Sports Stimulation Initiatives for Underprivileged Youth

Sports Stimulation Initiatives for Underprivileged Youth


Sports Stimulation Initiatives for Underprivileged Youth

in Flanders (Belgium)

Paul De Knop

Marc Theeboom

Faculty of Physical Education and Physiotherapy,

Free University of Brussels, Belgium


De Knop, P., & Theeboom, M. (1999). Sports stimulation initiatives for underprivileged youth in Flanders (Belgium). Journal of Education and Training, 20, 1, 4-48


Sport can be regarded as an important leisure time activity for underprivileged youth, based on a number of social meanings of sports participation (instrumental-functional, expressive, symbolic and social-interactive). This paper discusses the possibilities of sports stimulation initiatives in schools, youth welfare work and sports clubs. It describes a number of existing initiatives sponsored by the Belgian King Baudouin Foundation.

Sports Stimulation Initiatives for Underprivileged Youth

in Flanders (Belgium)

Sport as one of the most popular leisure activities for youngsters (De Knop, Engström, Skirstad, & Weiss, 1996) has become increasingly important as a means of social integration for underprivileged youth. In recent years, it has become a valuable instrument among pedagogues and welfare workers in their work with socially deprived youth. Based on four specific social meanings of sports participation, the present paper describes several sports stimulation initiatives for underprivileged youth that have been introduced during the last decade in Flanders, the northern Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

Underprivileged Youth

The term "underprivileged youth" is used to refer to those youngsters that often live in families with material and relational problems (Walgrave, 1992). In most cases, these families live in socially deprived urban neighbourhoods. Their social perspective is poor and their expectations on their children are often low. Being unsuccessful and being confronted with negative experiences is often evident and confirmed from generation to generation. Due to the marginal situation, stigmatization and exclusion, underprivileged youngsters miss valuable social contacts and thus look for compensation in their peer group, often resulting in delinquent behaviour.

This description also applies to young immigrants (De Knop & Walgrave, 1992). However, there are still some other elements that make the situation of these young immigrants even more complicated.When during the sixties the Belgian authorities, like several other Western European governments, encouraged the immigration of workers from Mediterranean countries such as Morocco and Turkey, they did not foresee the social problems that would occur during the economic recession that started some 20 years later. Many of the migrant workers and their families which sought prosperity and better living conditions, soon found themselves in conditions that were far more worse than those of the native population. Low education, high unemployment, delinquency, low paid jobs are a fewof the many problems most of these (Islamic) immigrants still face today. Because of these very unfavourable conditions, today most of the second and third generation immigrants are facing many problems. Moreover, most of these youngsters face problems with regard to their cultural identity (Naeyaert, 1984). They live between two cultures, without considering one or the other as their own. They often do not understand their original culture, since they have never lived in their parents' native country. They are also reminded by many that they should never consider themselves as part of the Flemish culture. Their culture as well as their language constitute barriers for social integration.

Leisure and Sports Participation of Underprivileged Youth

Kruissink (1988) described three dimensions in leisure and sports participation: (1) free of obligations (e.g., going to an amusement park, a disco,…), (2) average (e.g., cooking, reading, …), and (3) structured (e.g., sportive, musical engagement in an organization). These dimensions have to do with the grade of organization (and thus obligations) and the level of individual involvement. On the one extreme, an unstructured, consumptive and passive leisure pattern can be distinguished, while on the other end, a structured, productive and active pattern can be found. The leisure pattern of underprivileged youth can be situated within the first extremes.

As underprivileged youth can be regarded as a very heterogeneous group, it is difficult to make general statements about the degree of leisure and sports participaton of these youngsters. As a result, research data are scarce.

Sport is one of the most popular leisure activities for youngsters (Kruissink, 1988; Manders & Kropman, 1979; Naeyaert, 1984). There is no difference between the sports participation of Belgian and young immigrants. It is also for immigrants the most preferred leisure time activity. Research in Flanders has indicated that the most popular sports for immigrants are soccer and martial arts (De Knop, De Martelaer, Theeboom, Van Engeland, & Van Puymbroeck, 1994).

Although many underprivileged youngsters have a lot of leisure time because of skipping school or unemployment, this youth is rarely engaged in organized leisure activities (De Knop et al., 1994). Teachers and youth welfare workers often have great difficulties in motivating underprivileged youth to take part in organized activities. Dealing with rules, standing by agreements and taking responsibility are some of the main problems involved. One of the ways to influence their situation has proven to be through sports participation.

Social Meanings of Sports Participation

Sport appears to be an appropriate way to attract many underprivileged youngsters. It has gained popularity among members of this group. Many agree that, apart from being a meaningful leisure activity, sport also has an educative character which can be of use to improve the social integration of underprivileged youth (Ruottinen, 1982; Nickolai, 1982; Middleton, 1982, 1984; Adolph-Volpert & Böck, 1984; Harms, 1984; Meiburg, 1985; Bergmann, 1986; Böck, 1986; Van Ancum & Meiburg, 1987; Van Dijk, 1987; Van der Gugten, 1988; Theeboom, De Knop & Bollaert, 1989; Theeboom, De Knop & Gittenaer, 1990; De Knop & Theeboom, 1992). It has been indicated that sport can help teachers and youth welfare workers to get in contact with this youth. Participating in sport can improve their relationship with these youngsters, which is necessary in order to start working at their difficult situation. In this way, sport becomes a means of social integration instead of an end in itself.

