Getting into organised sport: youths’ stories of initiating participation
Organised sport is reputed to have positive outcomes for youth participants. Much of the research examining participation has employed motivational frameworks. In this paper, tenets of narrative inquiry are adopted. Through semi-structured interviews, data were produced with adolescents in North Western Switzerland. Data were organised according to three general narratives:
(1) Coming to sport through experimentation, (2) Coming to sport via family influence, and (3) Coming to sport through friends and peers.
Three arguments were built from the empirical material. First, while the available narratives might be used to encourage non-participants into sport, the small number also means that a consideration of alternative possibilities is warranted. Second, in contrast to traditional psychological models that frame individuals as decision makers governed by motives or drives, youths were more likely to position themselves within their own stories as passive opportunity takers. For this reason a rethinking of the ‘sports participant as decision maker’ might prove theoretically generative. Finally, although parents play a key part in youths’ stories, their roles are complex. Youths appear to find themselves in a position where they rely on parents for support into participation but cannot foreground this support in their personal stories.
Organised youth sport is widely understood to have positive consequences for participants. Sports scientists have claimed beneficial outcomes ranging from weight control (Pietilainen et al., 2008; Zahner et al., 2009) to stress reduction (Berger & Owen, 1988; Gerber, 2008; Röthlisberger, Calmonte, & Seiler, 1997) to psycho-social development (Bredemeier & Shields, 1993; Bredemeier, Weiss, Shields, & Cooper, 1987; Deflandre, Antonini, & Lorant, 2004) to active lifestyles later in life (Richards, Williams, Poulton, & Reeder, 2007). Even if all of these outcomes have at times been the subject of scientific debate – see for example, Begg, Langley, Moffitt, & Marshall’s (1996) insightful discussion of the psycho-social benefits of sport – the potential outcomes of sport during adolescence have provided ample justification for investigating the subject.
In the presence of ubiquitous and enduring drop out rates (Gould, 1987), a long-standing question has been why youths participate (Allender, Cowburn, & Foster, 2006; Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996; Hellandsig, 1998; Sirard, Pfeiffer, & Pate, 2006). Many person-centred explanations have been proffered as ways of understanding participation. Given that comprehensive reviews of the existing literature exist – see for example Weiss and Ferrer-Caja’s (2002) work – the purpose of this review is to present an overview of the types of understandings that have been applied to youth participation rather than a critique of individual investigations. With this overview established, the aims of the current paper are to: (1) introduce an alternative way of understanding youths’ participation in sport, and (2) demonstrate how this understanding can be reified in empirical work.
Area of study
Following Harter’s (1978) early work on competence motivation, a number of investigators have examined whether athlete’s judgements of their own competence play a significant role in continuing or discontinuing participation in sport. In an investigation of adherence in wrestling for example, Burton (1992) examined whether the perceived ability model explained athletes’ motivation to take part in sport. Similarly, in an investigation of the motives of young soccer players, Ommundsen and Vaglum (1997) tested the idea that players actively value or devalue soccer competence in light of how competent they consider themselves to be and that this in turn, affects whether they continue to play.
In person-centred investigations of sport participation, motivation has been fore-grounded (see for example, Sarrazin, Vallerand, Guillet, Pelletier, & Cury, 2002; Skard & Vaglum, 1989). Aspects related to competition, team atmosphere, and enjoyment have been identified as contributory influences to motivation (Petlichkoff, 1992; Ryska, et. al. 2002; Sirard, et. al. 2005; Skard & Vaglum, 1989). A number of investigations have suggested that motives vary across individuals (Petlichkoff, 1992; 1994). In accordance with more recent investigations (see for example, Ryska, Hohensee, Cooley, & Jones, 2002; Sirard, et. al. 2005; Skard & Vaglum, 1989), Klint and Weiss (1986) proposed that athletes’ motives for participating could be organised into broad categories. Their work with gymnasts’ revealed categories such as competition, action and activity, fitness, and being in a collective and suggested further that different kinds of gymnasts (for example ‘competitive’ versus ‘recreational’ have different motives for participating.
Other research has indicated that personal motives cannot be considered in isolation because youths make decisions in social contexts (Barnett, Smoll, & Smith, 1992, Lindner, Johns & Butcher, 1991; Martin, 1997). For this reason, environmental factors need to be taken into account. Regardless, Cervello, Escarti and Guzman’s argument that, “young people dropping out of competition (is) the final result of a process of a lack of motivation… (and that) drop out should be analyzed from the general theories of sport motivation” (Cervello et. al., 2007, p. 65) is a relatively typical starting point for work on this topic.
