Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Literature Reviews

Volume 5

Sports-Based Strategies19


Youth participation in sporting activities is a time-honoured tradition in North America, Europe and much of the developing world. There is a “common-sense” belief among the general public that sporting activities can contribute to both physical and psychological development and will thus ultimately have a positive impact on the lives of young people. Recently, some have begun to pitch sports-based programming as a possible solution to various behavioural problems among youth – including aggression and violence. In our opinion, this claim is worth further investigation. Indeed, recent public opinion polls indicate that many Ontario residents perceive that there has been a recent increase in youth violence, and that this increase might be linked to cutbacks in the government funding of sports and recreation programs. People are inclined to believe that sports and physical activity will have a positive effect on the young people who participate in them. However, the literature reviewed below indicates that some sports programs may be more effective than others – especially when it come to reducing youth violence. In examining the impact of sport, for example, we must differentiate between different types of sports and the level of competition. We must also be mindful of the socio-economic circumstances of participants and the specific problems experienced by youth in different families, communities, and neighbourhoods.

In order to create effective policy with regard to sports programming, Canadian policy-makers must first acknowledge the complexity of youth violence as an issue related to both individual psychology and the social, political, and economic contexts in which young people live their lives. In short, we must realize that simply funneling money into a basketball program at an inner-city high school will not provide a “silver bullet” solution to youth violence. Some research even suggests that simply building more basketball courts can be exactly the wrong response, as it can feed unrealistic expectations of youth that the way out of poverty is through professional sports, and may even be an additional distraction from school, employment, etc. However, this does not mean that we should not make every effort to understand exactly how, why, and when sports programs can contribute to an effective multi-agency approach to youth violence and community safety.

The research evidence strongly suggests that sports can – and do – provide positive experiences for youth. Sports and recreation (along with arts and crafts) have the potential to supply elements that are otherwise missing in the lives of disadvantaged youth, and can therefore have a positive effect, if not on crime prevention directly, then certainly on other factors that contribute to youth violence — factors such as enhancing self-esteem, learning the value of teamwork and developing greater self-discipline.

Although research suggests that many of these positive experiences do not come from participation in the sport itself, sports does provide the context for unique and valuable social interactions that can assist in both youth development and personal growth (Ewing and Seefeldt, 1997). Indeed, the benefits of sport are almost totally contingent upon the relationships they engender and whether participation can help at-risk populations deal with the social pressures they face in their everyday lives (Sport England, 2002; Sandford et al., 2006). Thus, effective sports-based policy depends on the recognition of the conditions necessary to effect positive change in youth – including the factors that can help young people resist the urge to engage in violent behaviour.

Historical Background

The roots of what one could call “organized recreation” in Canada can be traced back to England during the mid-19th century. This period, which scholars identify as the beginning of the “rational recreation movement,” was marked by the promotion and diffusion of modern sports programs into the public school system. Many scholars have characterized this movement as a form of “muscular Christianity” or a “cult of athleticism” (Sanford et al., 2006). It is no coincidence that the English population during this era was experiencing a mass movement to urban areas as a result of the Industrial Revolution. In urban areas, therefore, sports came to be viewed as a substitute for the physical activity that had been lost as society moved from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Thus, although physical activity was considered important far before the time of the Industrial Revolution, the institutionalization of sport as a mandatory and regimented activity has been directly linked to an emerging fear of the urban poor and a widespread perception that crime and delinquency among young people were increasing (Holt, 1990). The initial optimism regarding sports programs was largely based on the adage that idle hands do the Devil’s work – as well as traditional notions that physical activity can both reduce natural aggression and improve one’s moral character. These general ideas can, in fact, be traced back to ancient Greece and the writings of Plato and Aristotle. These two ancient scholars believed that sports provided a means of encouraging self-control, discipline, honesty and determination. They also thought that sports provided both an outlet for pent-up aggression and a context for training and adult supervision (Begg et al., 1996).

Since government policy regarding crime is often influenced by public opinion, or in this case public fear, the British Parliament eventually passed a series of laws that sought to promote social control through sports and recreation programs and facilities. The first of these legislative reforms, the Baths and Wash-Houses Act, was passed in 1846 (Torkildsen, 2000). The British emphasis during this time was framed on a “puritanical” or “stoical” view of sporting culture that held that sports would improve youth discipline, instill a strong work ethic, and improve cooperation through an emphasis on teamwork. It is important to note, however, that this puritanical view largely ignored alternative views of the sporting life. For example, “Dionysian” or “Epicurean” perspectives hold that competitive sports can increase aggression towards rivals and promote hyper-masculine subcultures that emphasize physical power, aggression, fighting ability, excessive alcohol use, and the degradation of women (Dunning and Waddington, 2003). Thus, although the British ideological emphasis on the puritanical aspects of sport has come to dominate modern sports discourse, it is imperative that we do not blindly accept the positive “sports as violence prevention” hypothesis. As the research discussed below suggests, under some circumstances, sports can actually promote or facilitate violent behaviour.

