Go into any bar or restaurant in Latin America during the World Cup and you’ll witness ecstatic fist pumps, shouts and hugs after a goal by the national team. Sports makes for tribal celebration, and the shared experience that occurs when the tribe excels and triumphs can bond even strangers and serve as a powerful social glue.
But it’s not just true for watching sports. It may be even more true for playing them. That’s part of what makes sports so important for kids. Sports engender fellowship. They can increase social trust and boost socioemotional skills, including the ability to control emotions and show empathy for others. All of these things lead to stronger networks of relationships, what economists call social capital.
A virtuous circle may result. High social capital tends to reduce crime and limits the need to use scarce public resources on crime deterrence rather than on more productive purposes. It increases people’s willingness to trust in the use of public resources and add to the common purse by paying their taxes, contributing in the long run to capital accumulation.
The dangers of unstructured sports programs in development
But none of these outcomes are inevitable. Getting kids involved in sports so they enjoy them throughout their lives requires good sports programs. And just as success on the field depends on the right configuration of players, discipline and strategy, the success of sports programs depends on the right design.
Consider the Swedish recreation centers that were built in the 1960s to give kids an alternative to antisocial activities. These recreation centers offered lots of possibilities, including sports, like basketball and ping-pong, and more passive pursuits, like TV and video games. What they didn’t provide were structured activities. Kids weren’t required to participate in any particular game or hobby, didn’t focus on building skills, didn’t usually have an adult present, and didn’t receive feedback. As a result, a study shows, the programs not only failed to foster socioemotional skills. They actually encouraged deviant behavior by exposing children to older peers who did badly at school, stayed out late at night, and had troublesome relationships with the police. Indeed, while kids who participated in structured sports and other leisure activities with an adult leader showed lower rates of anti-social behavior, those who participated in unstructured activities, like those at the recreation centers, had higher incidences of stealing, fighting and skipping school.
The intensity of engagement also matters. A study across 30 mostly European countries showed that moderate sports activity could increase the risk of drug and alcohol abuse among kids. But more intense engagement involving three to four hours of sports per day leads to lower levels of risk, as kids wholeheartedly seek to bolster their athletic prowess.
Design and evaluation is key to successful sports programs
The challenge then is in designing projects that take into account these factors and are effective. That means designing programs that can be evaluated, evaluating those that are already in place, and supporting those where there is a consensus regarding their efficacy. And it means starting small. When programs have shown that they are worth it, they can be expanded.
Taking advantage of modern techniques in media communication and nudging also is crucial. That can involve everything from campaigns on TV, in radio and newspapers; through messages on the internet and at community centers and worksites; to the creation of walking clubs and sports groups, backed by phone prompts and buddy systems to get people moving. And of course, all these efforts are made easier when cities are designed to promote exercise; when walking paths and bicycle lanes proliferate and parks are abundant and filled with exercise facilities that make it easy for people to get together and enjoy both exercise for its own sake and the communal bonding that comes with it.
Sports and the strengthening of social bonds
Exercise and sports, after all, not only result in leaner and more fit bodies, with less mental and physical disease. They also involve shared activities that build stronger social connections and more cohesive and resilient societies. Watch the embraces and euphoria that overtake a World Cup team when a collective effort leads to a dazzling goal. We identify with it not only because we want our team to win, but because we recognize in it lesser versions of our own collective triumphs, whether on the soccer pitch, local gym, or on the hill of the local park that we have climbed, despite the steep slopes, with our walking group. We can all partake in those joys. And the earlier we get children involved in sports programs, the more likely they are to relish them throughout their lives as well. The trick is designing good programs, making sure they work and then scaling them up. That way we ensure that kids have the opportunity before they adopt sedentary habits to discover how important sports really are.