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Issue One 2013 - Issue #18

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Sport for all

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View articles in related topics: Education, Health & Medical

Q: Sport is a big part of the Australian way of life. What benefits does it bring for society?

A: Recreational sport is increasingly being seen as a solution for serious health problems, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, associated with a sedentary lifestyle. It is also a potential source of social connection – a way for new migrants to become part of Australian society. Recreational sport participation is seen as good for individuals and for broader society, but most of us stop participating when we are still children.

Q: What brought you to sport as an area of research?

A: I’m a sociologist who has a strong interest in sport. I’m also a migrant and a woman who is not very good at sport and stopped participating as soon as I could. While I’m fairly fit, it is not via organised sport.

So I’m interested in how sport can be made more attractive to a broader constituency: how can people such as me, who like sport but who are not very talented, be better engaged in sport over their life span? How can migrants be attracted to sport?

For sport to be a solution to health issues and contribute to social inclusion, people need to want to participate. Sport needs to attract kids and keep them involved.

Q: Tell us about your research

A: I’m part of a team made up of researchers from a number of universities, investigating diversity in junior sport in Australia. Our research is interested in how junior sports clubs manage diversity of all sorts, including ability, culture and gender.

Led by Ramón Spaaij (La Trobe University), and including Ruth Jeanes (Monash University), Dean Lusher (Swinburne University of Technology) and Sean Gorman (Curtin University), we recently conducted a pilot study in the greater Melbourne area.

We were interested in finding out whether clubs incorporated people of diverse backgrounds and, if so, how they achieved this.

Q: What were your findings?

A: The results were mixed. Some clubs were interested in attracting participants from migrant backgrounds and developed strategies to do so, but others were not.

‘They know where we are’ was one response from the latter type of club. And often the clubs that had strategies did so because one leader had a keen interest in attracting people from diverse backgrounds, not because the club had a particular policy around the issue.

Clubs that courted culturally diverse players often did so in search of talent, believing that attracting people of different backgrounds would increase their talent pool. Research into diversity management suggests this way of thinking is right: if you broaden your scope, you will find a larger number of talented people.

Q: What about diversity in terms of gender and disability?

A: There was little discussion of gender diversity. Junior sport, and sport in general, is very much gender-segregated, and the need to improve female participation rates is tied up in ideas we have about girls (and women) playing sport that makes girls’ sports less important than boys’ sports. Indeed, much research has shown that girls tend to stop playing sport at puberty. Girls from diverse backgrounds are particularly likely to drop out.

A number of clubs had dedicated programs for people with a disability and strategies to reach out to this constituency, but many clubs also did not. Access and appropriate programs are key barriers for people with a disability in terms of sport participation, and for many clubs the infrastructural access issues seemed too great to overcome.

Q: What about kids who have varying levels of ability?

A: One type of diversity that was not actively viewed as a concern by sporting clubs was diversity of ability among the able-bodied. It was not really seen as desirable. Having less than talented players means your teams are less likely to win. Clubs want to field winning teams.

Q: What impact does this attitude have on sport as a positive social force?

A: This is a key conundrum in using sport as a solution to health problems and lack of social connectedness. If sport is to be optimally beneficial to society, then junior sports clubs need to engage all kids. However, sporting clubs are caught in a difficult place between the desire to perform well and the desire to encourage participation.

Q: What steps should sports clubs be taking?

A: Solutions that provide spaces for the less talented to enjoy and excel in sport are needed. Clubs also need advice on diversity management: why it is desirable to have diverse members and how to achieve that.

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