While the studies described above were conducted in single sport settings, Scanlan and colleagues (Scanlan & Carpenter, 1993; Scanlan, Carpenter, Schmidt, Simons, & Keeler, 1993) took a non-sport specific approach. They used athletes’ reasons for participating and dropping out in a grounded theoretical manner to develop a motivational model of participation. They proposed that when sport enjoyment, personal investments, and involvement opportunities are increased and involvement alternatives and social constraints are decreased, sport commitment – “a psychological construct representing the desire and resolve to continue participating in sport” is increased (Scanlan et al., 1993, p. 7).
Other empirical work has focused on contextual features. Guilett and her colleagues (2006) for example, concentrated on female adolescent handball players and looked at how gender role orientation might be related to intention to persist or discontinue sport participation. Barnett, Smoll and Smith (1992) focused on the coach athlete relationship, arguing that the ways in which coaches interact with their athletes will inevitably influence athletes’ motivations to participate. The existing literature provides a relatively detailed picture of youth and sport participation. What is not known however, is how participants explain their inductions into sport. This is a surprising omission given that intuitively, one might expect the manner in which a person starts sport to have an impact on their continuing participation.
Existing investigations have taken what could be described broadly as a motivational approach to the study of participation. That is, they have assumed that youths are compelled to sport and have looked at the specific factors that adolescents cite as relevant or important – in other words, the motives. The investigation diverges from existing motivation oriented approaches by utilising tenets of narrative inquiry (Smith & Sparkes, 2009a). Rather than focus on individual reasons that youths give for participation, we have taken the accounts or the stories offered as our unit of analysis. This mode of inquiry suggests that verbal descriptions including expressions of motivation can be seen as situated speech acts rather than indicators of internal dispositions (Smith & Sparkes, 2009a). In line with this approach, the objective of the paper is to increase our understanding of youths’ stories for their participation in sport. Specifically, the paper addresses the question: How do youths describe their initiation into organised sport?
One way that humans ascribe experiences with meaning is through stories. Often when people talk about or reflect on occurrences – past, present, and even future – they story them. That is, they explain their experiences through a series of events that are causally connected (Bamberg & Georgakopoulou, 2008). Narrative inquiry provides various conceptual tools for exploring people’s stories (Andrews, Sclater, Squire, & Tamboukou, 2004). Below we outline our general methodological approach and describe the theoretical tools with which we have worked.
It is useful to begin by explaining what we mean by stories. A story refers to “a plot connecting events that unfold sequentially over time and in space to provide an overarching explanation or consequence” (Smith & Sparkes, 2009a, p. 2). While individuals ‘produce’ stories during conversations and interactions, they rely on cultural templates that are general and abstract. These templates can be referred to as narratives (Smith & Sparkes, 2009b). When a coach tells a story of why her athlete lost during a competition for example, she might draw on a ‘training – performance’ narrative (“The athlete had not trained enough and therefore lost…”), a ‘fortune’ narrative (“The athlete got an unlucky break…”), a ‘competitor-oriented’ narrative (“The other competitor was better, quicker, stronger…”), or perhaps some other narrative. The key characteristic of these narratives is that as cultural templates, they are familiar to us. As cultural members we have what Fairclough (2001) refers to as ‘members’ resources’ to make sense of them. This is what gives them the capacity to function as tools for communication between parties.
Of course, stories do not simply have rhetorical value. If an athlete tells herself that she lost because she had not spent enough hours training, she is likely to embark on a different course of action compared to if she tells herself that her loss was the result of a series of poor calls on the part of the referee. For the purposes of this research, we were particularly interested in individuals’ ‘self-referential stories’ (Gergen, 2001). Specifically, we wanted to hear how youth described their own induction into organised sport.
In dealing with these stories, we took on the role of ‘story analysts’ (Smith & Sparkes, 2009b). For us, this involved (1) examining structural features that were used in the construction of the stories and, (2) exploring how these features articulated with the stories’ contents. During this process, we drew on certain “empirically sensitizing vocabulary” (Gubrium & Holstein, 1998). These included: narrative structure, identity, and narrative linkage. Briefly, narrative structure refers to the type of narrative that is invoked. Narratives can for example, be progressive where events lead to ‘better’ sets of circumstances, they can be regressive where a situation becomes worse and worse, or they can be stable (Bloom, 1996).
