Mechanisms of Effective Sport for Development

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Nelson Mandela, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize and former president of South Africa, was a believer in the transformational power of sport. He once noted: “Sport has the power to change the world…. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

A number of sport organizations and government agencies have followed this path, using sport to transform communities and relationships. They do so by embedding educational and cultural activities into sport practices and games, a process known as sport for development.

As one example, Street Soccer USA is an organization whose mission is to use soccer as a way to fighter poverty and empower underserved communities.

Recently, Catherine Draper, of University of Cape Town, South Africa, and Fred Coalter, of Leeds Metropolitan University, teamed up to examine the most effective ways to deliver these sport for development programs.

Participants experienced the most benefits when the program promoted a sense of belonging, when athletes felt safe, and when they developed deep friendships with coaches and others. Further benefits accrued when the coaches prioritized education over the sports and when they showed concern for the players’ families and communities.

Results show that sport for development programs can be effective, but it’s not just the sport that adds benefits. Instead, coaches need to emphasize relationship building and education. Or, put another way, sport serves as the hook to attract participants, but the change takes place through the intentional interventions and sense of community. 

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