15 April 2021 – Sport can be a powerful tool to engage communities and prevent crime, violence and potentially drug use among youth. In the context of the 64th session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, international experts gathered virtually during a side event to discuss what the evidence says about the role of sport in supporting youth to prevent drug use and address related risk and protective factors.
Sport, and physical activity more broadly, can also be effective in promoting wellbeing and health, including mental health and reducing the risk of depression, as well as improve the cognitive functions and academic outcomes of young people and adolescents. Quality physical education that embraces sport values can also be used to help children and young people acquire the cognitive, social and emotional skills they need to lead a healthy lifestyle and promote safe development. Nevertheless, in reference to substance use, research to date shows that sport participation can have both positive and negative impacts depending on the type of sport, sport-specific environments and structures, as well as competition levels.
While participation in professional and competitive sport may have a negative impact on substance use – for instance, in relation to doping – grassroots sport and sport-based interventions, which have broader social development objectives beyond the practice of sport, have strong potential to promote positive youth development and build youth resilience to substance use when based on science. Among the latter, there are programmes which, in their use of sport as a tool to deliver non-sport outcomes, including skills development, youth empowerment and participation, show promising results, a number of which have been articulated in the UNODC WHO International Standards on Drug Use Prevention.
A key conclusion of academic reviews is the potential of sport-based programmes and other structured extracurricular leisure time activities which include training on life skills such as self-esteem, resisting peer pressure and effective communication, in reducing delinquency, alcohol and drug use and school dropout rates. Other promising examples exist where sport-based programmes focus on offering coaching and mentoring support as an effective way to strengthen support networks which help them to deal with adversity. “Sport offers an opportunity to leverage a team environment to influence youth, allow for targeted prevention efforts and promote harm reduction,” noted Anna Goodman, a Research and Policy Analyst at Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction, during the event. “The involvement of coaches, however, is key, with results showing that without this coaching structure there is a comparable increase in substance use.” In addition, with its interactive and participatory approach, sport programmes can serve as an effective ‘hook’ for further growing and learning, helping to reach out to marginalized youth who may be difficult to engage in a class or other formal education setting.
UNODC’s Youth Crime Prevention through Sport initiative under the Doha Declaration Global Programme, and its flagship Line Up Live Up sport-based life skills training initiative, address common risk and protective factors associated with youth violence, crime and drug use. Using sport as a learning tool, Line Up Live Up builds a set of key life skills, increases knowledge of the consequences of crime and substance use and addresses related stereotypes and normative beliefs with the aim of positively influencing the attitudes of youth and preventing anti-social and risky behaviour, including drug use.
Peer van der Kreeft, Lecturer and Researcher at University College Ghent and President of the European Society for Prevention Research – as well as the lead author of Line Up Live Up Trainer Manual, spoke on this during the event: “Sport is a powerful vehicle for substance use prevention, and standardized and quality training of trainers is critical if we want prevention activities transferred to real life.” Meanwhile, the specific country experience of the Dominican Republic showed the importance of embedding sport-based interventions, like Line Up Live Up, into broader drug use prevention policies. “Line Up Live Up was adopted by the Dominican Republic in 2018 and brought together several authorities, such as the National Drug Council, the Ministry of Education and the Department of Physical Education. The experience of this program shows how sport can be a protective factor in drug prevention for adolescents”, noted Edwin del Valle, Coordinator of Demand Reduction, National Drug Council, Dominican Republic. Another concrete example was provided by the Association Proyecto Hombre, a civil society organization active in substance use prevention, who shared information on its ‘Sport2Live’ methodology which uses sport to help people with mental health, addictions problems and social exclusion risk.
Experts at the event concluded that sport can present an opportunity to model healthy lifestyles for youth, increase prevention potential from risky behaviours including substance use, and develop important life skills such as critical thinking and resisting negative peer pressure. The effectiveness of such interventions will, however, depend on several elements, including the type of sport and the delivery dosage of the programme, the quality of non-sport outcomes and objectives, the quality and intensity of capacity building, including the training offered to coaches and facilitators, and the overall programme environment. Moreover, to amplify the positive impact of sport, interventions should form part of more comprehensive policies and programmes on substance use prevention that operate through different environmental structures that are influential on the lives of youth (school, family and other community institutions) and address the multiple factors of substance use to promote overall youth development and wellbeing.
The results of studies to date illustrate the need to consider the wider social and sport-related contexts to understand the relationship between youth substance use and sport, and point at the need for more research and impact assessment studies to better understand how sport-based interventions can be effectively used to prevent drug use.