Are boys building resilience through sport?

Dr Jessie Gunson and Dr Deb Agnew

Researchers from Flinders University are trying to find out whether boys’ participation in sports is driven by their parents’ perceptions of masculinity, and whether this impacts their overall wellbeing.

As part of a new pilot project, lecturers in Social Health Sciences Dr Jessie Gunson and Dr Deb Agnew will interview five-year-old boys and their parents across South Australia to look at how boys become involved in swimming, soccer, basketball and cricket at the key transition stage of starting school.

The researchers plan to seek further funding to follow-up with the participants at later stages throughout their lives, including the transition from ‘mini’ to ‘junior’, and ‘junior’ to ‘senior’ level sports, to better understand retention rates and how staying in, or dropping out of, sport might be linked to mental wellbeing and resilience.

It follows the results of a separate Flinders study, commissioned by the Australian Football League (AFL) in 2012, which found junior footballers largely entered the sport because their fathers, brothers or friends played.

Dr Agnew, who worked as a research associate on the AFL report led by Flinders Professor Murray Drummond, said the latest study aims to explore how views of masculinity shape boys’ participation in sport, and the types of sports they play.

“In the AFL report we found boys joined football leagues because their dads played or their friends play – it wasn’t necessarily because they expressed an interest in football,” Dr Agnew said.

“In light of that study we want to start back at the age when boys first become involved in sports to find out how they get involved, so if it’s within or outside of school, and through their parents or friends, and why they join one particular sport over another,” she said.

“We’re tracing it right back to the point where those first decisions about sport are being made, often mainly by the parents, to see what their reasoning is.

“You tend to hear a lot of parents say they want their child to play football but you don’t often hear them say they want their son to be the next ballroom champion so we want to know why.”

Dr Gunson, who is co-conducting the study, said the research will also address how sport and the notion of masculinity impacts boys’ wellbeing.

“Traditional perceptions of masculinity heavily revolve around participation in sport because of the notion that it’s manly to play sport and that boys should want to play sport, particularly contact sports,” Dr Gunson said.

“By speaking with both the boys and their parents, who are the main decision-makers at that key transition age, we’ll be able to gauge whether masculinity is a factor in sports participation and how different ideas about what it means to be a boy impacts their wellbeing and levels of resilience, both positively and negatively,” she said.

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