Researcher: EU should identify why young people drop out of sport

A study on why young people are dropping out of sport is a high priority for EU countries, says a leading sports science researcher from the WJH Mulier Institute. He also talks about the Eurobarometer survey on EU citizens and sport plus how comparable EU-wide sports participation could be compiled in the future.

Dr Maarten van Bottenburg is the director of the WJH Mulier Institute, a joint venture between four Dutch universities that carries out sports science research. The institute conducts international comparative research from elite to grassroots sport and is involved in the COMPASS projects.

The COMPASS network offers a framework for the analysis of sports participation based on how often the individual took part in a given sporting activities over a year, whether activities were competitive or not and whether the individual carried out the activities as a member of a sports club or otherwise.

COMPASS projects are initiated by organisations such as the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI), UK Sport and Sport England. There are ten pilot countries – Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands and the UK.

The interview coincides with the UK’s six month period holding down the presidency of the EU and follows recent discussions between the sports movement (mainly European sports federations) and the Commission (see EURACTIV 16 June 2005).

What are the major strengths and weaknesses of the Eurobarometer survey?

Its major strength is the fact that it is carried out at the same time in a number of countries with the same questions. For COMPASS projects, the questions are the same but there may be two or three years difference between when the surveys are carried out from country to country. This makes comparison very difficult. 

A weakness is that the Eurobarometer studies do not use a prompt card listing a range of sports/physical activities, leaving it to respondents to define the terms ‘exercise’ and ‘sport’ in the survey’s main question ‘How often do you exercise or play sport?’.

The advantage of the COMPASS projects is that it is developing a standardised module at the start of each sports survey listing sports/physical activities into four broad categories. 
The COMPASS framework requires the use of a prompt card, acknowledging that it is not feasible to suggest that every country uses the same prompt card.

In the future, COMPASS expects countries to agree on a core list of sports that all countries would include on their prompt card, and that each country could add a supplementary list of sports to this, including sports not on the core list but particularly relevant in their own country. This would recognise the importance of cultural variation. 

This list of sports consists of 4 categories:
1. Sports officially recognised by the IOC
2. Sports not recognised by the IOC but officially recognised by the GAISF
3. Sports not recognised by the IOC nor the GAISF, but officially recognised by the National Olympic Committee or National Sports Federation in a specific country
4. Other physical and recreational activities practiced by the local population which do fit into the definition of sport issued by the Council of Europe (1992 European Sports Charter) and which are not included in the categories 1-3.

Is comparable data across time and between countries essential for EU policy makers – Commission, national governments and sports federations?

Four or five years ago Sport England, which receives money from the national lottery, were taken aback when the government started asking detailed questions about where this money was going and why it was going into football fields and not fitness centres. 

The point is that such data is invaluable in helping the policy makers you refer to evaluate projects against their cost and set new goals within sport, which is changing rapidly. There is a particular need for more information on the ten new member states plus Greece, Cyprus and Portugal – where very little is currently known.

Aside from the problem of defining the term ‘sport’, were there any other problems in the Eurobarometer study on EU citizens and sport?

There was a problem with the translation of specific terms. For the Eurobarometer, in Sweden they used the term ‘idrott’ for sport but strictly speaking this is neither sport nor physical activity. To avoid problems of this kind, it would be best to follow the example of the European Social Survey where the questions are written in English first and then translated by two independent translators. They then compare notes to ensure the right term is found. It may be time-consuming and more costly but the quality is that much higher.

An important point to remember is that ‘sport’ is not necessarily about competition. Nor does it have to be something ‘played’ in an organised context –  it could also be an activity carried out on the street or on a beach for example.

In your study ‘Sport participation in the EU – trends and differences’, you warn of the danger that policymakers push the health benefits of sport too much among children? This is particularly relevant as the UK is set to focus on the health aspects of sport during its Presidency. Can you elaborate on this point?

The decline in sports participation in young people is a major concern but it is crucial to remember that children do not start sport for health reasons but for fun. I am concerned that there is too much focus on obesity and the idea that young people must do sport. There is a danger here that young people will be put off sport if you push the health message too hard because its attraction is all about fun, counterculture and an act of freedom. Young people want to do sport where they want, when they want and how they want. 

Sports federations, EU and national policymakers should be wary of putting too much emphasis on obesity and the moral imperative that young people must do sport. They must be careful not to push the health message too hard as it may put young people off sport.


What should EU policy makers be looking to do with regard to sport and what would be a first study that you would propose? Is it helpful to divide young people up into different age groups to develop policies?

One key issue for member states and sports federations to tackle is to ensure more access to sports facilities. Currently there are often restrictions – ie that a facility is only open on particular days and between particular times and only open for members. People want freer access to sport when they want.

Dividing young people up into different age groups is a good idea. For young people up to 12 the focus should be on making sport fun. From 12 to 18 is where the drop-out rate is highest. This is where a study on the transition moments – ie between school and university or school and the workplace – to establish why people are dropping out, is a high priority in my view. From 20 years and upwards is where the problem of too much sitting around kicks in.

Another key study that needs to be carried out is to determine what motivates people to play sport.

Where should the focus for EU sports policy lie? Should the EU be pushing hard for higher levels of sports participation or more access to sports facilities?

Sport can enhance a sense of feeling European. Policymakers should build on traditional European strengths in sport such as volunteer work and the open promotion and relegation system of competition. Driving up sports participation should not be the goal of the EU as this is something for member states. But the Commission should encourage national governments to increase levels of participation.
What is required is not so much statistical data on sport participation but comparable data across time and between countries. The EU could play a stimulating role through co-ordination, agenda-setting, research and funding. A good role model is the UK, which has a highly integrated sport policy and sport research with an emphasis on trend research, national and international research plus research into the societal impact of sport and sport policy. 

Is it possible to produce a useful broad geographic definition of the needs of EU member states in terms of sports policy?

The EU needs to develop policies in line with different national needs. Useful broad categories are north/west Europe, southern Europe and eastern Europe. Sports participation is highest in the Nordic countries.

More specifically, Italy suffers from low levels of participation among older people and women. France, Germany, Holland and Belgium have high levels of organisation within clubs. Sport is highly organised in Sweden but is generally practised informally outside club structures.


In a study, entitled ‘Sports participation in the EU – trends and differences’, due out at the end of 2005, Van Bottenburg argues that developing good practices in evidence-based sport policies in the various member states into a European model would be a good idea. 

Read the shorter version of this interview


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