Currently, various theorists and policy-makers hold that sport is an effective means of dealing with the problem of youth crime and violence. This corresponds with public opinion. In a recent survey, for example, almost half (49 per cent) of Canadian citizens felt that community sports programs have the ability to reduce youth crime. Furthermore, next to the family, Canadians believe that sport has the greatest potential to effect the development of positive values in young people (CCES, 2002). However, by itself, public optimism about sports does not justify public spending, nor does it inform the development of practical and effective policy initiatives. It is imperative that we also examine the various theoretical rationales behind these popular and ambitious claims and investigate the actual effectiveness of sports programs with respect to reducing youth violence.


Perhaps the most simplistic explanation for why sports should reduce youth violence is diversion-based. Proponents of this perspective argue that sport programs can remove youth from dangerous situations within high-crime neighbourhoods and positively occupy their time. From a routine activities perspective, participation in sports programs reduces boredom and the amount of time youth spend in idle, unsupervised social contexts. In other words, compared with their uninvolved peers, sports participants simply have less unsupervised leisure time in which to engage in risky activities – including violence (Siegenthaler and Gonzalez, 1997; Bailey, 2005). Various programs with diversionary intentions have been evaluated in Scotland, the United States and Australia. (see Coalter, 2005; Hartmann and Depro, 2006; Morris, Sallybanks, Willis and Makkai, 2003). As we shall see, these large-scale meta-analyses could draw no definitive conclusions with respect to the effectiveness of sports programs in diverting youth away from delinquent behaviour.

In other cases, the argument for sports programs is actually deterrence-based. The idea is that if high-profile sports programs operate in high-risk communities, where vandalism, property crime, drug dealing and gang activity persist, the physical presence of participants (including adult supervisors and athletes) will discourage youth from offending in that area (Nichols and Crow, 2004). This may be seen as problematic because the deterrent effect of sports is limited to places and times in which the programs are in operation. Also, logic would suggest that a displacement effect could take place, wherein criminal offending would simply start to take place at different times of the day and in different locations. It is also clear that the deterrence model does not address the root cause of youth violence (i.e., the reasons youth are motivated to commit crime or violence in the first place).

Other justifications for the sports paradigm address the impact that sports might have on the psychological development of young people. Some theorists, for example, claim that since delinquent youth often seek excitement and stimulation, sports can offer an alternative to anti-social behaviour. In essence, they tout sports as an outlet for youthful aggression and maintain that sports participation can be a legitimate source of both excitement and immediate gratification (Coalter, 1989).

The bulk of the sports literature, however, makes reference to some version of pro-social development theory. In general, pro-social development theory holds that sports can provide a system of legitimate relationships – peers, fans, coaches, program leaders, etc. – that can increase participants’ self-esteem, pro-social values, conventional goals, discipline, empathy, and ability to work with others. Proponents maintain that it is these psychological factors that ultimately reduce violence among young people. In other words, sports participation can indirectly reduce violence among youth by shielding them from deviant peers and aiding in their development of a conventional belief system (Nichols and Crow, 2004).

In recent policy decisions targeting youth violence and criminality, the United Kingdom has adopted this type of pro-social development model. Indeed, as opposed to the simple economic bolstering of neighbourhoods, much of the UK’s strategy has been to increase the social capital of youth and limit feelings of social exclusion (see Bailey, 2005). As such, British policy-makers have once again placed an emphasis on physical activity and sports in addressing youth disaffection. Some critics, however, have complained that the purported benefits of sport programs have been accepted too easily (Sanford et al., 2006). We address this debate further in the pages that follow.

It is also important to note the distinction between sports programs and theories that focus on prevention and those that focus on rehabilitation. Prevention generally refers to universal sports programs designed to reach the general youth population (or at least all the youth residing in a particular neighbourhood or community). An example of a prevention strategy, therefore, might be sports or recreation programs that serve all the students at a particular school. On the other hand, rehabilitation programs are usually directed or reserved for youth who have already been caught engaging in criminal or violent behaviour (Bailey, 2005).

In principle, the impact of sports should be similar in both prevention and rehabilitation contexts. However, the literature suggests that there are some important distinctions to be made regarding what works for different types of youth. For purposes of definition, therefore, we should note that Nichols and Crow (2004) have helpfully classified sports and recreation programs into one of the following three categories: primary, secondary and tertiary. Primary reduction programs work to change or improve general social conditions that could potentially lead youth towards crime and violence. Secondary programs, by contrast, attempt to identify youth who are at high risk of becoming involved in delinquent activities and specifically target their individual behaviour and development. Finally, tertiary programs address the rehabilitative needs of young people who have already engaged in crime or violence and have come into formal contact with the criminal justice system.

