Sports and Socialization

There is a long tradition of research on sports and socialization. The roots of this research are grounded in theories that explain the role of play in child development, in Progressive era notions that team sports constituted an environment in which valuable lessons could be learned, and in popular twentieth century assumptions that playing sports was an inherently character building experience.


Empirical studies of socialization and sport were initiated in the 1950s as the first cohort of baby boomers in North America inspired parents as well as developmental experts to seek optimal conditions for teaching children, especially boys, the skills needed to succeed as adults in rapidly expanding, competitive, national and global economies. The structured experiences embodied in competitive sports were seen by many people in Western Europe and North America – especially suburban parents in the United States – to be ideal contexts for adult-controlled socialization of children. It was assumed that sports taught young people lessons about teamwork, competition, achievement, productivity, conformity to rules, and obedience to authority. Consequently, organized youth sports and interscholastic sports grew dramatically, although the pace of this growth varied by nation and regions within nations.

The growth of organized sports for young people sparked questions about the benefits of sport participation and how to attract and retain participation. Those who asked these questions were often associated with organized sport programs, and they usually had vested interests in recruiting participants and promoting their programs by linking sport participation to positive developmental outcomes. Scholars in physical education were the first to use these questions as a basis for research, and their studies were usually designed to examine sport participation as an experience that shaped social and personal development in positive ways. Most of these studies found correlations between sport participation and positive character traits, although research designs were generally flawed and provided little information about the dynamics of specific socialization experiences in sports compared to other activities (Stevenson 1975).

Research on socialization and sport has also been done in psychology and anthropology, as well as sociology. Psychological studies have focused on the socialization effects of sport participation on personality characteristics, moral development, achievement motivation, sense of competence, self esteem, and body image. Anthropological studies have focused on the role of play, games, and sports in the formation of value orientations in particular cultural contexts, especially those in pre industrial societies. Sociological studies, published mostly by scholars in North America, have focused on three main topics: (1) socialization into sport, dealing with the initiation and continuation of sport participation; (2) socialization out of sport, deal ing with termination and changes in sport participation; and (3) socialization through sport, dealing with participation and multiple facets of social development.

Through the mid 1980s most sociological research on socialization and sport was grounded in structural functionalism or forms of Marx ism, neo Marxism, and conflict theory. This research was based on the assumption that socialization was a process of role learning through which people internalized values and orientations enabling them to participate in established social systems. It was also based on the assumption that sport was a social institution organized in connection with the social system of which it was a part.

Since the mid 1980s most research has been grounded in a combination of interactionist and critical theories. The approach used in these studies assumes that: (a) human beings are active, self reflective decision makers who define situations and act on the basis of those decisions; (b) socialization is a lifelong process characterized by reciprocity and the interplay of the self conceptions, goals, and resources of all those involved in social interaction; (c) identities, roles, and patterns of social organization are socially constructed through social relations that are influenced by the distribution of power and resources in particular cultural settings; and (d) sports are cultural practices with variable forms and meanings (Coakley 2004).

This shift in the theoretical approaches and the assumptions used to guide research on socialization and sport is represented in the ways that scholars have studied socialization into sports, out of sports, and through sports.

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Socialization into Sports

Research based on an internalization social systems approach clarified that socialization into sport is related to three factors: (1) a person’s abilities and characteristics, (2) the influence of significant others, including parents, siblings, teachers, and peers, and (3) the availability of opportunities to play and experience success in sports. Most of this research utilized quantitative methods and presented correlational analyses, but it provided little information about the social processes and contexts in which people make participation decisions and in which participation is maintained on a day to day basis at various points in the life course.

Research based on an interactionist social process approach has focused on the processes through which people make decisions to participate in sports; the ways that gender, class, race, and ethnic relations influence those decisions; the connections between participation decisions and identity dynamics; the social meanings that are given to sport participation in particular relationships and contexts; and the dynamics of sport participation as a ‘‘career’’ that changes over time. This research, often utilizing qualitative methods and interpretive analyses, indicates that sport participation is grounded in decision making processes involving self reflection, social support, social acceptance, and culturally based ideas about sports. Decisions about sport participation are made continually as people assess opportunities and consider how participation fits with their sense of self, their development, and how they are connected to the world around them. These decisions are mediated by changing relationships, the material conditions of everyday life, and cultural factors, including the sport related social meanings associated with gender, class, race, age, and physical (dis)abilities.

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Socialization Out Of Sports

Research on changing or terminating sport participation is difficult to characterize in terms of the theoretical and methodological approaches used. Even the terminology used to describe socialization out of sport has been confusing. References have been made to attrition, disengagement, desocialization, withdrawal from sport roles, dropping out, nonparticipation, burnout, transitions, alienation, ‘‘social death,’’ exits, retirement, and involuntary retirement (i.e., being ‘‘cut’’ or denied access to participation opportunities). Studies have focused on many issues, including the relationship between participation turnover rates and the structures of sport programs, the attributes and experiences of those who terminate or change their sport participation, the dynamics of transitions out of sport roles, the termination of participation in highly competitive sport contexts as a form of retirement or even as a form of ‘‘social death,’’ and the connection between declining rates of participation and the process of aging.

Prior to the mid 1970s, socialization out of sports was not a popular research topic. Changing or terminating sport participation was treated more as a fact than a problem. It became a problem when baby boom cohorts younger than 13 years old declined in size and growth trends in organized programs slowed relative to the rapid increases that characterized the 1960s. Additionally, many parents in the 1970s had come to define participation in organized sports as important for the development and social status of their children. A growing emphasis on physical fitness in post industrial nations also heightened general awareness that physical activities, especially the strenuous activities involved in sports, were important to health and well being. And finally, there was an emerging system of elite sport development that depended on an expanding pool of developing young athletes nurtured through a feeder system of youth sports and interscholastic teams. As the vested interests in participation grew, so did research on the processes related to terminating and changing participation in sports.

This research indicates that terminating or changing sport participation occurs in connection with the same interactive and decision making processes that underlie becoming and staying involved in sports. When people end their active participation in one sport context, they often initiate participation in another context – one that is more or less competitive, for example. Terminating active participation due to victimization or exploitation is rare, although burnout, injuries, and negative experiences can and do influence decisions to change or end participation. Changes in patterns of sport participation often are associated with transitions in the rest of a person’s life, such as moving from one school to another, graduating, initiating a career, marriage, and becoming a parent. And for people who end long careers in sports, adjustment problems are most common among those who have weakly defined identities apart from sports and lack the social and material resources required for making transitions into other careers, relationships, and social worlds.

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Socialization through Sports

The belief that sport builds character has its origins in the class and gender relations of mid-nineteenth century England. Although the history of beliefs about the consequences of sport participation varies by society, the notion that sport produces positive socialization effects has been widely accepted in most western industrial and post industrial societies, especially England, Canada, and the United States. For nearly a century the validity of these beliefs was taken for granted and promoted by those associated with organized competitive sports in these countries. It was not until the 1950s that people began to use research to test the validity of these beliefs.

Most research between the 1950s and the late 1980s consisted of atheoretical, correlational analyses presenting statistical comparisons of the attributes of ‘‘athletes’’ and ‘‘nonathletes,’’ usually consisting of students in US high schools. The dependent variables in these studies included academic achievement, occupational mobility, prestige and status in school cultures, political orientations, rates of delinquency and deviance, and various character traits such as moral development. Because few of the studies used longitudinal, pre test/post test designs, research findings were usually qualified in light of questions about ‘‘socialization effects’’ (i.e., the attributes that were actually ‘‘caused’’ by sport participation) versus ‘‘selection effects’’ (i.e., the attributes that were initially possessed by those who chose to play organized sports or were selected to play by coaches and program directors). Additionally, most of these correlational studies simply divided all respondents into so called ‘‘athletes’’ and ‘‘nonathletes,’’ thereby ignoring their participation histories and the confounding effects of participation in a wide range of activities offering experiences closely resembling those offered by playing on school sponsored varsity teams.

McCormack and Chalip published a key article in 1988 in which they critiqued the methodological premises of research on socialization through sports. They noted that most researchers mistakenly assumed that (a) all sports offered participants the same unique experiences, (b) all sport experiences were strong enough to have a measurable impact on participants’ characters and orientations, (c) all sport participants passively internalized the ‘‘moral lessons’’ inherently contained in the sport experience, and (d) that sport participation provided socialization experiences that were unavailable through other activities. These assumptions led researchers to overlook that (a) sports are social constructions and offer diverse socialization experiences, (b) participants give meanings to sport experiences and those meanings vary with the social and cultural contexts in which participation occurs, (c) the personal implications of sport participation are integrated into people’s lives in connection with other experiences and relationships, and (d) sport participation involves agency in the form of making choices about and altering the conditions of participation. Focusing strictly on socialization outcomes led researchers to overlook the processes that constituted the core of socialization itself. Therefore, their studies missed the tension, negotiation, misunderstand ing, and resistance that characterize lived sport experiences.

These assumptions and oversights gave rise to a body of literature containing contradictory and confusing findings often leading to the conclusion that little could be said about socialization through sports. However, research initiated during the 1980s and 1990s, often guided by interactionist and critical theories, began to focus less on socialization outcomes and more on the social processes associated with sport participation and the social and cultural contexts in which sport experiences were given meaning and integrated into people’s lives. The findings in this research indicated that:

  • Sports are organized in vastly different ways across programs, teams, and situations offering many different socialization experiences, both positive and negative, to participants.
  • People who choose to play sports are selected to participate by coaches, and those who remain on teams generally differ from others in terms of their characteristics and relationships.
  • The meanings that people give to their sport experiences vary by context in connection with gender, race/ethnicity, social class, age, and (dis)ability, and they change through the life course as people redefine themselves and their connections with others.
  • Socialization occurs through the social interaction that accompanies sport participation, and patterns of social interaction in sports are influenced by many factors, including those external to sport environments.
  • Socialization through sport is tied to issues of identity and identity development.

These findings indicate that sports are most accurately viewed as sites for socialization experiences rather than causes of specific socialization outcomes. This distinction acknowledges that sports and sport participation may involve powerful and memorable experiences, but that those experiences take on meaning only through social relationships that occur in particular social and cultural contexts.

Since the late 1980s an increasing number of studies related to sports and sport culture have viewed socialization as a community and cultural process. Using various combinations of critical theories, cultural studies, and poststructuralism, researchers have undertaken textual and semiotic analyses in which they focus on sports as sites where people construct and tell stories that can be used to make sense of their lives and the worlds in which they live. In the process, culture is produced, reproduced, reformed, or transformed. Much of this research analyzes media based discourses by deconstructing the images and narratives used in connection with sports and the personas of sport figures, especially high profile athletes.

This research acknowledges that sports and the discourses that constitute them have become one of the more influential narratives in twenty first century culture. They are implicated in struggles over meanings, processes of ideological hegemony, and the expansion of global capital ism and consumer culture. One of the goals of this research is to understand sports in ways that contribute to informed and progressive explanations of the political, economic, and social issues that influence people’s lives.

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  13. Stevenson, C. L. (1975) Socialization Effects of Participation in Sport: A Critical Review of the Research. Research Quarterly 46: 287-301.

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