Sport Promoting Human Development and Well-Being: Psychological Components of Sustainability




In the summer of 2016, much of the world’s attention will be focused on the athletes representing their countries at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As citizens of the world, we will marvel at the transcendent achievements of these extraordinary athletes. We will also celebrate the Games’ spirit, which promotes international friendship and cooperation, as athletes compete peacefully on playing fields rather than in conflict zones, in spite of their countries’ geopolitical differences. United Nations representatives have become active supporters of this Olympic ideal. The United Nations General Assembly, reviving a tradition dating back to ancient Greece, observes the Olympic Truce beginning the seventh day before the opening of the Olympic Games and continuing until the seventh day after the closing of the Paralympic Games, during which countries agree to cease all conflict and provide safe passage for athletes and visitors.

Concurrently, representatives of the United Nations and its Member States are also turning their attention, and ours, to the post-2015 development agenda, which includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This confluence of events compels us to ask how participating in sport might promote sustainability, peace and human rights.  After all, when most people think about sport, they usually visualize “competition”, in which one wins and the other loses. It is also possible, however, to envision sport as representing overarching goals beyond winning and losing. For example, as psychologists, we are particularly interested in how sport promotes human development and well-being in concert with SDG 3, to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. We highlight this connection between sport and psychological development and assert the interrelatedness of achieving Goal 3 and advancing other aspects of sustainability.

Sport, Life Skills and Global Citizenship

Faced with so many compelling, twenty-first century challenges, such as the war in Syria, terrorism, global migration, and the Zika crisis, we may ask why the world community should invest time and resources in sport. From a global perspective, sport has the potential to assemble athletes from diverse backgrounds who may be experiencing social inequality related to ethno-religious strife, ethno-nationalistic conflict, gender inequity or classism, yet they compete proudly as equals on the field. Because sport programmes embody foundational principles of fairness, respect for the opposition, teamwork and honouring the rules of the game, the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) works actively with United Nations system entities, including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), the World Health Organization, and the Department of Economic and Social Affairs, as well as with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to develop an appreciation for the contributions of sport to sustainable development, global citizenship, mutual understanding and peacebuilding. Additionally, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has defined sport as a human right.

Concomitantly, emerging psychological and social science research examining sport intervention programmes has detailed the value of youth participation in sport as a way to enhance a range of life skills and engender global citizenship. Such life skills include cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and social skills that promote social development, independent living and the enjoyment of life. More specifically, at the personal level, these skills include emotional self-regulation, enhanced self-esteem, feelings of empowerment and character development. At the level of global citizen, sport programmes help build leadership skills, conflict resolution abilities and a capacity for achieving a superordinate goal cooperatively with others in spite of individual differences. When sport and rules of the game are used to promote conflict resolution and leadership skills at the global citizenship level and facilitate life skills at the personal level, we find a “win-win” situation for all, as opposed to a “winner takes all” perspective common in competitive sport.

Psychologists have found that participation in sport in elementary and secondary school facilitates life-skills training and serves as a protective factor against traumatic events such as civil conflict, community violence and early forced marriage of underage girls. Investigators have demonstrated, for example, that sport programmes have improved life and global citizenship skills for youth in Angola, noting that following times of political conflict, youths who participated in structured sport activities reported feeling more hopeful about their futures. Moreover, adults observed improvements in these youths’ life skills, especially in cooperation and conflict management. In another study of youth in Germany, researchers found that sport participation resulted in reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. These findings are particularly salient given the global rise in youth suicides. Other researchers studied South African children exposed to community violence, as witnesses or victims, and found that sport participation provided a protective factor that enhanced resilience in the face of overwhelming traumatic experiences. Finally, a training programme for Jordanian male and female football coaches demonstrated how instilling a sense of citizenship, peaceful living and leadership in their young athletes enhanced the coaches’ level of satisfaction, positive messaging and openness to developing new skills.   