Issues in Current Evaluation Research

Extensive searches of library datasets on the topic of sports and youth violence resulted in alarmingly few Canadian studies. This suggests an extreme need for Canadian–based research to address the specific circumstances facing at-risk youth in Canadian neighbourhoods. One issue is whether the results of the American and European research literature, reviewed below, would apply to the Canadian situation. After all, Canada is a unique country with unique problems and it may thus require unique solutions to youth violence.

The vast majority of the studies that appear in the academic literature on sports and violence took place in either the United States (19 of the examined reports) or Europe (17 of the examined reports). One additional study took place in Australia. Unfortunately, we could locate only three published evaluations that took place within Canada. In our opinion, this is extremely problematic from a policy perspective. It is widely acknowledged that youth violence is largely related to various political, economic, and social circumstances and that these circumstances vary greatly from country to country and neighbourhood to neighbourhood. Thus, to hold data from other countries as equally applicable to Canadian youth may be problematic because the characteristics of the neighbourhoods, as well as the youth themselves, may be markedly different. We cannot know for sure, therefore, whether a program that works in the United States or Europe would have the same impact in Canada.

Another issue with the current evaluation research on sports programs is the numerous methodological approaches that have been employed to examine the same phenomena. Generally, evaluation studies have taken one of two forms: 1) sophisticated quantitative analyses of large datasets; or 2) small, interview and observation-based qualitative assessments. Furthermore, within each category of study, the measurement of program outcomes often varies dramatically. This often makes comparisons between studies difficult. Nonetheless, both quantitative and qualitative studies have their strengths and their weaknesses. Thus, reviewing both types of evaluation study will provide us with a fuller understanding of the potential effectiveness – or ineffectiveness – of sports programs. As many scholars have noted, relying on only one type of data will fail to capture the many complexities of the relationships between sport, youth development and violence (Sport England, 2002; Nichols and Crow, 2004).

Working with large datasets is beneficial because the results gleaned from the analysis will be statistically significant. When working with very small populations, such as a high school class with 30 children, it is impossible to generalize findings to all children. However, there are also potential problems with large quantitative studies. Primarily, they frequently offer no detailed insights into the mechanisms through which the sports programs in question either succeeded or failed at reducing youth violence or the impact that these programs had on the lived experiences of the youth participants.

Finally, it can often be quite difficult to determine what to measure in order to determine program success. Official crime statistics for youth, for example, are sometimes deceiving because they only describe cases of violence that are brought to the attention of the justice system. Thus, in addition to studies where program success is directly measured by changes in officially recorded youth violence, we also review studies that employ other outcome measures (including self-reports regarding program impacts). These include studies that have investigated the impact of sports programming using surveys and/or interviews with youth participants, parents, coaches, and other program staff. In such studies, program impact is often measured by assessing changes in self-reported aggressive or violent behaviour, improvements in problem-solving skills, improvements in school attendance, changes in self-esteem, and changes in pro-social attitudes or goals (Nichols and Crow, 2004). It the next section of this report, we systematically review various program evaluations in order to identify statistically significant results and consider the qualitative evidence regarding how sports may or may not reduce problematic behaviour among youth.

Evaluating Sports Programs

Hartmann and Depro (2006) classify the multitude of recreation programs that aim to reduce youth violence as part of the “social problems industry.” The number of programs in operation is certainly large enough to constitute an industry: the Australian Institute of Criminology identified more than 600 such programs and the U.S. National Recreation and Parks Association identified 621 (Hartmann and Depro, 2006: 182). Nichols and Crow (2004) point out that resource allocation is very important, not only to program operation, but to evaluation of the programs as well. Unfortunately, programs often do not have the funding available to conduct high-quality evaluations that would accurately measure their effectiveness. As a result, programs are often developed “in the field” using “common sense” assumptions about what “should work” in specific contexts with available resources. In other words, it is often difficult to determine whether existing programs work or not – especially if we employ rigorous academic standards. However, this has not prevented program directors from establishing ambitious program goals and making elaborate – though unproven – claims about program success.

Another evaluation issue concerns the nature of open access programs including “drop-in” sports centres. Such programs are very difficult to evaluate because of the transient nature of the participants. Therefore, we have focused on more long-term, structured initiatives in order to determine which methods and mechanisms will be effective in reducing youth violence under specific circumstances. It should be noted that much of our content and conclusions are consistent with the content and conclusions of other major reviews and meta-analyses that have been conducted on this topic (see Donnelly and Coakley, 2008).

The Case for Rehabilitation through Sport

Theoretically, young, habitual offenders are seen as being inadequately socialized into community norms; thus, many feel that organized sports should act as a teaching agent regarding community living (Andrews and Andrews, 2002). Furthermore, in regard to the aggressive tendencies present in many chronic young offenders, sports are widely viewed as therapeutically valuable (see Coalter, 2005).

