Sports Think Tank - Social Capital Discussion

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Sport Participation: Social Capital or Sporting Capital?

In collaboration with Sports Think Tank, Sport and Recreation Alliance and UK Sport Development and Research Network, The Centre for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Leeds Beckett hosted this seminar with keynote presentations from Professor Fred Coalter and Nick Rowe.

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Nick Rowe

Sport Participation: Social Capital or Sporting Capital?

Carnegie Pavilion 11 July 2016

Nick Rowe


The public policy challenge

For over 40 years public policy in the UK has sought to influence and increase participation rates in sport while reducing the social and economic inequities associated with participation. The levels of investment have been substantial - in the billions rather than millions of pounds. Yet even the most optimistic observer would have to conclude that the results – when viewed in aggregate at least - have been disappointing.

Participation rates in sport have remained broadly static and the inequalities in participation between for example men and women, and the highest and lowest social class groups have remained stubbornly difficult to narrow. Efforts at public policy intervention can be distilled down into one simple but incredibly challenging question -why is it that some people become committed lifelong sport participants while others drop out from sport in their teens never to return to an active lifestyle? It is the contention of this paper that the road to better public policy is having a more coherent and robust theoretical foundation to underpin sports development policy and practice.

Sporting Capital – a new theoretical framework to guide sports policy and practice

Sporting Capital provides that missing framework of understanding that can create a new impetus for sustained growth in community sport in England. In its component parts there is little that is new about Sporting Capital. But in its totality it opens the door to a completely new and exciting perspective. Sporting Capital is analogous to the theory of Human Capital and may be defined as:

"The stock of physical, social and psychological attributes and competencies that support and motivate an individual to participate in sport and to sustain that participation over time".

The underlying factors that determine the likelihood of people participating in sport may be classified into three domains: Social, Psychological and Physiological (physical health and physical competency). Brought together these three domains interact and combine to create an individual's level of 'Sporting Capital'.

The model predicts that an individual with positive scores on the three Domains - high levels of Sporting Capital - will have a high probability of current and future sustained participation while someone with low scores will have a very low probability of current or future participation in sport.

Just like human capital, Sporting Capital is acquired by education and experience. It is influenced by prevailing socio-cultural norms set by the family, peers, teachers, coaches, leaders (influential others) the media, marketing and promotion and through consumption. Sporting Capital includes but is not the same as Social Capital.

What is it about Sporting Capital theory that can make a real difference to public policy and practice in sports development?

There are a number of important characteristics that we would expect to be associated with Sporting Capital and that will transform the way we look at and implement public policy for sport:

  • Although Sporting Capital can appreciate and depreciate – it is by its nature more durable than participation which is characterised by high levels of flux.
  • People with high levels of Sporting Capital are more resilient to the potential negative impact on participation of external barriers associated with changes in life circumstances and should they drop out are more likely to return to sport.
  • It is anticipated that increased Sporting Capital leads to more frequent and diverse participation in sport and, in turn, more frequent and sustained participation impacts positively to build and reinforce Sporting Capital.
  • It is expected that high quality sporting experiences are likely to have a more positive impact on Sporting Capital than mediocre ones while poor quality experiences can have a negative impact.
  • Significant aspects of Sporting Capital (such as physical competency and self-efficacy) are developed at a very young age, involve a socialisation process (with boys much more likely to build Sporting Capital than girls and the more socio-economically advantaged having higher levels than those from lower socio-economic groups).

Testing the theory – developing an empirical model of Sporting Capital and its relationship to sports participation

The theory of Sporting Capital has been empirically tested using population level data collected through the Active People Survey (APS). The evidence from the Active People Survey provides empirical support for the relationship between levels of Sporting Capital and rates of participation in sport. The higher the level of Sporting Capital the higher the probability that someone will participate regularly in sport and the lower the level the higher the probability of sedentary behaviours and drop out. Evidence also shows that Sporting Capital is a socially structured phenomenon. So not only are participation rates in sport considerably lower for women than men and for lower social class than higher social class groups, but the antecedents to participation - as demonstrated by levels of Sporting Capital - also follow the same pattern.

