The many benefits of nurturing a 'sport for life'

AuthorSheila Wayman
Published date08 February 2022
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
But the idea of "sport for life" is attracting increasing attention because of the numerous physical, mental and social benefits it brings. It's why Sports Ireland monitors who is dropping out of what sports when – and what they might, or might not, take up instead

Parents, who without exception want to raise their children to enjoy long and healthy lives, might do well to take "age proofing" into account when considering sporting opportunities for their offspring. An added bonus of "cradle to the grave" sports is that two or more generations can play them together.

"Those who participate in team sports only in their youth are less likely to participate in sport throughout their life course than those who participate in individual sports only," says Sports Ireland in response to queries from The Irish Times. "This is especially true for girls. However, those who participate in both team sports and individual sports are most likely of all to participate in sport for life."

It acknowledges that "sport for life" is a complex concept with many contributing factors. Developing physical literacy at an early age, and maintaining that into adulthood, is a key contribution to lifelong sports participation. Physical literacy can be defined as the motivation, confidence, physical competence, knowledge and understanding to engage with and maintain sport participation and physical activity.

By the end of primary school, almost 90 per cent of children in Ireland play sport at least once a week, with almost no difference between boys and girls. Approximately one in 10 children drop out of sport when they move to secondary and participation rates continue to fall over the subsequent years, with a marked dip among Junior Cert and Leaving Cert pupils, despite evidence of a positive association between playing sport and exam performance.

The dropout at second level is greater for extracurricular school sport than community club sport. It is also higher amongst girls, children from socioeconomic disadvantage and children with a disability, according to Sport Ireland, which also notes that the dip in exam years appears to have a lasting effect into later life.

"The key to lifelong involvement," it adds, "is in providing kids with the opportunity to play a range of both team and individual sports in a culture which is child centred."

Although we could presume that playing and enjoying a particular sport from an early age would make it easier to continue, or resume, not all are conducive to maturing bodies and minds. In fact more than half the sporting activities of adults over 40 are taken up after the age of 18.

Lifetime participation is a lot less likely in contact or high-impact sports because there is a higher risk of traumatic and overuse injuries. That's not to say they can't be played to retirement age and beyond.

Hockey Ireland, for example, which is enjoying a boost at the junior end from the success of the women's international team in particular, has a range of men's and women's master squads. Teams, up to over 70s for men and over 55s for women, are fielded for international tournaments.

The National Sports Policy recognises three key sports which are particularly successful in supporting lifelong participation: swimming, cycling and running.

These are the top three, in a look at seven of the best sports to span a lifetime:


Given the health and safety benefits of swimming across the life course, there is no...

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