Andrews and Andrews (2002) examined the use of sports therapy in a secure unit for young offenders in Britain. In the United Kingdom, all “secure units” (small, closed-custody correctional facilities for chronically delinquent youth aged 10 to 16 years) are legally obligated to provide sport programming to residents. The small sample for this exploratory study consisted of only 20 youth from a single unit (35 other secure units existed in Britain at the time). All 20 of the youth who participated in the study had a long history of serious violent behaviour presumably related to high stress levels, anger management issues, low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness. Though other studies have documented the positive effects of sports and recreational programs, this study also tried to document how and why these effects occurred. When interviewed, employees noted that activities that were considered fun by the youth got the most positive responses. By contrast, competitive sport or harsh, negative evaluation from coaches consistently provoked negative outbursts, which were lessened by sensitive coaches who put the activities into perspective and de-emphasized competition. Also, the staff emphasized teaching the youth to self-evaluate and self-praise so that they would not become dependent on other people for their self-esteem. Staff also noted the importance of giving youth responsibility and the opportunity for communication and negotiation in order to allow them to control their own environments to a limited extent; in this case, they were given the opportunity to develop their own gym program. Development of a reward system allowed the youth to feel a sense of accomplishment when they set and reached small, attainable goals (like developing their basketball skills or completing the program they had set out for themselves). Individual assessment is necessary when dealing with extremely volatile children, especially in regard to the types of activities made available to them. Common sense would dictate that traditionally “masculine” and aggressive activities would be counterproductive for violent youth; however, this study shows that this is not always the case. For example, weightlifting was a positive experience for two boys but made another become violent. It is also important to note that while the facility housed both males and females, few activities were offered to interest or appeal specifically to the girls, even though they were equally violent in this case as the boys in the unit.

Another program, examined by Nichols (2007), is Positive Futures/Sportaction. This is a tertiary partnership between Sport England, the Football Foundation, the Home Office Drug Unit and the Youth Justice Board, which was launched in 2000 in the United Kingdom. It consisted of funding given to an existing program aimed at using sports to reduce anti-social behaviours like crime and drug use in youth aged 10 to 16 in local neighbourhoods. The evaluation in 2001 was extremely small: limited to 12 site interviews and 12 projects researched by phone. Sportaction, which began in 1993, was researched by telephone and took a case study approach. Though attendance was voluntary, it was directed at high-risk youth or those excluded from mainstream education, and most participants were referred to the program by local authorities. It involved a range of programs such as trips to priority communities, sport schemes offered at various sites on Saturdays, football coaching schemes, and leadership training. Statistical analysis of offending data would have been meaningless due to the small size of the study; also, interviews suggested that much of the offending behaviour would not have been officially recorded, and thus would have become statistically invisible. The study concluded that there was no clear evidence that the program caused participants to identify with pro-social values or that an increase in self-esteem was necessarily helpful in reducing aggression. However, we must note that for many participants, this was their last chance to reform their behaviour before they would be taken into custody, and it is likely that the program could not address the factors that had been causing their offending at so late a date. However, research also suggested that when the program did have a positive influence, it was due to its capacity to foster long-term personal development (Nichols, 2007).

Similarly, Nichols (2007) also evaluated Hafotty Wen-14 Peaks Programme, a tertiary outdoor activity program that had been in operation for fifteen years. Analysis of reconviction data did not show lower offending rates for those who had completed the program; however, this was once again affected by small valid sample sizes. Thus, in this instance interviews of participants and staff were more useful to the evaluation. Nichols found that the greater the physical challenge presented to the participants, the greater their sense of achievement upon its completion. However, recognition and reward for these achievements were found to be crucial, in that the youth equated them with another challenge: coming off drugs. Though the risks involved in these challenges were not necessarily physical, extreme sensitivity on the part of the staff members was crucial in the productive management of the risks to self-image and identity inherent in this program. Though the adage tells us that idle hands do the Devil’s work, this study showed no support for the theory that high-risk sports are a substitute for other risky behaviours such as drug use (Nichols, 2007).

The final tertiary rehabilitation program examined was West Yorkshire Sports Counselling. It consisted of a 12-week program of sports, which was valuable in that it allowed for the pursuit of individual interests and one-on-one meetings between the leaders and participants each week. The program was found to reduce crime in terms of re-conviction on an individual basis, using techniques to help participants develop a new sense of self-identity such as voluntary involvement as the basis for the program, increased fitness through physical activity, increased self-esteem through interactions with others, introducing new peers and sports leaders as positive role models, and creating strong mentoring relationships and volunteer opportunities that opened up possible future employment (Nichols, 2007).