They can also take on more defined structures becoming heroic narratives, narratives of risk and consequent gain, or narratives of quest, for instance (Smith & Sparkes, 2009b). Identity refers to a sense of self that is created referentially within stories through statements about self, other people and phenomena, and relationships (Bamberg & Georgakopoulou, 2008).
Chase (2005) suggests that the shaping, construction and performance of identity is a constant and inevitable part of telling stories and encourages us to think of identity as a narrative accomplishment. Bloom (1996) adds that we should think of selves as non-unitary and fragmented. Finally, narrative linkage refers to the tacit assumptions that a listener needs to make to connect events in a story. The idea of a narrative linkage allows us to think about what underlying assumptions need to be made for a given story to make sense (Gubrium & Holstein, 1998).
The project was conducted in the canton of Basel City in North Western Switzerland. Qualitative data production took place between November 2008 and March 2009. Adolescents in grades seven to nine from six schools were invited to participate in interviews on sport participation and integration. Potential respondents were required to complete a contact form with which they were also asked to provide their sex, estimated number of hours spent in sport participation per week, school level, and nationality of parents. These criteria formed the parameters for sampling and in one respect, sampling could be considered purposive (Berg, 1998).
The voluntary nature of participation however, meant selection was not wholly controlled. From a pool of approximately 350 volunteers, 52 respondents were contacted and interviews were scheduled for outside of school hours. Confidentiality was assured and names that appear below are pseudonyms. A team of seven researchers conducted semi-structured interviews (Rapley, 2004) at the pupils’ respective schools. In line with a semi-structured approach, the interview guide contained questions on predetermined themes including sport participation as a cultural phenomenon and personal sporting experiences. At the same time, questions developed over time through iterative discussions in a reflexive manner (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2000).
That is, they changed slightly as the researchers developed a greater understanding of the topic and the interviewees’ responses. Interview questions were intentionally open-ended (Amis, 2005) and an implicit aim of the interviews was to understand how pupils made sense of their sporting experiences. Not all interviewees made use of this ‘openness’ and occasionally pupils responded with brief, unelaborated answers. In these cases, interviews took place in a more standardized manner (Patton, 2002). In general however, interviewees appeared to consider their responses carefully and offer thoughtful and detailed accounts of their sporting experiences.
The interviews were transcribed and then coded by a team of three researchers using a computerassisted analysis program (Atlas.TI). Each researcher initially worked with the data using separate coding schemas. Once data had been organised thematically, a close examination of the themes began. This was a subjective process, characterised by intense familiarization, critical recognition and continuous reflection. While reading and re-reading on themes, notes were taken, particular vocabulary was recorded, and recurring metaphors were documented.
Transcript excerpts with their corresponding sets of notes were worked into written interpretations with significant tracts of text remaining in the documents. Writing with and about the transcript excerpts facilitated analysis and functioned as a ‘method of inquiry’ (Richardson & Adams St Pierre, 2005). Analytical accounts were rewritten a number of times as the researchers gained deeper understandings of the material.
The interview excerpts below highlight three main narratives that are used to explain initiating sport participation. These narratives relate to: (1) experimenting with sport, (2) family influence, and (3) friend influence. The idea of experimenting with sport provided a useful resource for explaining induction into sporting contexts. The idea of an agreeable trial followed by regular participation featured in the conversations with a number of Swiss youths. The following text provides a useful example of this narrative.
Interviewer: How did you come to rowing?
Nadine: Um, it was during intermediate, there was a “TV turn off week”, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It was a project that tried to get people to move more. It was an anti-TV screen/monitor week. No computers. Instead there were lots of opportunities like, watching ants and such things and rowing. And yeah, I had no idea what that was. I kind of imagined it being like a fishing sport. And then I start.. ok, that was an afternoon and then I liked it. And a few of my friends they, they were in the same course. And all four of us started together.
The external provision of a one-off opportunity, in Nadine’s case, an organised attempt to get people active, defined this narrative. Nadine gives a relatively detailed account of the project and in one respect it is a project ‘success story’. The sense of chance that she creates is typical of stories drawn from the narrative. Nadine gives an impression that she could have ended up “watching ants” instead of doing sport and in this respect, the sense of self, or identity, that she creates is one that is open to sport possibilities but not attracted to a specific sport. This is reinforced by her comment that she had “no idea” about the sport. This ambivalent identity is of interest to providers of sport when one considers that much of existing participation literature is based on the premise that people are motivated to do sport. This a theme to which we will return below.
