By Tim Groves
Sport, it’s a young man’s game. To some extent it was ever thus, but the maxim seems increasingly true in the modern world and various sporting authorities are investing more time and money in attempts to keep people involved as they get older.
In total, 58 per cent of 14-25-year-olds in the UK play sport at least once per week, but that percentage drops significantly among those over the age of 26. In fact, it’s almost slashed in half to just 32 per cent.
It has long been accepted by those in charge of keeping track of these things that participation in sport declines with age, but almost half of the UK population will be over 50 by 2020 and people are giving up the sporting habit too early when they could be encouraged to continue with the right support.
Of course, in many cases the realities of adult life, work commitments and other everyday factors get in the way of people’s sporting habits, but the vast majority of people could make time.
A YouGov survey of 25-34-year-olds for Sport England in 2012 found a lack of confidence in one’s sporting ability is a major barrier.
The study also discovered that an emotional commitment to sport from the age of 11 to 16 is linked to forming a sporting habit for life and concluded that a strong personal interest in sport while growing up is the most important driver of taking part in later life.
The researchers stated: “Using the support networks of family, friends and teachers to build and reinforce an emotional connection with sport and making young people feel that sport is ‘for people like them’ can be important to encourage participation in later life.”
So it’s imperative to start young, but the statistics in adulthood can be improved with an increase in the number of opportunities, making sure they are as local as possible for people and promoting those opportunities better.
Using social media to encourage people has also been found to be effective, as it breaks down the boundaries between passive interest, watching sport and playing it.
A move towards more lifestyle related sports, which lack the regulation of traditional sport, has been promoted, as well as the social and fun aspects, which are key to increasing participation and addressing psychological factors such as self-confidence issues, body image and people’s doubts about their own sporting competence.
And, finally, access to facilities and cost factors can be improved in order to boost participation, with the pressure on local authority finances having led to a reduction in the number, availability and quality of facilities in recent times and hire charges reportedly rising by as much as 200 per cent in some areas.
The dropout rates for different sports after the age of 25 are stark. Almost 16 per cent of 14-25-year-olds play football at least once per week, but that drops to just over two per cent for those over the age of 25. For other popular sports such as cricket, rugby union and netball, the percentage drops from around two to 0.2 per cent.
Angling and golf are the only two sports where there is a higher proportion of people over the age of 26 taking part than there is in the 14-25-year-old age group, according to Sport England’s figures.
Other individual pursuits such as cycling and swimming don’t experience significant decline after the age of 25 as you might expect (cycling down from 5.3 per cent to 4.5 per cent and swimming from 6.2 per cent to 5.6 per cent), but there is a major drop in almost all other sports.
What’s being done
Sport England invests around £100 million a year in 46 national governing bodies of sport, with the principal aim of increasing participation figures. Many NGBs have identified retention as a target and want to gain a deeper insight around drivers and barriers to participation, as well as sport specific motivations.
The BBC’s Get Inspired scheme is a good example of a broad initiative to attract new participants to more than 60 different sports, with its detailed database of information, films, features and guides aimed at inspiring people to take part.
parkrun is another more specific example that’s held up as a shining light for all organisations wanting to boost participation in their sports as a result of its free, open, accessible and sociable approach.
It’s more difficult to devise a specific strategy to retain people within a sport as they get older, but it’s a top priority for many NGBs, which is reflected in the message filtering down to clubs and coaches in all sports.
The message is clear – create a welcoming, friendly atmosphere that keeps people drawn to the fun and social aspects of the sport. The research suggests that it’s an even more important issue to address in order to retain and attract women.
The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation is trying to get more women back into sport and says female participants tend to drop out of sports in their teenage years, which is younger than their male counterparts.
Almost half as many 16-24-year-old women take part in all sports as men of the same age. Sport England’s This Girl Can campaign has raised awareness of the issue and behaviour has started to change already, with as many as 2.8 million women aged 14 to 40 reportedly saying they have done some or more activity as a result of it.
Some dip in participation figures with age is without doubt inevitable, as people go through the various life transitions, such as leaving school or university, moving to a new area, focusing more on work and starting a family, but the consensus is that more can be done.
Sport England has invested over £1 billion in its youth and community sport strategy for the five-year period between 2012 and 2017 and it’s expecting results when it comes to the targets set for individual sports to retain players and attract new participants.
Sporting habit for life
There may be more demands on people’s time than ever in the modern world, but the evidence is there that the sporting habit can be for life if it’s developed at a young age and fostered well as time goes by.
The process of changing attitudes and behaviour and altering the way many sports are both coached and advertised to people to make them more inclusive, welcoming and fun is a long game that could take a generation.
The will is there to ensure that 26 is not seen as the UK public’s sporting retirement age though and the goal is that one day sport will truly be a pursuit for all, rather than just a young man’s game.
Facts & figures
• 58 per cent of 14-25-year-olds in the UK play sport at least once per week.
• 32 per cent of people in the UK over 26 play sport at least once per week.
• Almost half of the UK population will be over 50 by 2020.
• Almost 16 per cent of 14-25-year-olds play football at least once per week.
• Just over two per cent of people over 25 play football at least once per week.
• Angling and golf are the only two sports where there is a higher proportion of people over 26 taking part than there is in the 14-25-year-old age group.
• Almost half as many 16-24-year-old women take part in sports as men of the same age.
• Sport England invests around £100 million a year in 46 national governing bodies of sport.
• Sport England has invested over £1 billion in its youth and community sport strategy for the five-year period between 2012 and 2017.
Picture courtesy of Sport England.