Study casts doubt on the benefit of a sporting life

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The long-held belief that sport builds character has been turned on its head by a study that concludes that some sports appear to foster delinquent behaviour in teenagers.

Non-team pursuits - such as tennis, wind-surfing, aerobics and athletics - were found to be associated with bad behaviour.

Boys who took part in a lot of non-team sports at the age of 15 were almost twice as likely to indulge in car theft, burglary, shoplifting and fighting with a weapon by the time they were 18 as boys who did little or no sports, according to the study.

For girls, the figure was even higher. They were almost three times as likely to be involved in deviant behaviour by 18 as their non-sporting peers. But girls who played "moderate", as opposed to large, amounts of sport were twice as likely to be delinquent.

While some participants in team activities - most notably rugby players - are notorious for their post-match pack behaviour, the researchers from the United States and New Zealand say that games such as rugby, cricket, hockey and netball were not associated with increased delinquency among individuals.

Writing in today's British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dr Dorothy Begg, of Otago Medical School in Dunedin, New Zealand, and colleagues say: "Conventional sports which incorporate many aspects of the broader society (for example, rules, regulations, authority figures) may appeal to the non-delinquent, but for the delinquent, who by definition `violates the rules and norms of society', such activities offer little appeal."

Sport has been an integral part of most societies since the time of the ancient Greeks who believed that it was an alternative to war for channelling young people's aggression.

In the mid-19th century it was a form of social control in public schools, and was viewed as a substitute for the poaching, vandalism, bullying and drunkenness which had been the preferred choices of boys with too much leisure.

Over time, the hypothesis that sport is a deterrent - that involvement in such activities exposes young people to strong conforming influences rather than deviant ones - has become accepted.

The Prime Minister, himself an ardent cricket fan, has made clear his belief in the important role that sport has to play in establishing a "feelgood factor" at a national and local level.

Earlier this year, John Major committed millions of pounds of National Lottery money to improving sporting facilities and increasing participation by everyone, from career athlete to weekend enthusiast and schoolchild.

However, the authors of the study say that there is an alternative view, the "athletic delinquent" hypothesis which is less popular.

This holds that deviant behaviour is a product of an individual's membership of or contact with organisations.

A team sport could, in theory, expose a child to older delinquents, while behaviour such as cheating in athletics can actually be learnt by participants.

Dr Begg concludes that the study's findings do not support the view that sport is a panacea for delinquent behaviour, but "if anything, it may exacerbate the problem".

She says that activities should be tailored to the individual, and that more challenging Outward Bound activities may be more suitable for unconventional characters.