Report shatters a few myths: about impact of TV on exercise and of sport on exam results

Researchers argue that facilities are not the main barrier to participation

The reasons for dropping out of sport will always be complex, but what is surprising is that the GAA is one of the biggest culprits of all. Photograph: The Irish Times

The reasons for dropping out of sport will always be complex, but what is surprising is that the GAA is one of the biggest culprits of all. Photograph: The Irish Times


The problem with most surveys about sport is that they tell us something we already know. The more participation and activity the better, because people involved in sport are fitter, happier and more productive.

Then, occasionally, a survey comes along that tells us that everything we know about sport is wrong. Keeping Them in the Game: Taking Up and Dropping Out of Sport and Exercise in Ireland doesn’t quite go that far, but it does challenge several assumptions and stereotypes, not just about who is participating in sport, or why they drop out, but how to reap the greatest benefits for everyone involved.

For starters, we shouldn’t be so worried about spending more or less on sporting facilities, because this isn’t the barrier it once was; nor should we be so worried about children watching television, especially not if they’re watching sport; and we definitely shouldn’t be worried if children are spending as much time playing sport as they are studying, particularly in exam years, because this will actually result in better grades.

Exam years
Indeed, what leaps out more than anything is the suggestion that parents need not be worried if their children are playing sport right through their exam years: those who do so , including the Leaving Cert, end up with better grades.

This doesn’t necessarily imply sporting participation improves exam performance, but what is certain is that those who participate in sport tend to get better results.

More worrying, perhaps, is the suggestion that those who drop out of sport in fifth or sixth year are less likely to resume it. So they are not just losing out on the benefits sport might offer in terms of exam results, but also down the road, in more general health and wellbeing. That’s a cautionary note to students and parents alike.


The underlying

issue is no longer getting people involved in sport: what is critical now is keeping them involved.

Sport is “almost universal” among Irish children, about 88 per cent by the end of primary school, not including “casual” participation such as playing sport with family or friends. We probably are a sport-mad nation after all.

Then the trouble starts. From school-leaving age, the drop-out rate far exceeds the rate at which adults take up sport. Therein lies the problem – work commitments won’t allow it. It’s not the lack of facilities and definitely not a lack of awareness that sport is one of the true elixirs of life that creates issues.

Because nothing in the research suggests that a lack of facilities is limiting peoples’ involvement in sport – with the exception of swimming, and perhaps some younger children who might benefit from some indoor facility. Instead, sporting policy would be better served by making it easier for people to engage in sport by, for example, organising more accessible sporting events or opportunities.

The reasons for dropping out of sport will always be complex, but what is surprising is that the GAA is one of the biggest culprits of all. Its drop-out rate is twice that of soccer, and happening at a critical age too, between 18 and 22. While the GAA’s pride of parish and county loyalty has its merits, it may inhibit participation later, especially if people move from that parish or county.

There is immediate relevance here. In the coming months, the Government will roll out the latest round of sports capital grants, aimed primarily at improving facilities. The money might be better spent on coaches, mentors or anyone who might help keep people in sport.

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