What is Education through Sport?

Education through Sport is a non-formal educational approach that works with sport and physical activities and which refers to the development of key competences of individuals and groups in order to contribute to personal development and sustainable social transformation.

Modern Olympic Movement is about a century old. The historical process of modern organized sports movement shows that in Western countries prerequisites for fast development of sport are based on contemporary social changes. The very emergence of high competitiveness in the sport was a reflection of a competitive society and capitalism, and was further fueled by nationalism (competition of nations or countries). On one hand, as it is written in the Olympic Charter among the Fundamental Principles of Olympism: 2) The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity. (4) The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. (6) The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

On the other hand, in the last decades the social role of sport is debated, discussed and elaborated by many scholars in several contexts. It is agreed that modern sport is a microcosm of modern society (a kind of mirror), and therefore the most important problems of modern sport are similar to the problems of modern society: discrimination, crime and deception, control of violence, unequality, drug use, gambling, environmental protection, nationalism etc.

“Sport can be a cohesive force in society, which actively supports the social order and its values, as well as the power structure within which it operates. This thesis includes the fact that sport can be used as an instrument by governments, it can easily be used to implement the objectives of social power. Further, as participation in sport is closely related to socially structured inequalities, it might be that rather than sport contributing to “social inclusion”, various aspects of social inclusion may precede such participation. In this regard we need to adopt a degree of scepticism and to reflect critically on what sport can do. There is a need to theorise sport-for-change’s limitations as well as its potentials.”

Fred Coalter, Leeds University, 2015

Coalter argues that the sport movement as in its present system is not automatically leading to the peace-building and the betterment of society, and in certain circumstances it actually reinforces problems or increase negative impact. At the same time more and more sport organisations, practitioners and social educators discover the educational potential of sport, and how sport can actually be a tool of social betterment for its participants and their communities on local, national and international levels. Sport by its nature strives for the improvement of participants’ performance, not only in terms of competing among one another but also for the individual to improve oneself in comparison with one’s own previous achievements in the same sport. With the adequate conditions it can also promote respecting rules, fair play, non-violence, inclusion, equality and equal opportunities that are certainly important values in our societies. In many ways sport has the potential also contributes to improving social skills; inclusive sport can help us to become more successful in different social roles such as friend, worker, leader, parent, partner, or citizen – to put it another way, it can help us to become more fully realised human beings. Sport provides an excellent social context for these types of learning opportunities and thus it imbues clear responsibilities in those who manage and facilitate sports. This is where the pedagogic approach “education through sport” becomes a useful tool in the hands of sport educators, coaches and PE teachers to live up to this responsibility of the 21st century. 

Let’s see what Education through Sport means and how it works? If we think about sports as a concept, it is close in form to non-formal education; as it is an organised educational process that takes place alongside the mainstream systems of education and training and does not typically lead to certification. Individuals participate on a voluntary basis and as a result, the individual takes an active role in their own learning process. These are the key characteristics of non-formal education. We must also look at how sport itself as a “global social factor” carries and produces values. It is important then to distinguish what “sport” is as a social factor, and what “sport and physical activity” are, as potential educational tools. To do that, it is first necessary to have clear educational or learning objectives that aim to empower participants in relation to certain predefined social and citizenship competencies. For better understanding, let us differentiate Education FOR, BY and THROUGH Sport. 

The nature of sport is to mobilise people to achieve performance goals and to surpass competitive indicators (striving to excel in a sporting activity). Education FOR Sport addresses the improvement of skills related to successful sport (winning competitions and/or accolades and beating records). The purpose of sport in this context is then to serve the development of individual and collective competencies, to improve physical performance related to sporting activities. This concept is a highly important dimension of modern sport, however, it has limited relevance on its own in the context of non-formal education. 

Education BY Sport is a second layer of sport that includes the implicit benefits and social values of participating in sport. In this approach, the aim is to reconcile sporting goals and societal wellbeing. Sport – as a collective exercise and physical activity – can have significant impact towards improving wellbeing, developing identity, cooperation and communication, increasing solidarity and social inclusion. Most grassroots sports communities have significant educational impacts at both the individual and community levels, and several projects are built on these social benefits of participating in sport activities, such as sport for peacebuilding, football for integrating discriminated groups etc. The development of social and citizen’s competencies relating to fair play, following rules, teamwork and cooperation toward common goals are all developed by engagement in sporting activities. Grassroots sporting engagement can involve a lot of education by sport, which is sometimes more and sometimes less consciously planned by coaches, trainers and teachers. Many parents and guardians have this concept in mind when they encourage their children to join a sports team or start a sporting activity. And as a US research shows, former student-athletes (students who were involved in sports) are more likely than non-student-athletes (students who were not involved in sports) to be thriving in purpose, social skills, communities, work and physical well-being.

The Education THROUGH Sport (ETS) concept is more complex in terms of its aims and expected learning outcomes. This approach uses sport as a vessel to achieve the educational objectives of developing social competences, with a view to provoking lasting positive social transformation. The entire educational process is planned and prepared with outcomes that are clear, realistic and measurable. Sport performance results are secondary to the social skills that learners can potentially improve; these are competencies can be related to any of the 8 key competences of lifelong learning (see picture). Education through Sport is a non-formal educational approach that works with sport and physical activity tools towards the development of the social competencies of individuals and groups, in order to contribute to transferable personal development and sustainable social transformation. These social competences include: communication, cooperation, decision making, leadership, inclusion and non-discrimination, respect of human dignity, social justice, equality, solidarity, awareness of intersectionality, empathy and other everyday skills required for living in a respectful, inclusive and democratic culture.