Essentially, it was found that tertiary rehabilitation programs will have a positive impact when they are flexible enough to respond to the needs and motivations of diverse youth and when they de-emphasize rules and competition and emphasize choice and positive feedback (Sport England, 2002; Eccles and Barber, 2003). Under such conditions, developing basic physical competence can be extremely positive for self-esteem, peer acceptance and confidence (Bailey, 2005).

It is believed that programs aimed at larger youth demographics (those who have not necessarily already been identified as overly aggressive or deviant) will operate in much the same fashion. However, evidence regarding the treatment of youth who have already been identified as violent offenders cannot necessarily be applied to all youth. Thus, we now turn to an examination of programs aimed at a more general population of youth.

Diversion/Deterrence Programs

As you will recall, programs aimed at diversion attempt to keep youth occupied with acceptable, supervised activities so that they will not have the time to offend, while deterrence-based programs operate in high-risk neighbourhoods because their presence is expected to discourage youth from offending in these areas. The most well-known diversion/deterrence program from the United States is Midnight Basketball. It began during the late 1980s in Washington D.C. and was premised on the idea that one of the key problems with poor, inner-city young men (those they believed committed most of the crime) was the lack of acceptable activities offered to them between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. Providing them with a structured activity that interested them would occupy them and also deter others from committing crime in the area at the time the program was running. Thus, it was decided that no basketball game for this program could begin before 10 p.m. and that two uniformed officers had to be present at all times to intervene in case of conflict. Such programs became extremely popular, and though some proponents of the program claimed that it produced drastic results such as a 30 per cent reduction in crime, these conclusions were not scientifically reliable and lacked basic controls and comparisons. This sort of program only ran for a few weeks out of the year and had relatively few participants and could not logically have had such results. Administrators and officials have since tried to revamp and expand the program to life skills workshops, conflict resolution, drug prevention, educational counselling, and job training (consistent with theory that sports is the “hook” for getting young people at risk to participate in such programs). The actual effectiveness focuses on individual program participants, relies on non-sports elements, and requires collaboration with diverse preventive measures.) However, an alternate theory, which is quite different from deterrence and diversion, is that the Midnight Basketball leagues attracted a lot of positive media attention to the high-risk areas. This sent a positive and proactive message to community members, which encouraged them to take pride in their neighbourhoods and emphasized trust and solidarity against youth crime and violence (Hartmann and Depro, 2006).

Another diversion/deterrence program is Northtown Parks for All, which is a primary program that operated slightly differently from Midnight Basketball. Northtown Borough Council introduced this policy in the early 90s due to growing public concern about the safety of public parks and the impact of safe recreation space. Many residents felt that the parks had become extremely unsafe due to the high levels of crime that seemed to take place in them during the evenings. Thus, as a solution, park buildings that were not in use were leased to martial arts centres at low rents to discourage youth from offending in the parks due to their presence and the people they would attract in the evening, at the peak hours of offending. In the short term, the scheme seemed to work; simple measures showed a reduction in the amount of vandalism taking place at night in the parks. Also, the perceptions of local park users were found to be changed for the better. However, this change in perception was due mostly to the good relationship the owner of the dojos had cultivated with the residents; their perceptions remained positive even when vandalism began to rise back up to its previous levels (Nichols, 2007). Thus, it seems that for both programs the positive change that resulted was in terms of people’s attitudes and perceptions about certain high-risk areas, not the actual rates of offending in these areas.

Though many individuals put stock in these sorts of techniques, programs that are aimed at the pro-social development of youth are more likely to address some of the root causes of youth violence and disengagement. Relying on a “social control” model, based on diversion and deterrence alone, as opposed to a “social opportunity” model, which integrates rehabilitation and pro-social development, in an attempt to reduce youth violence has many problematic implications. Social opportunity thinking implies that youth are deserving and should be given the resources they need in order to be successful. While the social opportunity model is usually applied to middle-class youth, the social control model is reserved for inner-city, lower-class young people and implies that they are all potentially dangerous. It is conducive to an image of absent parents who cannot control their children, and children who are prone to bad behaviour and must be protected from their environment, which is unsafe, and themselves, due to their inherent deviance. It follows then that “good” members of society as a whole must also be protected from such dangers (Coakley, 2002). However, as an examination of deterrence/diversion-based strategies has shown, this is not exactly the case. Thus, studies of programs that aim to affect the lives of youth in a positive manner rather than simply diverting violence are extremely valuable.

