Context matters : the role of settings in sport development

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Bowers, Matthew Thomas

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Sport participation in the United States is often characterized as a unitary experience that naturally instills a standardized set of values. In this work, however, I challenge the mythology of a unitary conceptualization of sport participation and examine how the experiences and outcomes of playing sports change depending on the setting in which the participation occurs. Specifically, I undertake an investigation into the differences between playing sports in an organized setting and playing them in an informal, unstructured setting. Drawing from the findings of three distinct studies, I first demonstrate through a mixed-method historical study how the field of sport management has narrowed its focus over time to exclude the more playful forms of sport and physical activity. In the second and third studies, I show the experiential and developmental outcomes that are potentially overlooked by maintaining a narrow definition of sport that excludes sport played in unstructured settings. In the second study, a phenomenological examination of pre-teen youth sport participants reveals that the meaning of the experience of playing youth sports derives not from playing in one setting alone, but emerges through the synthesis of experiences accrued in both organized and unstructured settings. In the third study, the relative influences of time spent participating in organized sports and informal sports during childhood are assessed with respect to the development of participant creativity. Like the phenomenological study, the results of this quantitative analysis again point to the importance of balancing participation in both organized and unstructured settings. The most creative individuals are those who split their sport participation time across both settings, as opposed to individuals with below-average creativity, who spent the majority of their sport participation time in organized settings. Combined, the results of these three studies demonstrate the historical shift (in both research and practice) away from unstructured sport settings, and highlight the potentially transformative sport development implications of reincorporating unstructured sport settings on the overall experiences and outcomes of sport participation.



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