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Sport: a key subversive learning tool

EPALE Thematic Coordinator, Andrew McCoshan, examines projects co-funded by Erasmus+ and discovers many insights into the role of sport as a vehicle for adult learning.

Sports in adult learning Projects


EPALE Thematic Coordinator, Andrew McCoshan, examines projects co-funded by Erasmus+ and discovers many insights into the role of sport as a vehicle for adult learning.


‘The power of sport is simply huge. It can transform people’s lives in so many ways. It can improve personal health, build teamwork and engage the most disaffected of young people into disciplined performance. Sport can also unite communities. Sports like football are a ‘universal language’ common to all cultures where the discipline, rules and norms are readily understood. Sport also has the power to inspire both teams and individuals and to create a sense of achievement which can be built upon week by week and year by year.’

Thus the Erasmus+ project Sport for Change neatly encapsulates the benefits of sport. How can these be put to work in terms of learning? Erasmus+ projects have answers in three key areas.

Projects with sports in adult learning


Sport as a skills-developer

First, the projects illustrate very well how sport can be used to develop a wide range of skills: 

  • Learning how to live healthy lifestyles is a competence emphasised in many projects, e.g. Lifelong Swimming, not least because of current concerns that modern lifestyles do not encourage exercise, leading to health problems such as obesity and heart disease.
  • Projects also emphasise the social and civic values and attitudes that can be promoted through sport such as mutual understanding between communities, and giving opportunities to groups that might face discrimination or struggle to access sport, such as people with disabilities. The project Chain Reaction highlights the concept of ‘fair play’; and the Fair Play A Rule for Life project uses the phrase ‘street-football for tolerance’ and develops skills in conflict management. She Runs uses sport for the empowerment of girls.
  • Many soft skills and competences can be acquired through sport, including teamwork, problem solving, self-confidence and self-esteem. Sport, such as in the project Sport for All, can take people out of their comfort zones; projects provide safe places where adults can overcome their fear of doing activities they have not done since school.
  • Vocational skills can also be obtained. Skills for employability are strongly emphasised in the project Mobility Opportunities Boosting Investment In Lanarkshire To Inspire VET Learners To Improve Employability And Skills; and the better knowledge of career opportunities that can be gained is highlighted in LFC Foundation College Programme Enhancement & Exit And Progression Opportunities.


Sport as a subversive learning tool

Sport has the power to open up learning for people who might otherwise not become engaged in education. In this sense, we can see it as a subversive positive force, bringing people into learning new skills without their realising it. This is reflected strongly in Erasmus+ projects that frequently target young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who may not have had positive experiences at school, and seniors who may not have taken part in formal learning for many years, as well as economically inactive adults. Other target groups include families and disabled people and their carers. The Enabled Media project notes that many disabled people do not know that opportunities exist for them and that ‘although disability can make things difficult, it does not make things impossible […] disabled people can participate, achieve and enjoy the feelings that achievement brings’.

Projects also target youth workers, trainers, volunteers and others who provide support. Indeed, as Sport for Change states: ‘Volunteering is […] an excellent way of engaging and re-engaging adults in formal and informal learning. Volunteer work provides important employment training and a pathway into the labour force. Sport and sports volunteering are recognised as important tools to engage groups who have distanced themselves from mainstream formal learning.’


Sport as non-formal learning par excellence

Sport enables a wide variety of organisations to be involved in planning and implementing learning, including not just adult education institutions but civil society non-governmental organisations, sports clubs and higher education institutions. This is part of sport’s strength: it enables organisations with a wide variety of skills and expertise to work together.

Given its positive subversive role, non-formal learning methods are common in sports-focused Erasmus+ projects. Projects frequently highlight methods like:

  • learning by doing
  • peer-to-peer learning
  • group discussions
  • presentations
  • icebreakers
  • games

as well as activities to enable participants to reflect on what has gone on during a sporting activity, such as intolerant behaviour.

Sports-based projects emphasise the mental as well as physical dimensions of learning. The MEMTRAIN project links exercise and brain training to promote healthy ageing and memory development for older adults. The project Promoting Active Engagement In Sports uses traditional karate as an exercise method for people aged over 55, stressing the benefits in terms of patience, balance, coordination, strength, mobility and self-esteem.

Sport as a vehicle for learning offers many opportunities. It enables people to acquire skills through non-formal methods and environments and brings into learning many people who might never consider becoming involved in formal learning opportunities. What’s your experience?

Andrew McCoshan has worked in education and training for over 30 years. For more than 15 years he has conducted studies and evaluations for the EU, and before that was a consultant in the UK. Andrew is currently an independent researcher and consultant, and Senior Research Associate at the Educational Disadvantage Centre at Dublin City University in Ireland.

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