Sporting Capital – making a difference - applying the theory to practice

Public policy intervention can build Sporting Capital if delivered in the right way to the right people at the right time. A focus on building Sporting Capital is more likely to be effective in achieving public policy goals of increased sustained participation in sport than a focus on participation per se.

There are a number of areas where applying Sporting Capital theory to programme design will potentially pay dividends as follows:

  • In targeting and recruitment it is important to identify and understand those with very low levels of Sporting Capital, those with modest levels and those with high levels as the intervention approach will need to be very different for each of these groups.
  • People with low Sporting Capital will need a focus that promotes and builds self-efficacy, self confidence and potentially improves basic movement skills.
  • For those recruits on low levels of Sporting Capital the emphasis will need to be on intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivational factors and on reinforcing social networks. Psychological factors related to lack of confidence, self-efficacy and negative body image will feature prominently in this group. The need for an empathetic environment and leadership style will be critical. Ideally they would receive one-to-one support and would benefit from mentoring from people who they see as' like themselves'.
  • People who come to the programme with higher levels of Sporting Capital may not be participating due to negative external factors such as a lack of opportunity with few facilities or accessible clubs in their neighbourhood and barriers relating to finance and cost. They are more likely to respond positively to price reductions/offers; information exchange and or changes in programming.
  • Some young people with modest or high levels of Sporting Capital have problems with authority. Sport provides them with the opportunity for more structured environments – but ones that they are empowered to influence – and that look different from the more authoritarian social contexts which make them feel uncomfortable. For this group competitive opportunities and the camaraderie of playing in teams can help to sustain and further build their Sporting Capital. They are candidates for using sport as the hook to engage them in more pro-social and educational activity and to develop their human capital.
  • ·Some projects may go for a mix of recruits with varying levels of Sporting Capital – but in so doing they need to take great care on how these groups interact and are provided for – the wrong mix can be counterproductive – the right mix can create empowered and positively reinforcing environments.
  • Participation is often temporary while Sporting Capital is durable. This shifts the emphasis from judging success purely by attendance (which is a necessary condition) to judging success by the quality of the experience and the increase in Sporting Capital that accompanies it (i.e. sufficient conditions).
  • Many people from disadvantaged backgrounds do not get the positive socialisation process that builds Sporting Capital in their early formative years. They may arrive with what might be considered a 'Sporting Capital deficit'. The training and quality of sports leaders, mentors and coaches will be vital to help overcome this deficit. Some may be better suited to work with young people with high Sporting Capital while others better suited to engaging with young people with low levels – it is important not to assume that one type of leader or coach fits all.

Conclusion - testing the theory to build the evidence base

Sporting Capital as a theory is in its infancy. It includes but is not the same as social capital and in this sense there is not a choice to be made between 'sporting capital and 'social capital'. It offers the opportunity for wider development of human potential through the transferability of 'capitals'. if Sporting Capital is to fulfil its potential as a guiding and influential framework for public policy further research is required to test its theoretical propositions and its ability to deliver in real world situations. Much of this research could be incorporated into existing commitments for programme evaluations. However, other major new areas of research are needed to include for example large scale survey methods with longitudinal panels and experimental research

[1] This event, organised by Louise Morby, was a collaboration between The Centre for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Leeds Beckett University and The UK Sport Development and Research Network

[2] Nick Rowe is a freelance Sport Research Consultant and former Head of Strategy and Research at Sport England. He is currently a Visiting Research Fellow at Leeds Beckett University. He can be contacted at

[3] See: Nicholas F. Rowe (2014): Sporting capital: a theoretical and empirical analysis of sport participation determinants and its application to sports development policy and practice, International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics. To link to this article:

Prof Fred Coalter responds...

