VUB shows it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part


A research group from the Free University of Brussels analysed athletic initiatives across the country in the hope of getting more Flemings – and their role models – socially and physically active

Not just health benefits

The positive effects of sports are often considered obvious. Now a research group at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) is using science to find the exact benefits to society of sporting activities.

Government involvement in sports is generally thought to be essential in providing people with an array of recreational activities to help them stay healthy and acquire social skills. The researchers from Sport & Society (SASO), established last year at the VUB, have taken a more critical look at these assumptions.

“You could argue that an active lifestyle and proper diet are enough to be healthy, but there is an abundance of other recreational activities and social skills that can be developed in a variety of ways,” says Professor Marc Theeboom, who co-ordinates SASO. “We want to examine scientifically why the government should invest in sports and find the best ways it can do so.”

Physical activities are seen as a way of integrating underprivileged communities in wider society. In the last decade, a long list of initiatives has sprung up using sports to help prisoners, unemployed people, refugees, people living in poverty, low-skilled workers and children with psychological problems.

“In this sense, the potential of sport lies in its popularity and accessibility,” Theeboom explains. “You don’t need special knowledge or to speak a certain language to participate in sport.”

Social and professional skills

The Flemish employment agency VDAB, for example, has set up a programme in which youngsters receive boxing lessons while training to become professional welders. Inspired by the initiative, Flemish labour minister Philippe Muyters launched a call for similar pilot projects that combine sports with vocational training.

The potential of sport lies in its popularity and accessibility

- Professor Marc Theeboom

The Flemish Institute for Sports Policy and Recreation Management recently carried out a large-scale project called Street Action with the aim of involving more youngsters from underprivileged areas in sport. As part of the project, the sports departments in various towns set up partnerships with social organisations. In Kort op de bal (On the Ball), a project that took place in Brussels, youngsters from football clubs in underprivileged areas were trained to become football coaches.

“By examining such projects, we noticed the crucial role of the coaching team,” Theeboom says. For a project to be successful, the team should involve youngsters in the decision-making process, point out their responsibilities, keep them motivated and make sure they feel recognised and rewarded for their efforts.

“Another important factor is the composition of the groups,” Theeboom says. “It’s almost a cliché to speak of the benefits of mixing youngsters from different social and ethnic backgrounds, but coaches really have to ensure that certain youngsters don’t feel restrained because they might consider themselves inferior.”

If teams take these aspects into account, Theeboom explains, the projects show that sporting activities help youngsters develop self-confidence, a sense of responsibility and perseverance, along with a variety of other social skills. To spread their knowhow among youth and welfare organisations, SASO will organise a week-long academic course at the end of September.

Involving the stars

Theeboom also thinks top athletes and professional clubs in Belgium can play an important role in making sport more popular. “Since the government supports them in their development, they should be willing to give back to society,” he says. “But to a certain extent, top athletes are still unaware of how they can act as positive role models. And most clubs don’t realise the social potential of their attractiveness to the community.”

SASO examined the community management policies of the football clubs that play in the Jupiler Pro League. “Among other things, we advised the clubs to host more activities at their stadiums and organise visits by players,” explains Theeboom. “We also recommended that they integrate these social aspects into the players’ and coaches’ contracts, to make sure they’re taken seriously.”

Clubs could help by setting up volunteer programmes. “Leading a meeting or organising a tournament could help more people acquire skills that are very useful in life,” Theeboom says. SASO is also examining ways to help top athletes manage their careers more responsibly and to ensure they don’t get off track once they retire from professional sports.

The balance between sporting ambitions and social goals is an important challenge for some initiatives. Let’s Go Urban, for example, aims to train professional dancers through its after-school dance programme. Another initiative, BX Brussels (pictured), is a football club set up by Red Devils captain Vincent Kompany that focuses on youth development but has aspirations to play at a more competitive level.

“The emphasis may never fully be on performance if a project has distinct social goals,” Theeboom says. “On the other hand, learning to perform under pressure is a valuable asset that can, for example, help people be more successful on the jobs market.”

Photo (c) Iris Verhoeyen