Sport and age

Many projects have aimed to increase the number of young people playing sport

30 June 2017

A high proportion of young people regularly take part in sport, but the rate of participation has historically been fairly flat. What works and what research is there about how to motivate and influence this important age group? 

The sporting habit declines with age, but there are messages that will help encourage older people to take part.

Find out more:

Youth Personalities: Under the skin

Under the skin of our youth personalities

We've uncovered a range of new insights into young people's behaviours and motivations

This new wave of research builds on our youth insight published in 2014, with a host of findings to help influence how we get young people active.

Working with research agency YouthSight, we've delved into the personalities, behaviours, attitudes and aspirations of young people. 

They're compiled in our comprehensive pack Under the Skin, which breaks down young people into six key personas. Only by understanding these various groups can we design the best possible programmes to get young people active.

Each category is broken down into a series of key traits, based on extensive research talking to scores of young people.

Access our pack here.


Youth Insight Pack

A 2014 Sport England review into young people's lives found sport needs to adapt how it presents itself to broaden its reach and increase the proportion of young people regularly participating:

  • Young people’s behaviours do not always reflect their attitudes to sport – we need to focus more on changing behaviours and less of changing attitudes
  • Many young people take part in sport/activity for more functional or lifestyle reasons – keep engaging them and providing feedback on what actually matters to them not what matters to sport
  • Sport can provoke strong emotional responses. Whilst the activity can be sport, the message that sells it doesn’t have to be. Levelling the playing field can also help overcome the emotional baggage of sport
  • Sport often has to compete or connect with wider interests or priorities. Young people respond well to meaningful experiences; those which benefit them as an individual, reinforce their place in their social group or help them develop
  • The supply of sport tends to reach those already engaged. Young people, particularly those in their late teens/early 20s, need to feel the community sport offer is specific enough to their needs and fits with their lives

If you're trying to increase your engagement with young people then download and read the full Insight Pack.

A habit for life

An emotional commitment to sport from age 11 to 16 is linked to forming a sporting habit for life.

Research by YouGov for Sport England, published in 2012, found that a strong personal interest in sport while growing up is the most important driver of taking part in later life. Those who now play sport regularly have built a strong attachment to sport from secondary school age. The type of sport played at school is less important – a passion for sport in general is what counts.

The researchers say:

"Using the support networks of family, friends and teachers to build and reinforce an emotional connection with sport, and making young people feel that sport is 'for people like them' can be important to encourage participation in later life."

Sport and older people

The sporting habit declines with age, but people are often keen to go on exercising with the right support.

Research among recently retired people suggests that the social component, fun and enjoyment of exercise are important motivators.

Its recommendations include:

  • positive messages, including reassurances about safety
  • taster sessions
  • avoid the word 'sport'
  • make opportunities as local as possible
  • promote the opportunities available to this age group.

Earlier research

Sport has to compete with the many leisure and lifestyle choices available to young people.

A 2012 Sport England review of research in this field found sport needs to adapt to key factors affecting young people's take-up:

  • a move towards 'lifestyle' related sports which lack the regulation of traditional sport
  • the way social media is breaking down the boundaries between passive interest, doing, playing and watching sport
  • psychological factors such as self-confidence, body image and young people's perceptions about their own sport competence
  • access to facilities and cost – these play a part, but are secondary to the other factors above.

Life transitions – such as moving from primary to secondary school, and from school to higher education or work – often lead to young people dropping out of sport.

Young women are less likely than young men to enjoy competitive sport. Many young women will respond positively to approaches that favour improvement rather than winning, and to initiatives such as single gender sessions.

Read the full report, as well as earlier research reports, below.

Research from around the world

Sport England’s Value of Sport Monitor reviews the latest research on:

  • the relationship between playing sport as a child and adolescent, and continuing to do so throughout your life
  • factors that encourage or limit participation, especially among young people

Read the evidence summary (below) or find out more about the individual research studies.