More common than the experimental narrative was a situation-oriented explanation where family members played a significant role in bringing youths to sport. Stories of parents initiating or encouraging sport involvement, or of siblings’ involvement leading to participation were common. Drina’s story provides an exemplary telling.
Drina: Um, my brother started doing sports before me. To start with, he played soccer, and my father asked me if I would also like to do a sport, if I also wanted to play soccer, but.. I always thought ‘soccer, no, that’s something for boys. And then I decided on volleyball and then my father registered me in a volleyball club and yeah, since then, I have been in the volleyball club.
In this case, Drina’s brother and father are characters that play important roles in her induction into sport. Her brother’s involvement provides a rationale for her father offering her a chance to participate. Note that the narrative linkage between the two pieces of information is arbitrary – it only makes sense if we assume that her father wanted to be fair and provide both children with a sporting opportunity. Note also that Drina adds that she was given a choice, a feature common to this narrative. She describes a period of deliberation and then a rejection of soccer on the grounds of gender appropriateness.
Again this small comment that there are sports that are more or less appropriate for girls and boys helps us understand the subjective frameworks in which decisions about sport participation are made. In terms of causal events, once she had made her decision, her father becomes the actor in the story once again and initiated induction through the formal process of registration.
That Drina’s father occupied a central role in her story is not greatly surprising. Drina, like many of the other youths that used the parental influence narrative, was describing events that occurred several years previously whilst she was a child. Her parents could be expected to play an important role. What is interesting is that although parents’ played instrumental roles, in the telling of the stories their parts were simultaneously downplayed. Throughout the stories, the interviewees asserted their own independence. In the following text, Bojan describes his father’s involvement.
I: And you said that it was because of your father that you started playing basketball? Bojan: Well no, yeah my father trained, he really likes basketball. He actually asked, he didn’t demand that I go. And yeah, I had, I wanted to try it out and then I liked it and am still here today.
Without wishing to put too much emphasis on the formulation, the re-phrasing at the beginning of Bojan’s utterance suggests a potentially awkward topic. We would interpret the statement concerning the father’s fondness for basketball as an attempt to frame him as someone who is passionate about sport rather than someone who is performance-driven and might push his children into sport. This reading is supported by the next clause where Bojan specifically says that his father “asked”, he did not “demand”. In the second part of the extract, Bojan emphasises his agency, repeating “I” with a combination of verbs.
Understanding the interplay of parental involvement and individual choice strikes us as critical for understanding how children come to sport. The interview data presented here suggest that there is a wrong, or better, a less acceptable way of encouraging children to sport. While parents evidently do play important parts in the stories kids tell of coming to sport, we would argue that their parts are culturally restricted. Parents can provide support, encouragement and help, but they cannot be seen to be pushy. Parents achieve this delicate balancing act by helping their kids into sport while at the same time emphasising children’s volition. Kids for their part rely on parents but must find ways to assert their own agency.
More widespread than the parental influence narrative was an ‘induction-through-friends’ narrative. Many of the youths related stories in which friends were already actively involved in sports and where this resulted in the youths themselves trying sports and eventually becoming participants. Once again, the interviewees seldom described themselves as initiators but were rather passively ‘asked’ into sport. Katja’s commentary below represents this narrative in perhaps its most concise form.
I: How did you start volleyball
Katja: Through a friend. We, we went um, we got to know each other at a school fair and she said yeah “I play volleyball and that” and then she invited me, and then I went along and then I liked it. Yeah, and now I just play with her.
In some instances stories based on this narrative were more elaborate. Youths added more details describing aspects such as when and where a first session took place or what they liked about the sport. The base narrative however, was recognisable in many conversations: ‘my friend invited me, I liked it, I stayed’.
This narrative is similar to the experimenting narrative in that the interviewees do not identify themselves as actors who seek out sporting engagement. Like the experimenting narrative, the youths construct passive identities within their stories. They are invited, often by chance, into a sport. They do not describe anything that can be referred to as drives to participate. Indeed, this passive sense was created by many of the youths. They were content to begin participation in organised sports but stopping or moving to another one did not appear problematic.
