Sports and Family: Digging Through the Connections

I’ve been continuing my research into sports culture, and trying to learn more about the psychology behind sports and sports fandoms. One of the areas that has come up quite frequently in my research so far is the significance of family with regards to sports. In my blog post on Sports, Language, and Culture, I discussed how several people I’d spoken with described a connection between being a sports fan and their family life. Some said that discussing sports was the best way they had to communicate with family members they otherwise had trouble connecting with. Others said that sports create a family bonding experience, giving them something to share and pass on to each other. In my online interview with Alexander Pierce, he even said that no matter how many issues he might have relating to his dad, sports always gave them a common ground with which to bridge any gaps.

As an outsider to sports culture, a lot of these ideas were foreign to me. I never experienced this family connection with sports, and my dad never really got me involved in sports as a kid. My dad and I attended one baseball game together, and since I showed no interest in it, he didn’t pressure me into any further involvement. But my dad isn’t really someone I would describe as a sports fan. He never seemed to have that passion to begin with, so there was nothing to pass down.

This led to me questioning whether being a sports fan is an inherited trait. I did some research into sports and family culture, and came up with some interesting articles.

The first is “The Significance of Family Culture for Sports Participation,” by Sharon Wheeler. The article researched sports participation with a focus on health, which was an angle I hadn’t considered in depth, but which came up during my trip to the Flyers vs Blackhawks hockey game, where I was given a pamphlet about the importance of exercise for your health. Wheeler’s article described “a decline in physical activity participation” as being one of the key causes of obesity in Western cultures, and said that “sport is often viewed as a suitable vehicle for tackling the ‘health crisis’, not least because the supposed health benefits gained from participation can be experienced across all socio-demographic groups” (p. 235). But her article raised the question of what factors will influence sports participation, since those factors will therefore have an indirect influence on people’s health.

According to Wheeler, “research indicates that since the 1970s there has been a clear trend towards increased participation in sport among both young people and adults across Europe and worldwide” (p. 236). Research also shows that race, class, and gender are determining factors in whether an individual will participate in sports. For example, the article explained that males play sports more often than females, people from better economic backgrounds play more often than those from underprivileged ones, and white adults are more likely to play sports than are minorities. People are also likely to participate less the older they get, particularly after high school and college.

These differences, however, all seem to stem from an individual’s childhood. The article explains that most of the factors that determine whether someone will participate in sports are set during childhood (p. 237), which led to the theory that family culture may be a decisive variable in that determination. To test this theory, the researchers interviewed several families with children who were active in sports. They found that “it was clear that the parents in this study had a significant influence on their children’s sports
participation” (p. 240). The parents were outwardly encouraging of their children’s sports activities “because their children enjoyed it, it kept them fit and healthy, it helped them to make friends, and it promoted future participation.” Some of the parents also encouraged their children so that they would have sports experienced that the parents themselves were lacking during their own childhoods, while others who had been active in sports when they were children wanted to pass those experiences on (p. 241-242). There were also indications that the families simply considered it to be “good parenting” to get their children involved in sports (p. 242).

Most of the data Wheeler used to analyze the determinants of race, gender, and socioeconomic status on sports participation came from another article, “Explaining differences in sport participation rates among young adults: Evidence from the South Caucasus” by Diane Birchwood, et al. Birchwood, et al. argued “that all the major,  recognized differences in adult rates of sports participation  between sociodemographic groups are generated during childhood,  via cultures that are transmitted through families, and that  post-childhood experiences play a relatively minor direct part in generating these differences” (p. 283). The article used an extensive data collection of over 1200 interviews with individuals who were questioned about their histories, family backgrounds, education, and other related variables. Based on the trends they found in the survey results, Birchwood, et al. hypothesized that “that a distinct  and enduring propensity to play sport is acquired during childhood via a culture transmitted by the family” (p. 291). It seems, then, that Wheeler’s article was able to build off this research by finding possible explanations as to why that propensity to play sport is acquired during childhood, a question that Birchwood, et al.’s paper did not explore.

Of course, it’s always possible that one could raise the question of how well these results  taken from Eastern European countries apply to sports participation in Western cultures, since there could be differences from one country to another. However, Birchwood, et al. cited a similar survey, “Results from the sport and leisure module of the 2002 General Household Survey” by Kate Fox Leicha Rickards. This survey showed results that were consistent with Birchwood, et al.’s findings, including the data on differences between different socio-economic groups, different genders, and different ages. This survey, however, was comprised mostly of raw data from over 14,000 participants, giving information about overall trends without any analysis of the meaning of those trends. You can see, however, a pattern in the way these three articles draw upon one another. The Leicha and Rickards article presents a large mass of raw data, then the Birchwood, et al. article performs a more detailed analysis of a smaller group in order to determine the specific relationships between the different variables, and finally the Wheeler article performs a more detailed study of a much smaller group in order to finally answer the questions about why these data trends exist.

To bring this all back around to my original point, it seems to me that my twitter surveys and research have a substantial broad background of support. At the beginning of this blog post, I said that “sports create a family bonding experience, giving them something to share and pass on to each other.” And it seems that these experiences are common across a great many more people than just those I interviewed, with specific reasons behind why parents indoctrinate their children into this sports culture.


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