Pro-social Development in Secondary Programs

Various studies have supported the pro-social development effects of sports recreation as being extremely beneficial to all youth, regardless of class, and as being connected to externalizing behaviours such as aggression. For example, Eccles and Barber (2003) found that sports supported psychological well-being in youth through a validation of their identity at a time during their lives at which they are developing a concept of self. Ewing et al. (2002) found that sports offer a “dynamic domain” for youth to be expressive, in which moral and character development takes place. Positive values like hard work, fair play, a drive to succeed, good behaviour and healthy social relations may be promoted. However, some authors argue that sports in and of itself do not lead to the development of moral character in youth. Coalter (2005) found that programs that use sports as a “hook” to attract young people to other opportunities such as volunteering resulted in increased levels of altruism, community orientation, leadership and sense of self among young people. Though it is quite indirect, studies have established relationships between levels of moral reasoning and levels of aggression. For example, athletes with more mature moral reasoning were found to be less aggressive by Bredemeier (1985), while children with less mature moral reasoning, when interviewed, often considered very aggressive actions to be legitimate (Ewing and Seefeldt, 1997). Thus, theoretically, sports are thought to be capable of affecting perspective-taking and empathy, moral reasoning and motivation orientation (PCPFS, 2006).

It is essential to recognize that though programs may serve to deter and divert youth from violence while in operation, the youth in question will soon find themselves back in their communities, where the same factors that caused their aggression in the first place will still be present (Armour and Wellington, 2006). Thus, it is necessary to equip them for re-entry into their communities. Youth often join gangs due to alienation from peers, lack of positive role models and low self-esteem (Ewing and Seefeldt, 1997). Some theorists argue that sports programs could be a practical substitute for gang membership because they might offer many of the same qualities. However, any indirect, pro-social effects caused by the program will depend on the type of sport played, the characteristics of the youth involved, and the attitudes of the people running and coaching the program. Hansen et al. (2003) note that compared with academic activities, extra-curricular activities provide a better context for certain kinds of development such as self-knowledge, emotional regulation and physical skills. However, sports were the only area where youth had certain negative experiences; this was so especially in regard to negative peer and adult relations. Thus, it seems that programs must operate with the specific goal of inducing positive moral development in order to be a positive experience for youth (Perkins and Noam, 2007).

Generally, aggression among youth is thought to increase in relation to participation in competitive, fight-based sports such as wrestling or boxing. However, several studies support the notion that even competitive, aggressive sports hold potential to foster pro-social development when they are taught with the correct mentorship and training. For example, studies have found that participation in martial arts increased levels of violence and aggression among youth, with the exception of Tae Kwon Do taught with a nonviolent philosophical element (Coakley and Donnelly, 2004; Indresen and Olweus, 2005). Such differences among sports were not uncommon and the final results of most studies were largely mixed. For example, Eccles and Fredricks (2005) found that sports participation predicted lower levels of externalizing behaviour for boys, and nothing for girls. Thus, in order to advise policy objectives in this area, it will be much more useful to examine the mechanisms and methods through which various existing programs operate.

Fairbridge, a charity in the United Kingdom, is a secondary program that aims to develop young people’s personal and social skill and build their confidence levels. In 2001, across the United Kingdom, about 3,000 youth attended Fairbridge on a voluntary basis, though agencies dealing with youth aged 14 to 25 could refer youth to the program for various reasons. The program takes at least six months and is directed at long-term behavioural change; it consists of a basic one-week course of centre preparation and up to three days at a residential location with challenging activities such as canoeing and climbing. These activities are used to help participants develop a personal action plan for the next six months. Findings for this program were favourable, in that it contributed to positive youth development in a sample of 318 young people. However, the success of the program was much lower for males and those with higher initial “risk” ratings. In terms of causality, Nichols suggests that the attitudes young people brought to the program played a large role in the program’s subsequent impact on them. However, the staff and activities were key factors as they were able to play a mentor role for the extended period of six months, which was extremely valuable to the long-term outcome for youth. The fact that the positive changes among the youth seemed to fade a year after program completion suggests that six months may have still been too short a period for a program aimed at long-term reduction of violence (Nichols 2007).

Another secondary program studied by Nichols (2007) was the Clontarf Foundation’s Football Academies. These football academies work with Australian Indigenous boys ages 13 to 18 by coaching them in Australian Rules Football (ARF). Though they are not targeted at offenders, they are aimed at high-risk groups and attempt to bridge gaps between Australian Indigenous and white communities. It is directed at boys, and grew from participation of 25 individuals in its pilot year to 91 the following year, with boys travelling great distances to attend. There were three academies running in 2005 and it was expanded to six in 2006. Due to the popularity of the program among the youth, most are willing to comply with the condition that they must attend school in order to participate. This is an extremely good example of a way in which sports can be used as a “hook” in order to influence young people in positive ways. By law, Australian employers have a designated quota of Indigenous employees, which they must fill. However, they often find it difficult to do so because many Indigenous youth lack the appropriate education; thus, the football program opens up employment opportunities to the youth later in life through its policy on education. They also provide reasonably priced accommodation in Perth so the boys can work in the city. Though the program was self-evaluating, Nichols compared its results to national averages to ensure accuracy. They found that the most important factor in the program’s success was its ability to gain the engagement and continued participation of the boys. The Australian Football League already has a high status among Indigenous communities, and this program attempted to incorporate their culture into its operations. Also, the provision of employment opportunities and accommodation later and the motivation of the coaches were extremely important in engaging the youth. Though the program does provide many positive influences and opportunities, it does not have the specific goal of crime reduction, nor did it formally measure the youth’s behaviour in terms of aggression. Thus, one might argue that the boys who volunteered to participate and attended school were not typical of those in their community and might not have had any behavioural problem prior to enrolling (Nichols, 2007).

