objectives (Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group, 2008) there still remains amongst some donors an uncertainty, or even cynicism, as to the effectiveness of such programmes in addressing development goals.  According to Coalter (2007), traditional outcome-based approaches to measuring effectiveness face methodological and environmental difficulties when applied in the sport for development context. These difficulties do not help make the case for donor support of sport-in-development programmes.

As it is difficult to make direct links between participation in sport and the development of positive behaviour amongst young people it is understandable that programmes aimed at addressing social issues such as HIV/Aids, substance abuse, or youth crime, should focus on the educational or life-skills training.  This in turn leads us to the debate on how much sport and how much educational (life skills) training?

In the e-debate, the Norwegian Sport for Development Consultant, Pelle Kvalsund, whom I recently had the pleasure of working with in Johannesburg, makes the case for sport.

 “Sport is what attracts the children and it’s therefore ‘the glue’. If we reduce sport too much, the glue becomes less effective, and the effects of sport start to reduce. Although it’s important to use sport to spread important health messages, we must make sure we don’t ‘kill sport’ in the process.”

Kylie Bates, Senior Sport for Development Consultant for the Pacific Region with the Australian Sports Commission, in contributing to the e-debate, suggests that the issue may be wider than the balance between sport and educational components of sport-in-development programmes and may be more about how the context of such programmes develops positive behaviour.

“It’s well documented in research on topics from tobacco use to safe sex that being informed about health issues is only the first and possibly the least significant step in adopting a healthy behaviour. The crucial next steps involve being convinced the behaviour is worthwhile, taking action, re-confirming the idea is a good one and maintaining the behaviour.

While sport’s convening power provides an opportunity for education (and even that should be applied cautiously “We come to play netball, not learn about aids” said one young participant in a program in Zambia), the real value lies in the influence a quality sport program has on other components of behaviour change process.

For sport to impact on the adoption of healthy behaviours, it needs to do two things well.

Firstly, the sport experience needs to be “sticky” to be valued by its participants. That is, it needs to be inclusive, well organised, challenging and fun. Secondly, the sports activities need to be designed in a way that promotes the factors that contribute to people choosing healthy behaviours.

If a sports program can increase individuals’ ability to lead, network, communicate, cooperate, self determine, become more active, inform each other and develop a sense of responsibility and respect, then there is a strong argument for its contribution to the later parts of the behaviour change cycle.”

This suggests taking a wider view of how youth programmes develop young people to be able to make healthy decisions in life.  Zarret et al (2009) suggest that where sport is combined with life skills training and other factors, such as sustained and positive adult role models and opportunities to develop leadership skills, it can contribute to the development of positive behaviours in young people. 

The study and theory of how different settings develop enhanced positive behaviours and decreased risk behaviours in young people is known as Positive Youth Development (PYD). The PYD movement believe that all young people possess strengths and their families, schools and communities possess development assets. Aligning the strengths that young people have with ecological assets promotes positive youth development.

Lerner (2004) suggests that three important features of effective youth development programmes are:

  1. positive, sustained adult-youth relationships;
  2. skill-building activities for youth;
  3. youth participation and leadership in every facet of the program.

The requirement for positive, sustained adult-youth relationships emphasises the importance of deploying skilled leaders and coaches in sport-in-development programmes and ensuring that their capabilities include being able to work with young people in a positive and sustained manner.

The need for skill-building activities supports the idea of programmes delivering quality sport and educational (life-skills) training.  This means delivering regular quality sport that meets the sporting needs of the young people, along with wider educational (life skills) components that assist personal development.

The practice of involving young people in decision making and developing them as peer leaders is a component of many a sport for development programmes. 

The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (NRCIM, 2002) suggests that the following eight development assets need to be present in PYD programmes:

  1. Physical and Psychological Safety
  2. Appropriate Structure
  3. Supportive Relationships
  4. Opportunities to Belong
  5. Positive Social Norms
  6. Support for Efficacy and Mattering
  7. Opportunity for Skill Building
  8. Integration of family, school and community efforts

Lerner (2000) in describing the Positive Youth Development approach suggests that the contexts that bring together young people’s strengths and align these with developmental assets develop five characteristics in young people.  These are:

  1. Competence
  2. Confidence
  3. Character
  4. Connection
  5. Caring

The development of these personal and social characteristics lead young people to a) make positive contributions to self, family, community and the institutions of a civil society and b) enhanced positive behaviour and reduced risk behaviour.  It is the development of the 5 C’s that lead to young people making healthy decisions.

If the sports and educational (life skills) content are but two of the “development assets” that sport for development programmes need to comprise, perhaps the debate started on the International Platform on Sport and Development needs to be extended so that we can better understand all the components needed to create effective initiatives that lead to positive and healthy decision making in young people.  Do we need to understand better how we create the right context through sport to develop positive youth and reduced risk behaviour in young people and by doing so to be more effective at addressing the wider development goals?


Coalter, F. (2007). Sport: A Wider Social Role?: Who’s Keeping the Score?, Routledge, Oxon, UK.

Lerner, R. M., Fisher, C. B. & Weinberg, R. A. (2000). Toward a science for and of the people: promoting civil society through the application of developmental science, Child Development, 71, 11–20

Lerner, R.M. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among America’s youth.

National Research Council and Institute of Medicine (2002) Community programs to promote youth development (Washington, National Academy Press).

Sport for Development and Peace International Working Group (2008), Harnessing the Power of Sport for Development and Peace: Recommendations to Governments, Right to Play, Canada

Zarrett, N., Fay, K., Li, Y., Carrano, J., Phelps, E., Lerner, R. M. (2009) More than Child’s Play: Variable- and Pattern-centered Approaches for Examining Effects of Sports Participation on Youth Development, Developmental Psychology. Vol 45(2), 368-382



  1. Hi Norman,

    I also followed the e-debate on the SDP website and am glad to see you have posted about it.

    Within the Coalter book that you cite there is a quote from Patriksson which parallels your conclusion.

    “Sport, like most activities, is not a priori good or bad, but has the potential of producing both positive and negative outcomes. Questions like ‘what conditions are necessary for sport to have beneficial outcomes?’ must be asked more often”.

    Patrikksson also has another statement (I can’t quote since I do not have it in front of me) which goes something like: which sports and sports processes produce which outcomes for which sections of the populations in which circumstances. It is a bit of a mouthful, but highlights the complexity of processes involved.

    I think most of us that are involved in this field have been positively impacted by sport and feel that sport can have a positive influence on youth. However, trying to identify the necessary ingredients and plan appropriate programmes becomes problematic.

    In William Easterly’s book ‘White Man’s Burden – Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done so Much Ill and so Little Good.’ Easterly makes the distinction between planners and searchers. He argues that top-down planners have mostly failed in their efforts to ‘aid the rest.’ His arguments go into a lot more depth, but with this overall theme in mind I wonder how effective it is to plan and embed ‘life-skills’ curricula into sports programmes.

    Growing up and being involved in youth sports I never had coaches who were trained in a ‘life-skills’ curriculum and I was still able to “lead, network, communicate, cooperate, self determine, become more active, inform each other and develop a sense of responsibility and respect.” The context I grew up in is obviously very different then the context in which most sport for development projects occur, but I still feel that putting an emphasis on ‘life-skills’ distracts from some of the more sustainable benefits of sport.

    In terms of Easterly’s debate I wonder if it would be better to help communities build strong youth sports associations and then allow communities to search for solutions.


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