Vanreusel and Bulcaen (1992) identified four social meanings of sports participation: (1) instrumental-functional, (2) expressive, (3) symbolic and (4) social-interactive meaning.

Instrumental-functional Meaning

According to Vanreusel and Bulcaen, socialization and integration are the two most important functional contributions of sport. Socialization has to do with a relationship of individuals with society and its values and norms. Sport can be considered as a way of social control, whereby the efforts will be oriented towards socialization of these youngsters.

Integration means growing up with different entities (cultures) in society as a whole. Sport is an easy activity for integration in contrast with the desintegrating complexity of society. Integration through sports activities can be considered acccording to the level of sport. For top level athletes it means a climbing at the social-economical ladder that causes, together with a growing popularity, a greater social acceptance and appreciation. On the other hand, lower level sport must be seen as a worthwhile and socially accepted leisure activity for underprivileged youth. In contradiction with top level athletes, these youngsters would not get special attention.

Expressive Meaning

Youngsters are either aware or unaware that they are looking for expressions of competence. Underprivileged youth has less domains in which they can show competence. During sports participation, aspects such as fulfilling a task on one's own, and experiencing succes are important expressions with a general value, especially for underprivileged youth. Besides, sport gives an opportunity to express the need for "excitement" of youngsters. Society does not offer many possibilities for youngsters to unload tension.

Symbolic Meaning

Symbols, material (e.g., hair style, clothes, means of transport) or non-material (e.g., use of language, attitude and interest) are important to build an identity so that youngsters can distinguish themselves from others. These and other social basic needs, such as status, prestige and appreciation can be realized during sports participation. Sport is a more accessible symbol for underprivileged youth compared to other forms.

Social-interactive Meaning

The role of sport as a meeting place is one of the most recognizable. Social contact is often one of the most important reasons to participate in sport. Interactions in sport can be translated as sociability, friendship and affiliation. For underprivileged youth, this social-interactive role is important for two reasons, namely sport offers an interesting meeting place where social interactions are stimulated, and secondly the social-interactive role can be used to improve social learning processes in society.

Youngsters normally get in contact with organized sports activities through different ways (parents, friends, teachers, community sports services, youth organizations, ...) (De Knop, Engström, Skirstad, & Weiss, 1996). However, as already indicated, the leisure pattern of underprivileged youth can often be characterized as unstructured, consumptive and passive. Therefore, specific promotional initiatives have to be set up to stimulate regular sports participation among these youngsters.

Sports Stimulation

Since 1988, the King Baudouin Foundation, has initiated a "youth and sport" programme in Flanders, in which they try to raise the awareness with regard to the problems concerning the relationship between underprivileged youth and sports. This programme is very practice-oriented and its objective is to actually test what is possible to realize and to stimulate other organizations to continue these projects on their own. The working of the Foundation is based on practical suggestions and examples of experiments on the one hand and contacts for further co-operation between several institutions, on the other.

It has been the intention of the programme from its inception onwards to also try to stimulate various structures to eventually start taking their own specific sports promotional initiatives. Consequently, projects were set up in cooperation with as many structures as possible, such as schools, sports clubs, youth welfare work and municipalities. Next is an overview of the most important sports stimulation initiatives that have been set up by the Foundation.


Sports stimulation through schools has been considered from a prevention perspective. By introducing pupils to a variety of sports, it can encourage them to become involved in organized activities on a regular base, which is otherwise not likely to happen (Theeboom, De Knop, & Gittenaer, 1992). In schools every child can be reached and thus the participation would not depend on the goodwill of parents. Especially for immigrant girls, schools are often the only way through which they come in contact with sports (De Knop, Theeboom, Wittock, & De Martelaer, 1996). In fact, the presence of underprivileged youth must be seen on three levels: (1) primary and secondary schools with a high concentration of immigrants, (2) technical and vocational education and (3) part time education.

The effect of an intensive school sports programme was tested in two Flemish schools, where a majority of pupils were immigrants between 12 and 18 (Theeboom et al., 1990, 1992). The programme was organized in co-operation with the local school sports federation and sponsored by the King Baudouin Foundation. Before the start of the sports programme, the pupils were asked about their sports participation. Young immigrants appeared to have a limited variation in the number of practised sports compared to their Belgian school mates. Pupils were then offered a variety of different sports. They were also informed about the existing possibilities to practise sports on a regular base (addresses of local sports clubs, regular school sports programmes, etc.).

