Trends & Features

Going it alone

Are team sports still as popular today as they were last century? Or are the growing trends in solo sports gaining a greater foothold? John Bensalhia investigates the benefits and the modern trends for both types of sport

It’s the age-old battle. Team games against individual sports. Advocates of either side have extolled the benefits of each, including fitness and mental and physical wellbeing.

On the one hand, team sports such as football, rugby and cricket are arguably as popular as ever. But on the other hand, there is a burgeoning growth of solo sports such as martial arts, jogging and even newer ones such as dancing and extreme sports.

So what are the benefits of both? With team sports, the advantages tend to revolve around the oft-mentioned words of ‘community’, ‘camaraderie’ and ‘team spirit’. For children, playing a team game can arguably keep his or her ego in check. By focusing on the game, the child can help the team out with any valid contributions in order to win. There is the bonus of shared responsibility – if, in the rare event, that something goes wrong in the game, the blame can be laid at the whole team, rather than singling out one poor soul.

The camaraderie allows and encourages players to egg each other on to do their best. And an added bonus is that it can bring families even closer together – whether they are playing the sport at home or going to visit a football match together.

A survey from Minute Maid Schools Cup in 2007 produced some positive findings on team sports. The research found that football-playing teenage girls were more likely to have a positive body image, a healthier lifestyle and greater confidence than less active girls. Out of 1,250 teenage girls and women in the UK, 66 per cent thought that girls who play football in their youth would be high achievers in later life, while 60 per cent thought that team sports could help women progress further in their careers.

The government has called for more competitive sports in schools. Culture secretary Andy Burnham and prime minister Gordon Brown pledged to spend £3million on promoting inter-school leagues.

But individual sports have their advantages too – especially for those who may be shy or lacking in self-confidence. Individual sports are less daunting because each participant can develop at his or her own pace. With the culture of bullying still very much alive in schools, children with lesser ability in sport may be picked on or blamed if something goes wrong in the game.

The bullying aspects of games such as football and rugby are an important issue, not just among the players, but also among teachers and coaches. In November 2002, professor Celia Brackenridge conducted a survey to find out how young people regarded their football coach or teacher. Of those that were questioned, 47.4 per cent said that they were happy, which left more than half dissatisfied with their teachers. The common problems included shouting, too many warm-ups and a barrage of verbal abuse.

Playing a sport on your own also means that you don’t have to rely on others, who actually may be unreliable. You can go and begin the activity whenever you want and finish it whenever you want, rather than having to work around other people’s wishes..

There are also counter-arguments to the Minute Maid survey. Individual sports can prepare youngsters for the workplace in that they teach self-reliance. While team players depend on others, solo sports allow one person to take on the challenge. If that person gets the result they want, this is a greater victory because he or she has achieved it alone. Overcoming a challenging activity or situation is arguably far better preparation for leadership, since he or she will have what it takes to achieve goals in the future.
With team sports and constant calls for more government money to invest in it, there is the risk that school sports may become elitist, since they arguably only acknowledge the talented players in teams.

One interesting report was conducted by the Observer newspaper in 2005. The report assessed the state of national games in England, with the conclusion being that they were in serious decline at grassroots level. The report also found that solo sports were on the rise, with membership of private gyms doubling in 10 years from 1995 to 2005 to 3.5million, for example. In cricket the Observer claimed that there was a 40 per cent drop in recreational players since 1994. According to the National Recreational Cricket Conference, some 800 clubs have faded into the ether.

The report listed a number of reasons for the alleged decline in team sports. Notable reasons were a lack of government funding, poor facilities, long working hours in the UK and too many distractions for kids, such as computer games, iPods and, of course, TV.

Another important reason for the decline in team sports is the emergence of three specific activities. The first was informal sport – games that didn’t have a competitive edge and were there just to be played for fun. The FA claimed that, at the time of the report, 2.6 million people played small-sided football, 40 per cent more than its 11-a-side counterpart.

The second was the individual pursuit, such as martial arts and dancing. Indeed, dancing has been recognised by Sport England as a bonafide sport rather than just a pastime. And what’s more, with the popularity of shows such as Strictly Come Dancing and Britain’s Got Talent (in which dance troupe Diversity won the 2009 series in a shock victory over über-hyped Susan Boyle) dancing continues to be a popular solo sport. When quizzed about the growing popularity of dancing in an Observer poll, one 10-year-old claimed that dancing was “cooler” than football because it provided more challenges for dancers to prove their skill, and what’s more, the respondent said that, above all, it was fun.

The third type of sport was the extreme sport – another popular breed and one that’s also growing in popularity by the day. Extreme sports such as skateboarding, mountain biking, climbing and abseiling are receiving greater coverage, but present a contrast to big team games since they can either be carried out alone or by small groups of people.

Professor Alan Tomlinson, head of research at Brighton University’s Chelsea School, said that the reason for the decline in team sports could be attributed to a lack of support. “The future of traditional team sports, in a general participatory sense, is far from assured,” he says.

The Irish Sports Council and the Economic and Social Research Institute also assessed a drop in team sports in a survey carried out in 2008. The report was, on the whole, positive, stating that the amount of people involved in sporting activities had grown since 1988. What it did find, however, was that many people had dropped out of team sports, especially teenagers and young adults. And although there was still growth in sports such as football, rugby and basketball, there was a significant growth in individual sports like jogging and swimming.

So is this really the death of team sports? It’s probably more of a case of greater choice. Greater choice than the days of being forced to compete in football and rugby games on soggy football fields at school with little else on offer. These days, schools offer a greater choice of sports to take part in, and inevitably these form the basis of a continued interest in the future.

Growing numbers of schools now include yoga, street dancing, pilates and skateboarding as part of their curriculum. A recent Ofsted report said that schools must do more to make sure that there is a broader palette of sports to ‘re-engage’ pupils that may have become ‘disaffected’ with sport. The report also argued that PE lessons should not be dominated by traditional team sports, singling out one school for allocating 70 per cent of its sports curriculum to team sports.

So, it’s not that the team sport has died a death: it’s more likely that the greater choice in this country has grown with regard to sport. The traditional sports curriculum has adapted to modern demands with a greater offering of choice. While team sports will never fade entirely, there is now something for everyone – even the child that got picked last in the class for football games.

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