Youth sports and non-formal education: Social justice, or social control?

Youth sports and non-formal education: Social justice, or social control? In this piece, Ioannis Costas Batlle explores youth sport as non-formal education and its relationship to neoliberalism, social justice and social control.

contents: introduction | youth sport as non-formal education | youth sport: “war minus the shooting”? | non-formal education, youth sport, and neoliberalism | promoting neoliberal personhood through youth sport: social justice or social control? | conclusion | references | acknowledgements | how to cite this article


Sport is popular across the globe. Sport’s chameleonic adaptability has allowed it to permeate financial markets (team merchandise, sports shops, elite sports clubs), media outlets (broadcasted and printed), the labour force (coaches, sports scientists, pundits) and health discourse (promoting physical activity). Additionally, sport plays a role in schooling (PE lessons), local communities (sports clubs), welfare (charities providing youth sport activities), social spaces (gyms, stadiums), leisure time (watching or playing sports, both physically and on consoles) and politics (via mega events like the Olympics and World Cups). Few other aspects of society can claim to be as versatile.

The pervasiveness of sport is frequently accompanied by the perception that sport is ideally suited to address a range of social issues:

“Sport, as is clear from even a cursory review of contemporary policy, is replete with deeply entrenched ‘storylines’, not only that elite success has a powerful demonstration effect on the mass of the public, but also that sport participation has a positive impact on the behaviour of the young, that international sport improves relations between nations and that sport can strengthen community integration. Storylines are not necessarily false, but their persistence and impact is not related to the quality or quantity of evidence available” (Houlihan et al., 2009, p. 5).

At the heart of these ‘storylines’ is the belief that sport, when delivered as a non-formal education activity for young people, can transform youths into ‘good citizens’. By promoting attributes such as teamwork, leadership, and confidence, sport is likened to a panacea that can be used for social regeneration (Spaaij, 2009). Harnessing the flexibility of non-formal education, sport programmes aiming to ‘improve’ young people are deployed by a range of actors (charities, NGOs, community clubs) as a means of intervention, prevention, or life-skill development (Petitpas, Cornelius, Raalte, & Jones, 2005). Given the pervasiveness of sport and its ‘storylines’, twinned with growing role of non-formal education, it is important to interrogate what kinds of citizenship youth sport programmes promote. Do these initiatives strive for social justice by empowering young people, or do they foster social control?

Asking this question matters because, as Hoppers (2006) outlines, it is essential we examine what non-formal education is for. This becomes particularly critical when working with young people given they are at a fundamental developmental stage. Youth is a process of “‘unbecoming’ a child and ‘becoming’ and adult” (Kelly, 2006, p. 26); it is a period involving behavioural, emotional and cognitive transitions (Allen & Land, 1999; Ridge, 2002). Consequently, the kinds of personhood young people are exposed to, and the indications they receive of what ‘good’ citizenship is, can have a profound effect on their a) their development as human beings, and b) their preparation to join society as adults.

Youth sport as non-formal education

Non-formal education has traditionally been conceived according to Coombs and Ahmed’s (1974) definition: an organised activity, with a learning goal in mind, that occurs outside of the more hierarchical formal education system (i.e., school or university). However, alternative interpretations of non-formal education define it as a process rather than focusing on the setting(Rogers, 2004). The process of non-formal education tends to be characterised by creating more flexible learning spaces, developing more caring and less hierarchical relationships, and aiming to meet participants’ needs (Eshach, 2007; Romi & Schmida, 2009).

Youth sport programmes generally echo those three characteristics. They aim to meet participants’ needs in relation to improving their behaviour, equipping them with life skills, or providing a setting young people can feel part of. To do this, youth sport initiatives feature coaches – adults who are perceived by young people to be less distant than other authority figures, such as teachers. Lastly, sport sessions are flexible domains where coaches can use drills for a range of purposes. Some improve teamwork, others foster confidence. Taking these elements together, one can easily appreciate why the aforementioned ‘storylines’ of sport flourish. Sport, as a non-formal education process, seems capable of tackling a range of issues, using versatile approaches, all driven by an adult who is relationally closer to young people.

Youth sport: “War minus the shooting”?

As enticing as the ‘storylines’ of sport may be, it is important to be cautious and critical of them. There are three broad criticisms that can be made about youth sport programmes. The first is about programmes which aim to intervene or prevent certain actions, like drug consumption or misbehaviour. Since such youth sport programmes aim to ‘improve’ youths by addressing their ‘deficits’, these initiatives often start from a ‘deficit-reduction’ mindset. In other words, the goal of the programmes is to contain the behaviours and stop them from spreading rather than addressing what caused the behaviours in the first place. A good example are midnight leagues, whereby young people in impoverished neighbourhoods are encouraged to play basketball or football at midnight instead of being on the street. Whilst the programmes may have noble intentions, Coakley, (2002) suggests they amount to a “social control and deficit-reduction dream” (p. 16). Instead of aiming to alter social structures, provide educational opportunities, or empower young people to make changes in their communities, prevention and intervention programmes constitute cages that serve to ‘contain’ adolescents. It is the equivalent of dealing with the symptom of a nosebleed rather than the cause.

