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Getting into the game: evidence that team sports help in childhood development

21 May 2019   ·   

Regardless of country or race, children’s eyes light up when they see a player from their team run out onto the pitch. That emotion is so special because in their heart they identify with the player, and they may even aspire to be like them someday, whether in sports or in life. For children born in a stable environment, a gift can come in the form of their favourite team’s shirt, featuring the team’s colours and the child’s name across the back. Such a shirt can likely become the child’s most treasured piece of clothing. The child’s parents would recognise this gift – along with their participation in sports activities and school leagues – as a positive stimulus. But what happens when the social or family environment are not able to provide this optimal type of development?

In order to respond precisely to these types of situations, S4D (Sports for Development) programmes have been implemented all over the world, based on the idea that playing sports during childhood improves their education and social skills. These are two fundamental advantages for children living in situations of exclusion or poverty. However, no scientific evidence existed that was able to ensure that these results were being achieved. Thanks to a joint research carried out by the Barça Foundation and UNICEF, we have solid evidence of the benefits from the S4D programmes. Also a series of conclusions have been depicted in the Getting into the game report, which showcase  the strengths and weaknesses and open the door to improve in regards to its implementation and development.

The research methodology has cross-referenced data gathered over the past decade from all over the world by these programmes, as well as literature published about the programmes and a series of surveys from the individuals that implement it. This universal methodology has made it possible to demonstrate that children and young people up to the age of 18, regardless of nation, race or language, are positively impacted in several key areas, starting with education.

S4D programs make education more attractive, but it is not clear how they could also improve academic performance.

This tends to be achieved when the focus has been placed on educators and local stakeholders. Educators participate in identifying and solving problems, they are recruited and trained based on quality criteria, and are offered good working conditions. Families, communities and schools must also actively participate. If neither of these conditions are met, learning materials do not correspond to real needs, educator training is inadequate, and school bullying is replicated within the programme itself. Programmes can also fail if multiple objectives are pursued, or if the manner in which the sport will contribute to academic results is not defined.

One example is the MYSA Academy in Kenya, which manages 1,800 football teams for school-aged children. MYSA provides a crucial example in a country whose educational system requires families to pay for their children to attend, and where most families are poor. In order to facilitate participation, they must deal with the specific needs of the children such as finding someone else to look after their young siblings while the children practice. At the same time, however, they are required to participate in services that benefit the community, specifically rubbish removal and promoting hygiene, which is vital to controlling disease within the country.


S4D increase the sense of being part of the social group and integrate those who are marginalised. They can, however, also pose barriers to inclusion.

Team sports facilitate integration if they focus on developing social skills, reducing economic inequality and empowering girls. When it comes to marginalised groups, having safe spaces where they can meet, interact and participate in social life eventually leads to their integration. At the same time, however, significant barriers can also be posed by traditional sports cultures that exclude females or young members of the LGBTQi community, as well as disadvantaged families that don’t participate in sports because it doesn’t generate immediate income. Difficulty in accessing or having to travel significant distances to the facilities can also pose serious challenges.

This point can be showcased by the Barça Foundation’s FutbolNet program, which aims at integrating the children of Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon due to war. Their coaches have had to deal with boys who refuse to play against girls, Lebanese parents who refuse to let their children associate with children of other nationalities, and families who will not let their girls play football. Once these barriers have broken down, the children are amazed to discover that they have a lot in common, regardless of their gender or birthplace. They’ve even renamed the programme’s female coaches as “the super-heroines”.


The ability of sports to help protect children has been overestimated.

This doesn’t mean that sports don’t have a positive effect on reducing violence and its risk behaviours. Having a safe training space, learning to resolve conflict through fair play and seeing the coach as a behavioural role model are positive contributions, but it is difficult to sway social norms, prejudices, or the violent culture of certain societies and social environments. This is the case among families who participate in criminal behaviour or live in war-torn areas. Above all, there is a lack of evidence to demonstrate that sports contribute to a reduction in child exploitation or abuse.

A revealing case is that of the Amandla centres in South Africa, which focus on extracurricular activities, creating safe spaces and includes social workers on site. Many of their coaches used to be armed criminals who left their guns behind to show younger children that they have other options. Despite this, local gangs sometimes pressure the children into joining, thus abandoning the sport.


Sports programmes promote empowerment, but it can be diminished if too much emphasis is placed on eliminating differences.

In the report, empowerment is taken into account from individual, group and community perspectives. It is achieved when the programmes aim at encouraging a child’s autonomy, self-discipline and self-control so they can build a stronger self-image by mastering sports skills. Team sports also reinforce bonds and caring relationships within the group – the team – and the family. The family’s participation as a group encourages local pride, which improves sustainable development. However, there are also empowerment challenges that must be overcome: excessive importance placed on the deficit model, which puts too much emphasis on making all children equal; adults opposing to the participation of their children in activities considered to be for those who are older and; the lack of a consensus for measuring empowerment and guiding programmes towards it.

In Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti, Mexico, Paraguay and Kenya, the NGO called Fútbol Más trains people living in urban neighbourhoods, with the goal of engaging them to participate alongside the coaches from the S4D programmes. Once the local coaches reach full participation, the organisation’s staff is able to discontinue its direct involvement, leaving a functional structure in the hands of the local leaders who have empowered themselves, together with the children, to continue providing the service to their community.

The research does not end here, and its second phase is already underway in 2019. This time, the research will seek to test the conclusions found in the first phase, to consult with young people, S4D experts and stakeholders, to translate all of this knowledge into policies, best practices and viable recommendations aimed at professionals. This is because the aim of the partnership between the Barça Foundation and UNICEF, in collaboration with the Innocenti Research Centre, is for professionals and policymakers to be able to meet the needs of the children with whom they work, with greater efficiency and assuredness in their efforts.

The full report in both English and Spanish can be downloaded here.

The Barça Innovation Hub team


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