At this point, two further remarks should be made. The first is that friends and family were not the only actors that played roles in the youths’ stories. A small number of pupils who were participating in organised sport for example introduced their sports teachers as figures who had persuaded them to participate in sports. Second, although common, not all youths positioned themselves as passive in the creation of their sporting identities. An examination of an excerpt from one adolescent’s conversation shows how sport participation was negotiated within a context of parental and friend-related influence.
I: How did you come to be playing these sports? You do several?
Henry: Yeah, I um, started with tennis. Through tennis I found lots of friends, and they took me actually to fitness training. And I play soccer every Saturday with these friends
I: And are you in a club?
Henry: No, I play soccer as a hobby. With tennis, I’m in a club in Freidorf. And fitness training, that’s not at a club, that’s just more as a hobby
I: And how did you originally come to play tennis?
Henry: Yeah, the question was, what kind of sport I would like to do as a hobby. And my parents didn’t want to drive to a soccer tournament every Saturday. And then I thought, that I would play tennis because, yeah, I knew some friends that played tennis or had just started and I thought that I would too.
The text provides a constructive example of narrative interweaving. Henry does not simply rely on one narrative but merges the features of several narratives in telling his sport story. Agency is indicated in the first sentence – Henry meets friends through tennis rather than the other way around. The influence of friends though is used to explain induction into fitness and training and soccer. Agency is reinstated in the last excerpt in which he tells of trying to find a sport and having to make a decision within the restrictions placed upon him by his parents.
One of the most interesting features of this data set is how rare the narrative that Henry worked with was. Intention has proved a useful idea in thinking about participation in sport. In the case of starting sport participation, intention is downplayed. More often the process of coming to sport is defined through chance and other actors.
There is a degree of choice and agency but this is couched within stories that foreground situation and circumstance. Very few interviewees used a motivation-oriented explanation where they described themselves actively seeking out participation in an organised setting. In one exception, a girl mentioned TV, the idea that televised sport might increase sports participation is not supported. Granted, some started young and probably were not in a position to make choices. The idea of motives for starting sport perhaps needs rethinking.
In our analysis of the data produced in qualitative interviews with Swiss youths, we have made several observations and comments. It is useful to conclude with a brief recapitulation of what we believe are the main points that can be taken from this analysis. We have argued that youths do have different ways of explaining initiation into sport but that the number of possible ways is limited. Almost 50 youths utilised a combination of only three narratives to explain how they came to sport.
This limited number is significant for at least two reasons. The first is that an overview of how existing participants are entering sport is readily available. Providers of sport can see the narratives that ‘work’ and if increasing the number of participants is an objective, they can rely on these proven cultural templates to encourage youths to take part. Second, this small number suggests that new alternatives might need to be created. A question that we might ask ourselves is ‘what kinds of initiation stories might youths find credible and personally satisfying?’ Answers to this question could help sport organisations interest new members.
A second point that we have put forth is that, in contrast to the psychological literature, youths’ stories tend not to foreground their agency or personal choice. The stories told were much more likely to position the tellers as passive ‘opportunity takers’ who were drawn into sport by either friends or family. This feature of the stories suggests that a re-thinking of the motivational model and the view of person-as-actor might provide alternative means for conceptualising traditional questions of participation. This kind of approach would position the potential sport participant in a social system where s/he is being pulled and shaped by opportunities and obligations.
The result (participation or non-participation) would be dependent on different factors and fall within a process of interaction. Finally, the role that parents play in the youths’ stories is, in many cases, critical. In different ways, parents act as catalysts that help youths into sport. This role should be acknowledged but at the same time the complexity of the role should be recognised. The idea of a ‘pushy parent’ appeared to be an implicit counterweight to the comments that the youths made about their mothers and fathers. Youths were cautious not to characterise their parents as too supportive.
This presents an interesting situation for providers of sport. On the one hand, parents play an important role. On the other, they cannot be seen to be playing an important role. How parents might be involved in the incitement of youths to sport is, in our minds, a question that deserves further scientific attention.
As our point of departure, we began by outlining the possible benefits provided by organised sport. These benefits are dependent of course on youths taking part. It is for this reason that understanding participation is important. We have attempted to outline a different approach to the topic from that which exists in the psychological literature and as is often the case with such a project, we have probably created more questions than answers. We believe though that it is precisely these questions that will prove valuable for future researchers.
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