The second criticism refers to youth sport programmes which aim to instil specific life skills, such as leadership, teamwork and confidence. These initiatives are usually underscored by the importance of individual responsibility, and that it is up to young people to ‘acquire’ these positive traits regardless of their context. In turn, a correlation is established whereby internalising life skills equals upwards social mobility. Said plainly, those youths who come to embody specific life skills will become successful. These types of initiatives can be popular with charities and NGOs, such as The First Tee (2014). For Coakley (2002), such sport programmes constitute a “social opportunity and privilege promotion dream” (p. 17) because they emphasise that ‘success’ is a-contextual and thus linked to one’s hard work – a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality. Coakley’s criticism is reminiscent of the late George Carlin’s take on the myth of upward social mobility through hard work: “It is called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it”.

The third critique of youth sport programmes comprises two elements. The first is the assumption that any life skills or notions of citizenship are implicitly (almost magically) acquired just by playing the sport (Coalter, 2007; Danish, Taylor, & Fazio, 2003). The second is that whatever lessons youths acquire through sport are naturally transferable to the rest of their lives (Haudenhuyse, Theeboom, & Skille, 2014). If mere participation in sport were to instil leadership, responsibility, and teamwork, then it follows that those who play more sport would be would be shining beacons of personhood. A cursory view of professional athletes (particularly, footballers) is enough to dispel this logic.

Non-formal education, youth sport, and neoliberalism

In addition to the three broad criticisms I have just outlined, there is a further aspect of youth sport initiatives that requires consideration. Non-formal education programmes always have a political agenda behind them; there is always a reason why they are shaped in specific ways. Far from sounding like a conspiracy theorist, Coakley (2009, p. 466) outlines how

Politics include processes of governing people and administering policies, at all levels of organisation, both public and private. Therefore, politics are an integral part of sport

Consequently, youth sport programmes do not simply ‘happen’ – they are designed to have particular outputs. For instance, in the case of midnight leagues, the goal is generally to stop or prevent a behaviour; not alter social structures. Similarly, initiatives that promote life skills like teamwork and leadership usually do so in a manner that emphasise individual responsibility. In other words, it is up to the young person to become a good team player and leader, regardless of the environment they live in. The global prevalence of these types of youth sport programmes is not accidental – what could explain their popularity?

To answer that question, we need to dig beneath the surface and look beyond the programmes themselves. Non-formal education providers, such as charities, NGOs or community groups are largely underfunded and therefore continually need to find sources of money. These revenue streams can involve donations, partnerships with corporations, or government grants. Unfortunately, the need to raise funds to survive puts non-formal education providers in a delicate situation. Whilst their aim is unequivocally to support young people’s development, how they meet this goal is inevitably shaped by what funders (private citizens, corporations, and government) are willing to fund (Costas Batlle, Carr, & Brown, 2017). Since playing by the funders’ rules is likelier to result in receive money, Harris, Mori, and Collins (2009, p. 420) summarise that providers are split into “funded sheep and unfunded goats”.

Youth sport programmes that are likelier to be funded are those which align with neoliberal notions of personhood. Neoliberalism refers to a socio-political theory which, though present worldwide, is particularly prevalent in countries like the US and UK (Harvey, 2005). For Carr (2016, p. 1), neoliberalism places “an economic logic at the centre of social, cultural, and political life”. This ‘logic’ suggests that human beings are naturally competitive, and that society can only flourish under a system which allows everyone to compete on a level playing field. Just like the animal kingdom functions within a level playing field where any lion can father the next generation of lions, neoliberalism asserts a free market system can allow anyone to become the next Steve Jobs.

The free market approach to society is underpinned by two broad principles. Firstly, individual responsibility is fundamental. Those who work hard and make the right choices, regardless of whether they were born to millionaire parents or in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, will become ‘successful’ (i.e., they will unlock a good job with a good salary). Contrarily, those who are poor have brought that condition upon themselves by being lazy (McInerney & Smyth, 2015). Secondly, the free market uses competition as a means of allocating merit (Giroux, 2005). Just like Apple is a billion-dollar company because it outperformed its competitors; ‘successful’ individuals made ‘better’ choices and outperformed other people. In short, neoliberalism encourages a form of personhood whereby people demonstrate individual responsibility and hard work to better themselves, regardless of the social background they come from. It is a philosophy akin to the fabled American Dream.

Returning to the point that non-formal education programmes do not simply ‘happen’, it now becomes more apparent that in neoliberal societies, programmes which promote neoliberal forms of personhood are likelier to be funded. This is especially the case with youth sport, given how the two principles I outlined in the previous paragraph aptly capture the ‘sporting ethic’ (Coakley, 2011). Those who work hard in sport are often lauded and rewarded, regardless of their background. Likewise, competition is used in sport to allocate merit: winners deserve to be ‘successful’. The similarities between sport and neoliberalism are accurately captured by Hartmann (2016):

Sport serves as the literal model of the ideal or moral standard to which communities and social orders should aspire, and by which social life itself is constituted and maintained” (p. 55)

Consequently, we have thus far established that non-formal education youth sport programmes are infused with ‘storylines’ about their capacity for citizenship development. Whilst the versatility of non-formal education, with its emphasis on less hierarchical relationships and meeting participants’ needs can lend credence to these ‘storylines’, it is important to be critical. Youth sport programmes are designed within a socio-political context and with a particular agenda in mind. Given that sport can be viewed as a physical manifestation of neoliberal values, it is unsurprising that non-formal education programmes which champion neoliberal personhood or citizenship are likelier to be funded. This raises a further question, one at the crux of this essay: is instilling neoliberal personhood through youth sport a form of social control, or social justice?

