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Sports programmes

Secondary or tertiary prevention programmes which engage children in organised sports or physical activity

Estimated impact on violent crime:


Evidence quality:

1 2 3 4 5



Prevention Type

  • Secondary
  • Tertiary


  • Community
  • Custody
  • School and college


What is it?

This summary is about programmes which engage children in regular, organised sport or physical activity. It only includes ‘secondary’ programmes which work with children considered to be vulnerable to involvement in violence and ‘tertiary’ programmes for children who have already encountered 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 and physical activities, 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 many 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 negative influences and allow children to take risks in a safe environment. 
  • Sport could be a platform to engage children in other helpful interventions. Many programmes use sport to connect children to other services and activities like education, counselling, and support for drug and alcohol problems. 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?

Sports programmes could have a high impact on crime and violence

Our estimate is based on one review of six studies. The review also found desirable impacts on reducing aggression, promoting mental health and responding to other behavioural difficulties.

Researchers have tried to understand whether different types of sports programmes have larger impacts and how the impact varies across different contexts. There is very weak evidence, based on a small number of studies, but it suggests that programmes have had larger impacts when they were implemented over a longer period, run for single sex groups, and attended by children from an ethnic minority background. The review was not able to indicate whether combining sports with other activities such as counselling has led to larger effects than sports alone. It did not find an association between the age of the children involved and the impact of the programme.

The review also found desirable impacts on reducing aggression, promoting mental health and responding to other behavioural difficulties.

How secure is the evidence?

Our confidence in the headline crime reduction estimate is low.

Our estimate is based on one recent and high-quality systematic review. Our confidence is low because this estimate is only based on six studies of low to moderate quality. There is also a lot of variation in the estimates provided by these studies.

How can you implement it well?

This section is based on a review of 38 studies on the implementation of sports programmes, including 12 from the UK. These studies suggest the following considerations for implementation.

Developing strong, trusting relationships with participating children

The research suggests that the relationship between adults running the sessions and the children involved is likely to be an important driver of impact. 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. Sports coaches need appropriate soft skills to develop these relationships. 

Choosing an accessible and safe location and time

The 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.

The research provides some support for the idea that sports programmes keep children safe by reducing the time they are exposed to negative influences. This suggests that timing sessions so they happen when children would otherwise be at greatest risk could maximise impact.

Plan to connect children with other activities

The research provides some support for the impact of sports being used as a ‘hook’ to engage children in other activities. This could include continued participation in sports, as well as engagement with social services, education, or employment. This is an explicit focus of some programmes, but adults leading a programme could plan to make these connections even when it is not formally part of the intervention.

Be aware of the reasons young people may leave programmes and support continued engagement

Community based programmes have generally seen the highest rates of children dropping out while school-based programmes and programmes in custodial settings have seen lower rates. Research on sports programmes provides some useful considerations for supporting children to stay involved.

  • Find out what the children would enjoy and make sure the sessions are fun. Children who continue to attend programmes often report their enjoyment of the activity as a reason for staying on. However, sports do not appeal to all children, and different sports appeal to different children. 
  • Provide incentives. Some programmes provide healthy meals, pay for training courses, fitness centre access, and coaching programmes for accreditation. However, the type of incentives could be important. One evaluation noted that paying direct financial incentives may create the wrong motivation for engagement.  
  • Offer a broad range of activities. The research suggests that the types of activity matters, as different activities will appeal to different people. One programme reported a substantial reduction in the number of participants, from 70% to 49% of the target group, when it reduced the number of different activities offered.  

How much does it cost?

Currently, we do not have enough evidence to provide a headline cost rating. Costs are likely to include facilities, hiring project staff and trained coaches to run sports sessions, training for volunteers, sporting equipment and insurance. Cost will 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 like parks.

Topic summary

  • The research suggests sports programmes could have a relatively large impact on keeping children safe from involvement in crime and violence. However, we have low confidence in this estimate. It is based on a small number of studies of low-to-moderate quality.  
  • The research emphasizes the relationship between the coach and the children involved as an important driver of the impact of these programmes.  
  • This summary focuses on secondary and tertiary programmes and does not consider the evidence on primary prevention (universal) programmes.  

YEF projects and evaluations

YEF funded feasibility and pilot evaluations of two Sports programmes for 10–14-year-olds.

Empire Fighting Chance which combined physical activity sessions with one-to-one or group mentoring support focused on personal development points for young people, interventions varied from 12 to 20-weeks. The programme aimed to reduce to reduce anti-social and criminal behaviour amongst at risk young people.

Rugby Football League delivered the Educate Mentoring Programme, in the school setting over 12-weeks to young people with poor behaviour and attendance, and an interest in sport. The programme aimed to improve children’s wellbeing, resilience, social relationships and confidence, and lead to a long-term reduction in offending.

Resource Library from the Alliance of Sport in Criminal Justice 
An Insight Hub containing tools, resources and research.  

Street Games 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.

Theory of Change for the role of sport in the prevention and desistance from crime
A Theory of Change developed by the National Alliance of Sport for the Desistance of Crime and New Philanthropy Capital.

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.