The Case for Cultivating Purpose in Life Through Sport

First, what is purpose in life?

Purpose is a personally meaningful aim or intention that a person has for their life. Because purpose is a life aim, an individual needs to focus on working toward their purpose. Also, the aim of purpose is directed beyond than the self — like other people, social cause, or just impacting the world.

Examples of purpose might include being a good parent, working toward social justice, promoting world peace, making the world more sustainable, and artistic or athletic endeavors.

Second, why is purpose in life worth having?

When someone has purpose in their life, they often report having a better quality of life and satisfaction with their life — compared to those without a sense of purpose in life. Also, purpose in life provides both mental and physical health benefits.

Mental benefits include less depression and anxiety. Physical benefits include better sleep and more physical activity. Purpose is also associated being resilient in hard times. There is even an association between purpose in life and greater income and net worth.

Third, when should a person begin to think about and develop purpose in life?

Purpose can be cultivated during the teenage years or early adulthood. Children do not quite have the brain capacity to think about their purpose in life at a young age. Even just searching for one’s purpose in life is associated with overall wellbeing for teens and young adults.

However, when middle-age adults do not have a purpose in life and they are still searching for one, this is not associated with overall wellbeing. This actually looks more like a mid-life crisis or an existential crisis. So, it is best to help people develop their purpose earlier in life and not later in life.

The pros outweigh the cons when it comes to developing purpose in life.

Fourth, so, how is purpose developed?

Well, first let talk about how purpose is not developed. It is not “discovered” nor “found. ” Instead purpose is cultivated or developed over time. And, there seem to be a few prerequisites (aka necessary first steps) before that can happen.

Some prerequisites for purpose include empathy, a sense of self, and an orientation toward the future.

So, why should we care about developing purpose through sport?

Young people already benefit from purpose-focused interventions through various institutions: educational, religious, philanthropic. And developmental research shows that young people indeed describe extracurricular activities, like sport, as purposeful for them.

Sport and purpose have been studied and utilized separately to promote positive youth development, but how these two important concepts interact is not understood.

Given the popularity of sport as an extracurricular activity, as well as its use in the promotion of positive youth development, there is a critical need to understand the role of sport in developing purpose.

How would children improve school recess? A qualitative focus group exploration

Recess is an important opportunity for child development. Recess is generally the only unstructured time during the school day where children can focus on play, fun, and socialization. Children have valuable perspectives of recess, which can totally be used to inform recess itself!

However, when it comes to recess, adults have significantly more decision making power around recess than children. Recess is for children, but adults make all the decisions. How can we get children more involved? Can we ask their opinions?

2PLAY lab sought to explore children’s perceptions and recommendations for improving recess. We then made an effort to translate findings into practical solutions that can be used by schools.

We went to four public elementary schools in three rural school districts in the Pacific Northwest. These schools serve mostly White and Latinx families in low-to-middle income brackets. We held 17 focus groups, and 89 elementary students in 2nd through 5th grade volunteered to participate. They shared their valuable opinions of recess.

  • Following data collection, a content analysis was conducted. Two themes were developed that highlighted important areas of dissonance.
    1. First, while recess was coded as a place of socialization, this included both positive (i.e., friendships) and negative (i.e., bullying, exclusion) socializing influences.
    2. Second, while children discussed a need for rules and rule enforcement at recess, they often did not understand the reasoning behind rules and recognized different adults enforced varying rules.
  • To help alleviate these areas of dissonance, children made recommendations for improving recess:
    • Children want more access to recess (i.e., more frequent and longer recess periods)
    • They want more inclusive and nontraditional recess activities — like drawing and board games
    • They ask for boundaries between areas of the playground
    • Students want to use their voice to help shaping the rules that govern recess
    • They also want consistent adult implementation of those rules

Overall, the focus groups show that children are aware of both the problems and solutions relating to recess. Their perspectives can provide valuable insight during intervention planning.

This work included the help of the following 2PLAY lab members: Janelle K. Thalken, Isabella Ozenbaugh, Maya Trajkovski, Alexandra Szarabajko, & William V. Massey

How much is her time worth?

I read an article from Inside Higher Ed about how the rates of women’s journal submissions are falling. The article states that since the coronavirus stay-at-home orders have been implemented, women having been submitting less articles to journals. The article states that a main reason for this caregiving.

“Female academics’ research productivity dropped off at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, which many experts have attributed to women’s outsize role in caregiving even before the pandemic. Some also blame women’s disproportionate service roles and take-up of emotional labor.”