Promoting neoliberal personhood through youth sport: social justice or social control?

To determine the extent to which promoting neoliberal personhood constitutes social control or social justice, we need to clarify the two latter terms. For Miller (1976), social justice can only be understood in relation to the society one lives in. Therefore, in neoliberal societies, social justice is dictated by the free market: you get what you deserve. If you demonstrate individual responsibility, work hard, and better yourself regardless of your personal background, the market will reward you with a good job and salary. From the perspective of non-formal education providers, there is a logic to this form of social justice. If young people, as adults, will eventually have to survive in a neoliberal society, it makes sense to prepare them correspondingly. Arguably, not preparing youths for neoliberal society could constitute doing them a disservice.

It is not a logic I – nor others (e.g., Giroux, 2005; Springer, 2016) – subscribe to. The problem with the above conception of social justice is one of not seeing the forest for the trees. It assumes that neoliberalism is a social system without an alternative; that neoliberal personhood (personal responsibility and not being affected by one’s background) are the pinnacle of ‘good’ citizenship. For me, preparation for a market society because we live in one is not social justice, it is social control. It is what Freire would describe as oppression:

“Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanisation” (Freire, 2003, p. 54).

I prefer an alternative definition of social justice: “social policies […] that protect vulnerable and disadvantaged groups […] from oppression, discrimination, exclusion or that support them materially” (Lorenz, 2014, p. 14). Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with being individually responsible and working hard, Kelly (2006) argues those are not necessarily the most important characteristics of what ‘good’ personhood is. The extent to which one is empathic, caring, or demonstrates critical thinking, are equally, if not more, fundamental. Similarly, for Martin and McLellan (2013), ‘good’ personhood is rooted in the extent to which one is aware of their own social and historical background, and interacts with others showing awareness of their unique social and historical background. Non-formal education programmes that promote these values, as well as empowering young people by helping them appreciate how they can alter social structures, constitute social justice.


Youth sport programmes are a popular form of non-formal education, often used to improve adolescents’ personhood. Whilst youth sport can popularly be viewed as a panacea for social regeneration, we need to be cautious and critical about what these programmes are for. Given non-formal education providers typically rely on external funding to survive, and that the funding is often attached to ‘neoliberal strings’, it is unsurprising many organisations need to adjust their goals to align with promoting neoliberal values. In doing so, there is a risk that non-formal education is instilling neoliberal notions of citizenship in young people, emphasising individual responsibility and an understanding of success that is divorced from each person’s unique history. This, I contend, amounts to a form of oppression or social control where key characteristics of ‘good’ personhood (such as empathy, critical thinking, or being aware of one’s and others’ social context) are de-emphasised.

What can youth sport providers do? Two things. Firstly, it is important to develop an awareness of how neoliberalism operates. Often described as a force without a centre, neoliberalism is both intangible and hard to grasp. Neoliberal values have become commonplace and the default, making resisting them an act of sciamachy – a fight against an imaginary opponent. That is why developing an awareness is so important; an awareness that not all forms of human life are best advanced through an economic logic. Whilst empathy, care and critical thinking may seem less ‘useful’ than leadership, teamwork and confidence to the profit margins of global corporations, it does not mean the former values should be trumped by the latter. As Jameson, cited in Read (2009, p. 26) warned, “’The market is in human nature’ is the proposition that cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged; in my opinion, it is the most crucial terrain of ideological struggle in our time”.

Secondly, there is a need to ensure youth sport stops acting as the physical manifestation of neoliberal values. To do this, youth sport programmes should strive to achieve the six goals Coakley  (2002, cited in Donnelly & Coakley, 2002, p. 16) outlines:

Positive transitions from childhood to adolescence to adulthood are most likely when young people live in a context in which they are (1) physically safe; (2) personally valued; (3) socially connected; (4) morally and economically supported; (5) personally and politically empowered; and (6) hopeful for the future

To conclude, youth sport settings can be wonderful domains where young people experiment with who it is they want to become as adults. However, this development does not magically happen simply because someone kicks or bounces a ball; it occurs through carefully thought out programmes. It is fundamental, therefore, to be vigilant about how non-formal education is used, and to critically consider what each programme is for.


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Acknowledgements: Photo by Austris Augusts on Unsplash

How to cite this article: Batlle, I. C. (2019). Youth sports and non-formal education: Social justice, or social control? Encylopaedia of Informal Education. [ . Retrieved: insert date]

Ioannis Costas Batlle is a member of the Department of Education, University of Bath, UK.

Copyright Ioannis Costas Batlle 2019

Last Updated on June 20, 2019 by