Westtown Splash was another secondary program targeted at youth aged eight to 18 in socially and economically disadvantaged areas of Westtown. The activities were usually open-access and directed at low-risk youth who were free to drop in at any time. Nichols (2007) found the most useful method of evaluation to be interviews with participants in order to gain an understanding of the personal experiences of the youth. Surveys showed that parents believed that the program relieved boredom and kept their children out of trouble. Also, 63 per cent of participants felt that it reduced crime in the areas. It was found that the diversion effect was only present while the activities were going on and that many felt that the programs were too short, claiming most trouble began at night when they were not in operation. One of the most valuable aspects of the program was its ability to get youth to voluntarily participate and to do so repeatedly due to their enjoyment of the activities. Splash Forums, which allowed for participation throughout the year and offered opportunities for volunteering, aided with the long-term impact of the program. However, an analysis of local crime data did not show a significant reduction in youth crime, for various reasons such as the relatively small size of the program. One beneficial aspect of this particular program was in terms of funding. It was quite secure and thus could ensure that it would be operating every year to offer youth a consistent environment (Nichols, 2007).

Though we know that historically sport has been heralded as inherently valuable and necessary in the lives of youth, we must recognize that this may not always be the case in all contexts. Anecdotal evidence of increasing arrest rates among high-level, professional athletes and traditional notions of competitive, aggressive high school athletes embracing alcohol and violence leads us to present an investigation of the detrimental effects that exposing young people to sports under negative circumstances can have on their behaviour.

Ways of Improving Sports-related Outcomes

One major issue identified by many studies was the finding that though coaches play a key part in the experience of program participants, most of them lack any formal training in dealing with young people. Children’s moral values were found to come at least indirectly from the behaviour of their coaches (Ewing et al., 2002; PCFS, 2006). Also, research has shown that sports leaders are extremely important role models in neighbourhoods with youth “at risk” (Nichols and Taylor, 1996; Sandford, Armour and Wellington, 2006). Various studies, while underscoring the importance of coaching, have found deficiencies in the training required. In Little League, only 20 per cent of coaches were found to have any sort of training in dealing with children, while regulations on the topic do not require them to have any such training (Diegmuller, 1995). Thus, they tend to focus exclusively on competition to the detriment of the impressionable young players. This can lead to the encouragement of an “ends justify means” philosophy for the purpose of winning. For example, 58 per cent of the Canadian hockey players surveyed aged nine and 10 approved of fighting during their games, even if it was against the rules (Hellstedt, 1988). Ewing and Seefeldt (1997) concur that outcomes of sports programs on youth behaviour are highly dependent on the coach involved. However, 90 per cent of youth sports coaches in their study had no formal education in coaching, first aid or injury prevention.

Interestingly, most studies that found sports increase youth aggression focused on participants in competitive high school sports programs. Traditionally, sports in the United States are a highly exclusionary field, which affords prestige only to accomplished athletes. Though millions of kids want to participate, they are dependent on volunteer coaches and fundraising to do so because they are not elite athletes (Ewing and Seefeldt, 1997). At highly competitive levels, violence can be legitimized by some sports in a ritualized manner. For example, there is often a drinking culture surrounding varsity athletics (Smith and Waddington, 2004; Fauth, Roth and Brooks-Gunn, 2007). In an American national survey, Zill et al. (1995) found that youth who participated in extracurricular activities were 27 per cent less likely to have been arrested and 57 per cent less likely to drop out than those who didn’t.

Issues of Access

It is important to recognize that youth can neither benefit from nor be harmed by sports participation if they do not have access to the activities in the first place. Females in particular are more at risk for exclusion from programming than males are (Sandford, Armour and Wellington, 2006). Though the Sport Council Survey of 1995 found that all females involved enjoyed sport, they also found that males participated in more activities and competed at a higher level than girls did (also Eccles and Fredricks, 2006). In fact, female participation in all studies examined was consistently lower than that of males. In a large U.S. survey, Pate et al. (2000) found that 69.9 per cent of males participated in sports while only 53.4 per cent of girls participated. In another work by Ewing and Seefeldt (1997), participation by girls represented only 39 per cent of the total participation in interscholastic athletics recorded. This is at least partially due to the fact that females are more likely to be attracted to individual sports like dance and swimming while males are drawn to team sports, which school systems in the U.S. and Canada seem to support disproportionately. Especially problematic is the low ratio of women to men who coach school sports. The percentage of women who coach girls’ sports went from 90 per cent in 1972 to 50 per cent in 1987 (Bailey et al., 2002). Thus, females could also be lacking role models to encourage their participation. Though these studies examined competitive sports played in schools, it should be noted that very few of the programs aimed at improving youth behaviour offered any activities to specifically interest females or catered to their needs.