In this same article, a research consultant Kate Power, says the following:

“There is a saying working mothers have: ‘You have to work like you don’t have children and parent like you don’t have a job.’ And that was before COVID-19.”

Although I am not a parent, I already understand too well that women are asked to do more.

Women often take on more unofficial roles, and this is not just in the home — but also in the workplace — including the academic workplace.

To help bring the point home, I want to share examples of tasks I was assigned while working at previous jobs in academia that fell outside of my job description.

  • making coffee
  • loading or emptying the dishwasher
  • grabbing lunch
  • decorating the office
  • buying cake, holiday/birthday cards, gift cards
  • driving someone somewhere
  • booking a flight for the significant other of an employee
  • cleaning out an office or cubicle

I believe there is a possible intersection between identifying as a woman, other’s perception of a woman’s young age, and her identifying/being perceived as a person of color.

Finding Purpose in Combat Sport

This video was created for the American Psychological Association (APA) Conference. Co-authors are Professor Will Massey of Oregon State University and Professor Meredith Whitley of Adelphi University. This was presented to APA’s Society for Sport, Exercise, & Performance Psychology.

Please find the video below:

Highlighted Finding: This sample of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athletes acquired the core criteria of purpose: (1) goal-directedness, (2) commitment, (3) personal meaning, and (4) beyond-the-self focus relating to MMA.

Comments and questions are welcome!

Finding Meaning Through MMA

When young people cultivate a sense of purpose, they may experience better mental health and more optimal youth development. Purpose is “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” (Damon et al., 2003, p.121).

Purpose  =   Goal directedness + Commitment + Meaning + Beyond the self

Sport can provide purpose and structure for individuals with trauma.

We did a study to understand the potential for purpose in a sample of male MMA athletes, who experienced developmental trauma. We had two research questions:

  1. Are MMA athletes, a history of trauma, able to develop purpose?
  2. If so, how did these athletes develop a sense of purpose through MMA?

Two of the researchers, Will Massey & Meredith Whitley, interviewed five male MMA athletes. These athletes had different MMA careers: e.g., retired from competition, amateur status, competing in Ultimate Fighting Championship [UFC].

I analyzed the data from these five retrospective in-depth interviews. First, just read the interviews and wrote first impression memos. Then I re-read them again and wrote second impression memos. Third, I  generated codes from the interview guide and coded all five interviews. I did a content analysis of those codes.

Then, I coded a second time, but this time I determined the codes while I was coding (aka in-vivo coding). After that second round of coding, I analyzed the data to answer research question #1 — which was, Did the athletes develop purpose? Then I analyzed the data to answer research question #2 — How did they develop purpose through MMA?

Research Question #1: Did the athletes develop purpose?

Yes, the athletes did acquire the core criteria of purpose.

Purpose CriteriaAthlete 1Athlete 2Athlete 3Athlete 4Athlete 5
Personal meaning
Beyond-the-self focus

Research Question #2: How did they develop purpose through MMA?

1. Survived Trauma & Dissatisfied with the Status Quo The participants described childhood as “survival.” They did not want to be “naïve” or “gullible.” They found themselves lacking resources and social capital. They lamented the lack of pathways to long-term success: “No direction.” They recognized the downward trajectory and wanted to be different.

2. Moved & Inspired to Be a Part of Something Beyond the Self: MMA The participants are introduced to MMA through inspiring individuals. “I want to learn to do that too.” They come to realize, through MMA, that there is a bigger world out there. They feel a sense of belonging to a unit larger than themselves. The MMA team is likened to a “sport family” and “brotherhood.”

3. Meaningful MMA Eventually Trumps Other Activities & Groups MMA means more to these participants than money, gang obligations, etc. Because of this meaning, they were goal-directed and committed. “Dedicated.” MMA was a space where they felt “empowered” to build their skills. Yet, they had rocky, non-linear paths to a meaningful MMA career. “Streets follow you.”

4. Existential Awareness Builds a Pre-Purpose Foundation The participants could be their authentic selves in MMA. They asked existential questions about their lives. “Man, what you been doing with your life?” They realized it was worthwhile to pursue goals. “Life is so short.” The men began to consider the well-being of others (e.g., the next generation of athletes). Lastly, they realized their futures are worth planning for. “I could be something.”

In conclusion: These MMA athletes developed goal-directedness, commitment, meaning, and beyond-the-self focus through MMA, suggesting that sport can be an avenue through which individuals find purpose following trauma.