Sport may also be integrated with other childhood experiences, such as education, in support of psychological development and human rights. For example, we know that early forced or arranged marriage will stop a girl from continuing her education. A UNICEF report indicates that educated girls are less likely to marry early and die in childbirth, and are more likely to have healthy babies and send their children to school. In Nepal, UNICEF sponsors a girls’ sport programme in school. The combination of sport and education provides a protective factor to help ensure basic human rights for girls. This combined effect helps girls stay in school, delay early forced marriage, maintain enrolment in academic programmes and boost their academic success. UNICEF highlighted the progress of one Nepalese girl, reporting that she continues to encounter pressure from her family to marry early. “I have to focus on sports. Then the issue of marriage is not discussed much,” she said.

Overall then, youth participation in sport for development is gaining popularity and momentum because of its value in promoting life skills and the essentials of global citizenship. Advancing capabilities in problem solving, communicating effectively, learning to negotiate, making the best decisions, resolving conflicts, managing interpersonal relationships, being self-aware, and coping effectively with emotions and stress are important components for enhancing one’s capacity for health and well-being (SDG 3).

Well-Being Promotes Progress across the SDGs

We have demonstrated that sport has the capacity to promote well-being, which is an essential component of SDG 3. The wisdom of including health and well-being in the SDGs communicates a historic insight on the part of the United Nations. Vigorous physical health, and resilient mental health and well-being, may be thought of as potentiating human capacities for progress on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and ensuring a healthy future for all peoples and for our planet.

When we consider the enhanced resilience and empowerment that may be gained through sport for individuals and communities, it becomes evident that facilitated empowerment may positively impact other critical elements of sustainability. Conceptualizing sustainability in this way underscores the interrelatedness of the SDGs. For example, as girls and boys experience enhanced self-esteem and master an array of life skills through sport, they are more likely to succeed in school (SDGs 4 and 5). As global citizens experience well-being and develop leadership and conflict resolution skills through sport, their potential to contribute in the work place and engage in innovation and economic growth is more likely (SDGs 8 and 9). As individuals and communities grow more confident in addressing social justice concerns, they may envision new avenues to tackle persisting inequalities (SDG 10). As global citizens and their communities acquire a robust arsenal of life skills, they facilitate the crafting of a trajectory for building sustainable cities, engaging in responsible consumption and envisioning multifaceted climate action (SDGs 11, 12 and 13). When community residents feel resilient, engaged, and forward-thinking, they are more likely to promote peace, justice and strong institutions (SDG 16).

The interrelatedness of the SDGs and sensitivity to the impact of sport as one foundational component of change has important implications for our understanding of the potential future impact of using sport to promote human rights and empowerment. While there may be a tendency to view the engendering of well-being as a matter of personal development, we can also envision how communities of engaged and vigorous individuals have the potential to change social systems and norms that compromise human rights and diminish the health and well-being of populations. Using the Olympics and Paralympics as examples, we understand that the participation of men and women in these events promotes inclusion and respect for gender equality. Similarly, increased attention worldwide to the Paralympics provides recognition for the inclusion of persons with disabilities. The impact of experiencing the talent and courage of athletes in these games adds to the momentum of human acceptance and social change across societies. Psychologically, disempowerment may be overcome through sport with enhanced self-esteem and a sense of efficacy, which enable a person to shift from seeking external sources of empowerment to finding and using internal resources. This psychological shift is possible for communities and countries as well. Through empowerment, communities are better positioned to reverse the historic tendency towards seeking external resources for improving life conditions. In this way, the hegemony of neocolonial intervention models may be countered and the experience of “community empowerment” enhanced.


Realistically, the Olympic Truce and ideal are aspirational. Yet the short word “sport” carries broad implications. Representatives of UNOSDP support sporting events that promote the SDGs, peacemaking and peacebuilding initiatives, tolerance, mutual understanding and reconciliation, while decreasing tensions, inequity and prejudice. UNOSDP, along with the United Nations Special Adviser on Sport for Development and Peace, and some local NGOs, use sport to promote gender equality, the inclusion of people living with disabilities, the prevention of HIV/AIDS and other diseases, environmental sustainability and conflict resolution. Consequently, there is increasing recognition of the efficacy of humanitarian programmes that employ sport as a tool for intervention and change in geopolitically and culturally diverse contexts.