What does research say about adult participation in sports?

Towards the end of last year I completed “Player and Participant Development” module as part of a Masters degree I’m currently doing (MSc Sport Coaching at the University of Birmingham).

One of the assessments we had to do was to write an academic “critical evaluation of the potential benefits of a player and participant development model in your sport”. I took a stab at creating a participation model for adult beginner golfers based on the academic literature. Let’s see if what I found can be useful to others.

So what does the literature say about adult participation in sports?

Motivations and barriers to adult participation

According to a review of research (all sources at the bottom), main motivations of adults to participate in sports are:

  • sense of achievement
  • skill development
  • medical sanction
  • support networks
  • enjoyment

For older adults those are:

  • health benefits
  • social support
  • enjoyment

Whereas main barriers identified were:

  • negative school experiences
  • anxiety in unfamiliar surrounds
  • lack of social network
  • identity conflict
  • lack of role models
  • unclear guidance (for older adults)

So what? How can we use this information?

I think this knowledge can be very helpful in both the design and marketing of golf activities for adult beginners. It helps us ask some important questions when assessing or designing programmes and policies, e.g.:

Is the activity enjoyable?

I mean, is it actually fun (competitions are not fun for many people, especially when they start out)? Do people enjoy themselves? Are they relaxed or stressed? If they’re not having fun, they’re not coming back.

Do people make friends?

Is there a structure (or space) for participants to meet new people, network and for developing deep connections? Social benefits are the reason most non-competitive adults take up sports.

Are participants learning?

Are they improving? Can they see their improvement? Do they get enough support and encouragement? Are they receiving appropriate feedback? Is their confidence growing? Is the environment focused on the process, or on outcome goals?

Is everyone aware of the health benefits of golf?

Is it part of the marketing activities? Adults, especially older adults participate in sports because of fitness or health reasons. How are golf’s unique health benefits recognised and promoted?

Is everything clear?

Do people know what they should do if they want to take up golf? Do they know what to bring, how to dress, how fit they should be, how much it’d cost etc.? How accessible is this information?

Who is used as a model to promote the activity?

Is it someone adult / elderly people can associate with? Is it someone similar age, fitness ability etc.? If not, such models are likely to be harmful and a barrier to participation.

Is everyone catered for?

Participants may have extremely different goals and motivations. The basic division would include recreational (social) players, with goals around social or fitness benefits of golf; and competitive players that focus on improvement and competition. Those are wildly different goals and different support and activities should be provided for either. Are they? Are people able to freely choose what they want out of an activity? Is this choice promote? Also, are disabled and minority participants appropriately catered for?



This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of articles around the subject of participation in sports. If I find something useful I will make sure to share it here on the blog.

Soon, I will follow up this blog post with a similar one focused on young (junior) participants. I also may publish my (rough) model of adult participation development based on this and other literature (but the assignment is still being graded so I can’t do it now).

Feel free to share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below.


Allender, S., Cowburn, G. and Foster, C. (2006) ‘Understanding participation in sport and physical activity among children and adults: A review of qualitative studies’, Health Education Research, 21(6), pp. 826–835. Download

North, J. (2007) ‘Increasing Participation in Sport : The Role of the Coach’. sportscoach uk. Download


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