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Understanding youth in sport (2023)

a Foucauldian lens on power, discourse and knowledge in youth sports

Auteur(s): Froukje Smits

Sports participation by young people is associated with ‘fun’ and ‘good’ and considered as an important activity that contributes to young people’s development. Sport is therefore often seen as an essential part of young people’s lives. But there is also resistance to competitive sport and there are invisible processes that are part of unorganised and organised sport.

What exactly is ‘fun’ or ‘good’, which young people and what kind of sport practices are we talking about specifically? Youth sport is a more complex phenomenon than you might think.

Instead of starting from commonly used statistics and goal-oriented frameworks, which actually say little about what really happens in reality, Froukje Smits describes an alternative way of studying processes in youth sport. In doing so, she gives participants a voice and also contributes to theory about youth sport as an important context in which many young people participate.

In her thesis, she focuses on the social aspects of youth sport by using a theoretical framework from Foucault. This is to gain insight in the social meaning and the function of power that shape youth sport in its many facets. It offers the opportunity to study this complexity from a ‘power-sensitive’ approach, i.e. focusing on the role of disciplining power, ways of thinking and doing and knowledge about youth sport on the one hand, and which research methods can best be used to better understand practices and experiences in youth sport on the other.

Smits conducted six diverse studies to analyse experiences in youth sport. Together, these give an impression of the wide landscape of sports in which young people participate. She examined:

  • How sponsored kitesurfing boys experience freedom in their non-institutionalised sporting activity.
  • How Orthodox Reformed Christian youth formally distance themselves from the prevailing competitive sports discourse in the Netherlands, a society that regards sport as a social good.
  • Through the project, ‘U on Board’, intended to contribute to the well-being of young people living in an asylum reception center. 
  • Emotional abuse by coaches of elite gymnasts and emotional grooming in Dutch gymnastics. Smits concludes that the use of practices that enable emotional abuse by coaches takes place at all levels and transcends them. This results in dynamics that normalises emotional abuse by coaches, curtailing parents in their ability to safeguard what is in the best pedagogical interest of their daughter.
  • How, despite growing acceptance of non-heterosexual male athletes, among male team athletes, homonegative micro aggressive speech acts and actions still contribute to the maintenance of heteronormativity in sport.

What is considered ‘normal’ can turn into transgressive behaviour or exclusion based on sexual preference, religious beliefs or ethnicity. A varied use of Foucaultian lenses, providing insight into the complex practices of youth sport, can be used to develop policies and change practices that can currently cause young people to drop out, be exploited, abused or miss and lose enjoyment in sports participation. This is important because youth sport, in all its facets and manifestations, is a very important and valuable practice that can contribute to the positive and healthy development of young people in society.

Literatuurverwijzing: Smits, F. (2023). Understanding youth in sport: a Foucauldian lens on power, discourse and knowledge in youth sports. Utrecht: Universiteit Utrecht.

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