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Sport and physical activity

Engaging children in regular organised sports

Insufficient evidence of impact


Evidence quality:

1 2 3 4 5



Prevention Type

  • Primary
  • Secondary
  • Tertiary


  • Community
  • Custody
  • School and college


  • Diversion from the criminal justice system
  • Opportunities

What is it?

This summary focuses on programmes which engage children in regular, organised sport or physical activity. It includes programmes which work with vulnerable children and programmes for children who have already come into contact with the criminal justice system. Programmes might be delivered by a charity, sports club, youth worker or in youth custody. They could involve both team sports, like football and basketball, or individual sports, like boxing or dance. Programmes will often use sport as a ‘hook’ to engage children in other activities, such as mentoring or counselling.

There are various ways in which these programmes might protect children from involvement in crime and violence:

  • Sport could support positive development. It could provide children with positive peer groups and influences, support them to develop social skills, and improve their physical and mental health. It could help children develop motivation and self-regulation through committed practice and relationships with positive role models like sports coaches.
  • Sport could play a role in direct prevention. Playing sport could reduce the time that children are exposed to exploitation and allow children to take risks in a safe environment.
  • Sport could be a ‘hook’ for other helpful interventions. Many programmes use sport to engage and motivate children to complete other preventative activities. In these programmes, sport is used a ‘hook’ to engage children, but it is the other activities which are thought to drive positive development.

Is it effective?

There are currently no systematic reviews of the impact of organised sports and physical activity on crime and violence. This means that we have not been able to calculate an overall impact estimate.

The existing systematic reviews look at the association between sports participation and involvement in crime, and do not look at the impact of interventions.

The YEF has funded a new systematic review of the impact of organised sport and physical activity on crime and violence. This review will conduct an exhaustive search for existing studies and synthesise the findings. We hope that this new review will enable us to update this summary with a headline impact rating.

We have not been able to calculate an overall impact estimate.

How secure is the evidence?

The evidence is very weak.

There is not enough evidence to estimate the average impact of organised sports and physical activity programmes on crime and violence.

How can you implement it well?

Studies from England and Wales suggest the following considerations for implementation.

Forming meaningful relationships

The relationships between staff and participants are likely to be an important aspect of the approach. Ideally staff can become a mentor, role model, and trusted person who children will turn to for advice. A shortage or lack of continuity of such staff is noted as a barrier by several studies.  

Working with other stakeholders and agencies

Organised sport can provide a way of engaging children in other activities. Forming relationships with other stakeholders could make it easier to refer children to activities like mentoring or support with drug and alcohol problems. Building relationships with other stakeholders can also be useful to understand the additional support a child is accessing, what they may be experiencing and how both groups can work together to support the child.

Providing long-term consistent support

Vulnerable children may have frequently been let down by adults so it is critical to provide long-term support. It might help to consider a plan for continued support when the programme finishes. This could include support for continued participation in sports as well as navigating the justice system, social services, education, employment and accommodation.

Providing long-term support could also be achieved by ensuring former attendees feel welcome to return and seek help.

Choosing an accessible and safe location and time

The chosen venue will need the right equipment and facilities, but it will also need to be somewhere children feel safe and is easy to get to. Recent work has highlighted Multi Use Games Areas (MUGAs) as locations where children can be effectively engaged but can also become the ‘territory’ of particular groups. MUGAs also tend to attract young boys wanting to play football which can steer some projects towards football as the core activity for their sessions.

The timing of the sessions could also be important. If playing sport could reduce the time that children are exposed to negative influences, the sport should be arranged at the time which achieves the maximum diversionary effect.

Engaging young people in sport

Choosing facilities that are affordable to those in the local community or can be subsidised, and providing specialist equipment when needed, may help to engage young people in sport.

Projects will often use sport to ensure participation in other activities is fun and engaging. Projects reported different strategies for keeping young people engaged, including recognising good sporting performances, making programmes challenging, fun and energetic, ensuring programme sessions happen reliably and creating incentives like providing opportunities for coaching qualifications.

What programmes are available?

Below is a list of programmes found in the Early Intervention Foundation’s (EIF) Guidebook. The Guidebook summarises the research on programmes that aim to improve outcomes for children and young people.

How much does it cost?

Currently, we do not have enough evidence to provide a headline cost estimate. Costs are likely to include facilities, hiring project staff and trained coaches to run sports sessions, training for volunteers, sporting equipment and insurance. Cost may vary depending on the length and frequency of the programme, the type of activities, the amount of support from volunteer staff and the use of venues that are free or discounted like parks.

Topic summary

  • There is a lack of research on the impact of this approach on crime and violence. A lack of research does not mean that the approach does not have an impact. It means that we don’t have good evidence about what that impact is.
  • The YEF has commissioned a new systematic review which examines the impact of sports participation on crime and violence. This review will be used to update this Toolkit strand.
  • Future work should evaluate the impact of programmes on keeping children safe from involvement in crime and violence in England and Wales. This should include evaluations of interventions that use sport as a context for another activity, such as mentoring.

Sports Cages: Places of safety, places of harm, places of potential
A report with a framework and ideas of actions for assessing and increasing the safety of sports cages.

Resource Library – The Alliance of Sport in Criminal Justice
A library of resources on sport and criminal justice.

Theory of change
Street Games is network of organisations that deliver sports programmes across the UK. Street Games’ theory of change was commissioned by YEF and explains why sports participation may lead to positive outcomes for children and young people.


© 2021 The Youth Endowment Fund Charitable Trust. Registered Charity Number: 1185413.
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