Inequality, social class and the limits of sports policy

Prof Fred Coalter


Nick's valuable work is motivated by his assertion that

having a more coherent and robust theoretical foundation to underpin sports development policy and practice …… is a fundamental pre-requisite for effective public policy'

I wholly agree with this statement, which has significant implications for the general area of sports policy which is characterised by a failure to develop a cumulative theoretical understanding of issues relating to sports participation. For example, the conclusion of a research review commissioned by Sport England was that government policies to promote sports participation were 'well-meaning policies not rooted in realities of people's lives' and that 'government policies set out to 'change attitudes' or cultures' with only the most cursory analysis' (Foster et al, 2005)

So Nick's approach to developing a more in-depth understanding via his theory of sporting capital is clearly a welcome attempt to address such criticisms. However, while the theory of sporting capital identifies a number of correlates between sports participation and groups of participants Nick admits that sporting capital is a socially structured phenomenon – that its components are obtained via education, influenced by socio-cultural norms, reflect power relations around gender, class, status.

Further, in an analysis of the relationship between sporting capital and social class Nick concludes that sports development policy needs to address the more 'fundamental antecedents' of low participation rates stemming from inequities in the levels of sporting capital across different social class groupings (Rowe, 2013).

Limitations of sports policy

This concern with 'fundamental antecedents' and 'inequities' reflects the fact that, despite a variety of sports policy interventions in the UK, there have been consistent correlations with aspects of social structure such sex, type and level of education, age and social class. Even in times of increasing aggregate participation, the relationships between the rates of participation of these social groups remained relatively constant. An appropriate metaphor might be an escalator – although all were moving up, the relationship between the various steps on the escalator remained relatively constant. Inequalities remained when overall participation was increasing or decreasing. The strength of such 'fundamental antecedents' is indicated by the conclusions of a major international review of the effectiveness of sports policy interventions (Nicholson et al. 2011, p. 305) that,

It is evident . . . that government policies designed to increase sports participation have had

limited success . . . Some have had success. . . within small communities or specific cohorts . . .[but] the same level of success has not been apparent within the mass population

The reasons for the apparent limited effectiveness of sports policy interventions is indicated by van Bottenburg et al's assertion that

Exercise and sport are thoroughly social phenomena, which take place and find their meaning...within a broader societal context... The choice to take part in sport, how, where, what and with whom is directly related to the issue of howpeople see and wish to present themselves...socio-culturally determined views and expectations also play a role here'

The importance of inequality and social class

Such perspectives point to the need for analyses based on an understanding of how more fundamental socio-cultural factors explain differences in levels of sports participation between different social groups and societies. The roots of the problem can be illustrated by comparing the UK with certain Scandinavian countries whose high levels of sports participation have been used as a benchmark for judging the UK performance (DCMS/Strategy Unit 2002)– Finland, Sweden, Denmark. Here we can draw on The Spirit Level (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2000) whose key assertion is the central importance of inequality of income and its associated effects in explaining a range of social issues. Wilkinson and Pickett illustrate that unequal societies tend to have higher levels of social and health problems – crime, obesity, lower life expectancy, lower levels of trust and social cohesion. When compared to the Scandinavian countries the much more unequal UK has much lower rates of crossgenerational social mobility, greater gender inequality, lower and less socially inclusive rates of university graduation and lower sense of social cohesion and trust – all factors with clear implications for the accumulation of sporting capital and wider social participation.

That socially divisive factors are recognised is indicated by findings from a recentBritish Social Attitudes Survey (2016) in which 72% agreed that 'wealth inequality made Britain a divided society'77 per cent agreed that the 'class divide was fairly or very wide' and 73% agreed that'it is very or fairly difficult to move between classes'

The importance of this relates to the key assertion of Wilkinson and Pickett is that social inequality and individual psychology 'relate to each other like lock and key' (See Figure 1). They suggest that the emphasis on meritocracy- in which inequality is legitimated and widely seen as a process via which people are supposedly sorted by ability - leads to a sense of stigma, felt inadequacy and loss of a sense of social worth for those who are not socially mobile. Such processes are reinforced by wider processes of stigmatisation of so-called 'scroungers' and 'chavs'(Jones, 2011) Jones (2011, p. 37) suggests, 'demonising the less well-off . . . makes it easier to justify an unprecedented and growing level of social inequality'.

