Research into sports activity in Australian children suggests that non-elite participants are losing interest in sport more rapidly and disengaging, not just from sport, but all physical activity. While the leading sports keep growing, their supporting communities are struggling.

It once seemed the sporting fields of suburban and rural Australia churned out world champions at will. The clubs that developed the children into champions also fostered a culture of amateur competition that kept communities connected and healthy.

But the world is now a more complex and demanding place for children and research by Griffith, in partnership with some of the major sporting codes, is trying to turn this trend around.

Dr Wayne Usher is an education researcher at Menzies Health Institute Qld and in 2016 he formed a commercial research partnership with the National Rugby League (NRL) to look into some of the social issues affecting sporting clubs and communities around Australia.

At the same time the Australian Sporting Commission (ASC) outlined a strategic vision to see more Australians, particularly young people, participating in sport for longer. They also want to see individual sports, achieve continual and sustained membership growth, with sustained retention rates. ASC called on the big codes to play a leading role.

“Australian sport, in the early 21st century, is a consumer-driven industry and highly competitive. Therefore, individual sporting organisations need to be strategic, with the ability to draw on rich data and theory to inform future decisions and practices,” said Dr Usher.

“The ASC have high regard for sporting bodies that reflect effective organisational qualities: well-governed, strategic, embracing of commercial opportunities, adopting new technologies and delivering user-friendly sports opportunities for all Australians, regardless of age, gender, culture and individual sporting aspirations.”

James Hinchey, Participation Strategy & Projects Manager at the NRL agreed. “The game is taking affirmative action to improve the Rugby League experience for our participants and their families. Partnering with an institution the calibre of Griffith provides us with good insight into what people experience in our game.

While the research has confirmed a number of positives including the knowledge and experience of our coaches, it has also provided us with some areas that can be improved and it’s this information that will assist in shaping the game into the future. The more often we are able to partner with the university sector on projects such as this, the better equipped the game will be to prosper moving forward”.

Dr Usher’s, partnership with the NRL covers multiple projects including: young people’s retention rates in sporting clubs, physical self-esteem, the use of science and maths to support physical activity and the psychological determinants of success.

These projects are creating a research-based picture of the lives of young people and their relationship to physical activity, which is of enormous value to both the NRL, peak bodies like ASC and the community. They are also building a sophisticated, research-based relationship with an important peak sporting bodies.

“The ASC wants sports to be sufficiently agile to ensure what they offer is what Australians want, while at the same time staying true to what makes an individual sport unique and great. The NRL, like most other major sporting bodies, have realised the overall sporting culture may be more important than just the health of Rugby League, that is a pretty advanced position from previous years.”

Dr Usher is keen to look deeper into why students become disengaged in sport and physical activity, which is why he is approaching some of the research from a psychological perspective. Research suggests there is a link between a student’s self-esteem and confidence levels and their level of sporting involvement.

The results of these contracts are leading to a much larger study that will hopefully begin the recreation of a healthier national sporting culture, while also create stronger elite sports.