Some barriers to participation affect members of visible minority communities as well. Among adults, minorities participate in sports slightly less than the general population, and participation is the lowest for female members of minority groups. Qualitative research as to the reasons why suggests that a lack of acceptance of sports values, fear of discrimination and inadequate facilities are to blame. This situation must be rectified, as it has been found that sports can create disillusionment among girls and minorities if taught improperly (Bailey, 2005). Duncan, Duncan, Stryker and Chaumetan (2002) found that higher income was associated with more involvement in sport and less involvement in substance abuse and other deviant behaviours, while Zill et al. (1995) found that students from lower-income families participated less. Though other factors likely influence these relationships also, Cohen et al. (2007) found that juvenile arrest rates were lower in areas where schools offered more extracurricular sports.


In sum, the empirical results from the examined research and the theories put forward to explain the results have been relatively mixed and diverse. Thus, to advise public policy on the issue of sports as a tool to reduce youth violence, we will concentrate on what features of each study were found to be effective. It should be stressed that most of our conclusions are based on American or European findings. Unfortunately, until more Canadian studies are conducted, it is difficult to determine the extent to which these findings can be generalized to Canadian society.

Coakley (2002) concluded that positive transitions from childhood to adulthood are possible when youth feel physically safe, personally valued, socially connected, morally and economically supported, personally and politically empowered, and hopeful about the future. It is reasonable to assume that positive results will be possible if these conditions exist or if sports can help create them.

Further practical implications from the examined research:

In terms of administration, Coalter (2005) found that a “bottom-up” approach has been found to work best. It is important that the programs utilize local labour and resources. This has been found to work at a community level to quell any skepticism about quick-fix schemes (Bailey, 2005). Long-term success depends on communication and cooperation between stakeholders such as the community, parents, sports clubs, schools, practitioners, researchers, and policy-makers (Doll- Tepper, 2006; Sandford, Armour and Wellington, 2006). Long-term commitments to these types of programs are essential to their success, as is the effective monitoring of their success and operations (Sport England, 2002; Sandford, Armour and Wellington, 2006). This cooperation should ensure that programs are not forced to construct impractical goals and make overreaching claims just to secure funding (Smith and Waddington, 2004). Also, building bridges between school, family and programs is important so that the positive effects will not be limited to the context of the sports program. Programs should not separate youth from the community that they live in (Sandford, Armour and Wellington, 2006).

There was overwhelming evidence that sports will be effective when they are part of a directed program aiming specifically to reduce violence, as opposed to when they are competitive and directed at winning. Sports programs aimed at youth should blend physical activity with social interaction in order to address risk factors (Seedfeldt and Ewing, 1999). If the program offers youth-mentor relationships, it is imperative that these relationships be maintained after programs end (Smith and Waddington, 2004). It is also important to offer activities that youth are passionate about to maintain their long- term interest and possibly even create career opportunities. This implies that other diverse activities such as music, computers, or art could also be conducive to this end, as long as youth take a strong interest in them (Smith and Waddington, 2004). We know that sports alone are a poor solution to social problems and must be taken in the context of a multi-agency approach to problems like youth violence. Coakley (2002) criticizes the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” attitude that results from taking sports programs out of context. He emphasizes developing the best sports programs possible while keeping the root causes of youth disaffection, such as deindustrialization, unemployment, underemployment, poverty, and racism in mind and simultaneously working to address them.

Essentially, what works will depend on the community being addressed, the type of sport being played, and the social interactions created out of the environment. That being said, Donnely et al. (2008) provide a very useful and comprehensive list of criteria for predicting and/or evaluating the usefulness of any given program, which is supported in the majority of the research: the size and sustainability of a program, how it addresses barriers to participation, whether it responds to specific local and cultural needs, whether there is reliable published material and evidence regarding its effectiveness, and whether the program is sensitive to gender issues and accessible for disabled individuals.

From this, a comprehensive breakdown of general guidelines for program effectiveness at reducing youth violence may be created. It should be noted that these points focus on the reduction of youth crime and violence. It should be noted, however, that sports can also produce a range of additional benefits ranging from increasing self-confidence, increasing fitness, increasing the capacity to work with others and self-discipline.

Sport is effective at reducing youth crime and violence:
Sport is less effective at reducing youth crime and violence:


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19This chapter was written with the assistance of Amanda Boyce, BA, undergraduate program in Criminology, University of Toronto.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews