“Being or becoming physically active”: Unpacking conceptions about objectives and methods in partnership-based alternative sports activities | A summary

Johan Högman, Christian Augustsson & Pernilla Hedström
Department of Educational Studies, Sports Science
Karlstad University, Sweden

What are organizations really trying to achieve when they engage in physical activity promoting collaborations? And why do they continue this work although so many intervention projects fail? In this article, we examine conceptions about objectives that partnership organizations articulate in relation to their involvement in alternative sport programs. We also investigate how they envisage that these goals will be achieved, that is, which methods they intend to facilitate.

The approach we are using stems from bioecological theory and the idea that children’s developmental environments are influenced by various interconnected ecological systems. In this case, the organizing partner’s conceptions constitute a part of children’s exosystems. Through their decisions, taken without the involvement of children, the organizations affect the developing children’s microsystems, that is, their alternative sporting environments. Examining these conceptions helps to better understand the formation of activities and relations in the microsystem.

The consequences of the organizations’ reasoning about their objectives and methods was analyzed through an ecological lens, and in particular by utilizing the ”Youth Physical Activity Promotion Model” (YPAPM). In order to produce data on the conceptions that characterized the work of organizing the alternative activities, different types of interviews were conducted with representatives from the various collaborating organizations. In total, 28 representatives from 18 different organizations participated in 13 interviews of various types. Respondents held different positions within the organizations, such as sports coach, project manager, civil servant, executive director, assistant principal, after-school teacher, and business manager. The material was analyzed using qualitative content analysis, with initial focus on both manifest and latent content. After data were structured inductively, YPAPM was used to analyze the content in relation to promoting physical activity.

From the interview material, three sets of conceptions about objectives and associated methods for achieving these were constructed. The first revolves around the idea of increasing sports club’s member base by promoting access and modifying environments. Through adaptions within the programs, such as removing fees and commitment requirements, children will encounter sport and subsequently transition in to a sports club. A second set focused on awakening children’s inherent desire to move by targeting development of motor skills. Here, the end goal was not necessarily to be enroll children to clubs but rather to recruit them to a physically active lifestyle. A final set of conceptions that was primarily constructed based on descriptions from municipalities and sports district federations was to transform sports clubs by using alternative sports projects as an organizational exercise arena. In this vein, the partnership programs were used to spread health promoting messages to sports clubs and also to practically test related working methods.

In the long run, we argue for the risk that alternative programs become a compensation for the inability to bring about the change that is demanded at the policy level.

Each of these sets represents different components of the ecological development process towards becoming a physically active individual and then being able to participate in organized sports. However, we argue that the way in which the activities are constructed does not take into account the entire scope of the developmental process. Rather, they fail to practically facilitate for the importance of children’s predisposing factors for physical activity. The described conceptions on which the activities are designed, indicate a general idea that all that is needed for children to become members of sports associations is to organize the meeting between the child and the sports club. Yet, this view is questioned by the representatives themselves when they further reason about the nature of transitions from programs to sports clubs. In fact, they argue that there are parts missing in order to facilitate this transition. Consequently, an interesting question is: why do the activities continue to be organized in this way? One answer may be related to the third set of conceptions that primarily was expressed by the governing partners. Based on their general policy goals about more inclusive sports clubs and more children participating, transforming clubs may be viewed as one reasonable way of achieving this. However, this conception was not articulated in this way among the representatives from the sports clubs involved in the program. They rather emphasized the fact that their main financial incentive for joining partnerships like these was recruitment of children in order to get more paying members. Hence, the desired transformation of sports clubs was not enabled.

Our conclusion presented in the paper is that these challenges, originating from macro- and exosystem events, affect the developmental conditions in the microsystem. As long as sports clubs are not transformed, and partnership programs will continue to promote development in already active children instead of the children in real need of support, the current situation with few children transitioning from alternative programs to clubs will continue. In the long run, we argue for the risk that alternative programs become a compensation for the inability to bring about the change that is demanded at the policy level. These efforts become a kind of pseudo change management of primarily accounting-technical significance which in worst case only shifts focus from real change within the sports clubs.

The practical implication of this is that alternative programs like these have to start working from a developmental perspective where the needs of the least active are in focus. These environments need to offer conditions for development of children’s predisposing factors, summarized in the answers to the questions “Am I able?” and “Is it worth it”? In order to design these programs accordingly, we suggest that the partnership organizations ought to adopt an ecological model containing interventions in all systems in the children’s ecological environment.

Copyright © Johan Högman, Christian Augustsson & Pernilla Hedström 2021

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