Results showed that all pupils were very interested in the sports programme. A majority of them indicated they would like to practise these sports on a regular basis and explicitly asked for similar sports programmes in the future. According to the pupils, the school can play an important role in the organization of these programmes. Furthermore, school sports activities helped to diminish the aversion older pupils often have for school, because absence rates, which were usually high among the older pupils, dropped clearly during the time the programme was organized. Results indicated that sport can be a way to improve the relationship between pupils and their teachers, because it creates an opportunity to get to know each other in a more informal way.

The King Baudouin Foundation also supported a pilot study in a technical and vocational training programme for 16 to 18-year-olds (Musch, Mertens, Browaeys, & Laporte, 1992). The aim of this project was to stimulate social competence through a programme of co-operative physical activities in group with an accent on social interaction. Sports such as basketball offer a lot of possibilities to pursuit the same aim, to succeed a task together, to communicate and take decisions in group. Van Oost and colleagues (1988) described social competence as knowing and controlling strategies by which one can have and maintain successful relations with others. These strategies refer to social-cognitive processes as well as to actions, so that it not only involves the ability to detect the rules and norms in situations but also to adapt one's own behaviour.

By means of video pictures and an adapted version of Harter's questionnaire on self perception profile for students and teachers (Harter, 1989), the social competence was evaluated. Results indicated positive effects on the social effects of the pupils involved (Musch et al., 1992).

The King Baudouin Foundation has also been involved in part time education in a number of Flemish schools, where youngsters could take a basic course in sports guidance. This programme, which was included in the regular curriculum, was set up to provide youngsters with learning experiences which were related to sport and at the same time included more general educational aspects (such as taking responsibility and sharing decision-making).

Youth Welfare Work

Youth welfare work, which is often the only formal institution these youngsters come in contact with during their leisure time, can also be used as a way to stimulate sports participation for underprivileged youth.

The King Baudouin Foundation set up an inventory study to identify sports programmes for underprivileged youth in Flanders (Theeboom & De Knop, 1992). The data were collected through a written questionnaire from all municipal sports and youth services and to special youth welfare work. Results showed that there were only a limited number of specific sports initiatives. Most of the programmes that were organized occur within the youth welfare work. However, these organizations often deal with many problems concerning the availability and the use of sports facilities. Constant occupation by regular sports organizations and high rent make it difficult for organizers, who usually only have limited financial resources, to offer these youth an interesting sports programme. It is therefore necessary to provide equal chances for all to make use of the existing local sports infrastructure.

Experiences show that, within the youth welfare work there appears to be a good knowledge of the problems of the target group, but a lack of "sports competence" (Theeboom & De Knop, 1992). It is therefore necessary to give youth leaders basic information concerning the organization of sports activities (knowledge of different sports games, organizational principles, information of sports structures, ...). However, this kind of training can only be regarded as a first step towards the improvement of the sports organizational and technical aspects in working with underprivileged youth. Because while youth welfare workers should know more about the organization and pedagogically sound guidance of sports activities, sports leaders can learn more about the specific approach in working with underprivileged youth. Consequently, the King Baudouin Foundation started organizing basic sport training courses for youth welfare workers and encouraged the Flemish Training School (VTS) of the Government Sports Administration (BLOSO) to also pay attention to specific pedagogical guidelines in working with specific youth groups (such as young immigrants). With regard to sports training courses for youth workers, a number of practical sessions have been organized during weekends in which a variety of topics were introduced (e.g., games, rules and organization, teaching methods in sport, etc.) (De Knop & Theeboom, 1992).

These weekends have also stimulated several youth welfare workers to enrol in the regular training courses for recreational sports leader organized by the Flemish Sports Administration. The King Baudouin Foundation has also sponsored training courses for pedagogues working with juvenile delinquents who are placed in special institutions.

Sports Clubs

One of the advantages of sports participation in sports clubs is the regularity of the activities. When sport becomes a regular activity for underprivileged youth, the possibilities for positive social influence will increase. Furthermore, sports clubs have the sports technical expertise as well as the required sports infrastructure.

However, not many underprivileged youngsters take part in organized sports activities. Several studies have indicated that this is especially true for young immigrants, where the participation is compared with the native population (Beaujon, 1986; Böck, 1986; Vanreusel, Renson, & Wijnands, 1986; Hoolt, 1987; Dequeecker, 1988). Research has indicated that 54% of the 12 to 15-year-old immigrants in Belgium compared to 31% of Belgian youngsters of the same age group has never had a membership in a sports club (De Knop et al., 1994).

Many of the first generation immigrants that live in Flanders, originally came from the countryside and, as a result, have little experience with formal leisure organizations (Dequeecker, 1988). Consequently, most of these parents are not encouraging their children to participate in organized sports activities. Moreover, young immigrant girls are almost excluded from organized sports. They spend distinctly less hours on sports, compared with the autochtonous girls (De Knop et al., 1994). Already from an early age, they are required to spend most of their free time within their family's household. And even if they have some time off, their sports participation is very restricted because of Islamic rules, that forbid them to become involved in sports activities together with boys (De Knop, Theeboom, Witock, & De Martelaer, 1996).