Improving youth sport worldwide

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington’s Dr Justin Richards is part of an international project to determine what we know—and don’t know—about the benefits of sport, particularly for young people.

“The hard work of several academics, policy makers, and practitioners over many years has successfully positioned physical activity as an important global health issue that needs to be addressed,” says Dr Richards, who works at the Faculty of Health and at Sport New Zealand. “However, less work has been done on the unique contribution of sport.”

A team of international researchers from New Zealand, the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia came together at the 2018 International Society for Physical Activity and Health Congress to identify and prioritise current research gaps to begin addressing this issue.

“We wanted to identify and prioritise key gaps in knowledge on how sport, particularly youth sport, contributes to physical activity and health, as sport has been identified as one of the seven best investments for increasing physical activity levels across a person’s life-span,” Dr Richards says. “Since then, we have developed ten research priorities for youth sport."

The research team has published a paper in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health laying out these research priorities, which include sport participation rates, the extent of physical activity youth gain from sport, the contribution of sport to health, and the overall return on investment for youth sport.

"We had been talking for years about our different areas of research, so we decided to capture what we thought the biggest priorities were in terms of what would benefit our youth and the biggest gaps in the literature—essentially, topics that people often ask about that we don’t have comprehensive answers for yet.”

The priorities are intended to guide researchers, policymakers, and practitioners so that they can generate new information on which to base design, delivery, and policy around youth sport.

“Being directly involved with this expert panel has allowed us to develop greater insight into where we should be directing our research efforts in relation to youth sport, physical activity, and health,” says Geoff Barry, General Manager Community Sport at Sport New Zealand.

“Ultimately this will improve how and where we invest to have the best impact on the lives and wellbeing of young people in Aotearoa.

”The scope of the proposed future research and potential interventions in the sport sector is broad and offers a wide range of topics for future investigation.

“There are so many different projects we would love to see come out of these priorities,” Dr Richards says. “Everything from new assessment methods to exploring why young people take part in sport to better understanding the role of messaging in promoting physical activity to optimising how sport improves different health outcomes—and this is just a few of the potential projects.”

“The paper outlines key gaps in our knowledge when it comes to young people and physical activity participation through sport. We hope that this provides a ‘roadmap’ for where researchers and funding bodies should target their efforts in our field. It would be interesting to revisit this list regularly to review progress and also to identify if there are any new or emerging research priorities,” Dr Richards says.