The emphasis on status as reflecting individual worth combines with very low levels of social mobility to lead to a sense of inadequacy for 'failing' to achieve in so-called meritocracies and an associated sense of self-blame and to socio-psychological issues of relative deprivation and status anxiety. In this context it is worth noting that the psychological dimension (self-efficacy and self -confidence) are accorded the highest weighting in sporting capital. Further, Wilkinson and Pickett argue that that 'behaviour change is easier for people who feel in control and in a good emotional state'.

Social class has long been acknowledged as an important correlate with sports participation, but the interpretation of social class has tended to be limited to occupation and economic capital – expressed as a concern with low participation rates among 'low income groups'. Because social class entails issues of social and moral judgements it is a topic often ignored in the self-proclaimed 'inclusive' and 'classless' world of sport – despite the fact that 50 per cent of gold medallists at the London Olympics were privately educated (7% of the population).But if we view social class, within the context of an increasingly unequal and stigmatising society, as also as consisting of cultural capital (status-related tastes, interests and activities) and social capital (networks, peers, relationships and associations) (Savage, 2015) we can begin to examine its relevance for understanding sports participation. From this perspective its importance is emphasised by van Bottenburg et al's 2005:210) argument that notions of identity are central to decisions about participation. They argue that individuals,

do not make rational considerations with respect to health consequences, however important they might find these, but ...base their choices primarily on the consequences this has for their own identity, their relationships with others and the appreciation or rejection that this may bring to mind.


Such a perspective implies the need to move away from the individualistic approach to motivation which underpins much modern sports policy,to an approach that seeks to understand the implications of the contention that 'Exercise and sport are thoroughly social phenomena, which take place and find their meaning...within a broader societal context...'

However, such an analysis reverses the current fashion for arguing that sport can contribute to increased 'social inclusion' and suggests that various aspects of social inclusion precede such participation. For example, Collins (2011) suggests that in Finland the much admired sports legislation and provision are the products of the social democratic and egalitarian values inherent in Finnish society – sport does not promote inclusion, but reflects it.

Nick Rowe (2013) suggests that 'barrier reduction' alone will not overcome social class differences in participation in sport. This raises complex questions about the relationship between sporting capital and the other forms of capital taken to constitute social class – especially the frequently ignored social and cultural capital. Perhaps this shifts the policy imperative from simply increasing the number of people participating in sport to understanding better why large social groups may not want to participate in what is being offered and the extent to which such attitudes are informed by experiences and attitudes beyond the influence of a limited definition of sports policy. It is probable that Nick's' fundamental antecedent's are beyond the influence of narrowly defined sports policy.

It points to the possibility that the achievement of substantially higher sports participation rates is well beyond the control of sports policy – in a sense sport is epiphenomenal, a secondary set of social practices dependent on and reflecting more fundamental structures, values and processes. In fact such an analysis reverses the current fashion for arguing that sport can contribute to increased 'social inclusion' and suggests that various aspects of social inclusion precede such participation.

Figure 1


M van Bottenburg et al (2005) Sports participation in the European Union. Nieuwegein: Arko Sports Media

British Social Attitudes Survey (2016)

S Collins (2011) Finland in M Nicholson et al (eds) (2011) Participation in Sport: International policy perspectives London, Routledge

Department of Culture, Media and Sport/Strategy Unit, 2002. Game plan: a strategy for delivering government's sport and physical activity objectives. London: Cabinet Office.

C Foster et al (2005) Understanding participation in sport: A systematic review. LondonSport England

O Jones (2011) Chavs: The demonisation of the working class. London, Verso

M Nicholson et al (eds) (2011) Participation in Sport: International policy perspectives. London, Routledge

N Rowe (2014) Sporting Capital: a theoretical and empirical analysis of sport participation determinants and its application to sports development policy and practice Int Journal of Sport Policy and Practice Vol 7 No 1 : pp 43-61

N Rowe (2013) Sporting capital and inequality- does social class make a difference? Sporting Capital Resource Sheet 5. Street League

M Savage (2015) Social class in the 21st century London, Pelican

R Wilkinson and K Pickett (2009) The Spirit Level: Why equal societies almost always do better London: Allen Lane

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