Certain hurdles need to be cleared before those with trauma can begin to find purpose through sport, such as recognizing one has a future life worth planning for. Without this foundation, purpose cannot be cultivated.

Trauma-Informed Sport Coaching

To best support girls with a history of trauma, sport coaches should consider and include principles of trauma-informed in their practices when possible.

Eight core principles of trauma-informed programming include:

  1. Opportunities for girls to make meaningful contributions
  2. Established code of behavior
  3. Evidence of positive traditions
  4. Opportunities to opt in or out
  5. Coaching in pairs
  6. Body & brain-based warm-ups / cool-downs
  7. Repetition of practice
  8. Modified competition

(1) Coaches can offer multiple opportunities for girls to make meaningful contributions during practice. By doing so, the coach teaches her athletes the value of beyond-the-self actions for the betterment of team and community. This enables the athlete to feel connected and empowered in social situations.

(2) Establishing a clear and collaborative code of behavior promotes consistent conduct, such as the prosocial treatment of teammates, referees, and opponents.

(3) Evidence of positive traditions — such as coming up with team names, team cheers, or supporting teammates — can establish a team’s code of behavior.

(4) Coaches can also explicitly offer opportunities to opt out or in of a particular activity. When opt outs are built into sports practice, girls make autonomous decisions and only participate in situations that feel most comfortable to them. This is good practice for voicing their opinion and being independent in other aspects of their current life (e.g., negative peer pressure at school) or future life (e.g., toxic work situations or potentially unhealthy romantic relationships).

(5) Given that girls can opt out, adults should aim to coach in at least groups of two. This would increase the coaching staff’s capability and availability to provide individual support to athletes – such that one coach could continue to lead an activity, while the other attends to girls who have elected to not participate.

(6) Practices can be strengthened by incorporating body and brain-based warm-up and cool-down activities. This can help girls be in tune with their bodies and learn self-awareness.

(7) Coaches can build in the repetition of skills across activities within modules. Repetitive activities helps youth self-regulate.

(8) Modifications in competition should be included whenever possible. Girls are still building their athletic skills. Competition can be scaffolded to meet their developing needs and budding skills.

(!) The valuable components of trauma-informed programming help not just girls with a history. All girls on the team benefit when practice is trauma-informed!

More information about these core principles can be found in this 2016 article by Dr. Lou Bergholz and colleagues.

Meaningful Play? Recess memories associated with meaning & purpose later in adulthood

What is the long-term impact of recess?

When it comes to Physical Education (PE), previous research found negative PE experiences predicted adults’ health habits (Cardinal et al., 2013; Ladwig et al., 2018). In other words, negative PE experiences as a child predicted less physical activity as an adult.

Purpose in life may be both a cause and effect of adults’ overall health, including how much physical activity they do.

So our question was: Do recess experiences predict later social and emotional well-being?

This study explored the relationships between past memories of recess, physical activity, and social-emotional well-being.

514 adults in the USA between the ages of 19 and 79 participated in our study.

Participants completed surveys online. These surveys measured the following:

  1. recess enjoyment
  2. how much they physical activity they do
  3. how much they enjoy physical activity
  4. how satisfied they are with their social roles
  5. their meaning and purpose in life

Using a statistical analysis, specifically structural equation modeling, the data from these surveys was analyzed.

The analysis showed the following:

  • Memories of recess enjoyment were associated with meaning and purpose as an adult
  • Memories of recess enjoyment were associated with how much this person enjoy physical activity as an adult
  • Physical activity enjoyment as an adult was also associated with meaning and purpose in life
  • Physical activity enjoyment as an adult was also associated and social role satisfaction

So what does this all mean?

Essentially, this means that one’s childhood recess experiences can affect their later markers of health. And not just physical health. But also that persons’s social and emotional health.

This was the first study to examine the long-term effects of recess.

What should educators do about recess?

Educators and policy makers need ensure everyone has equitable access to high-quality recess.

For more information, check out the published manuscript here in the Psychology of Sport & Exercise. DOI:

If you enjoyed recess as a child, will you be more active later in life?

My colleague Alex Szarabajko and I presented at the virtual SHAPE (Society of Health and Physical Educators) 2021 conference.

The co-researchers are William V. Massey, Janelle K. Thalken, and Sean P. Mullen.

Video from SHAPE 2021 Conference

Enjoying recess as a child predicted how much you enjoyed physical activity later as an adult. Being excluded during recess as a child was associated with being socially isolated as an adult.

Essentially, if you experienced social exclusion within a physical activity as a child, it is possible that you do not enjoy or engage in physical activity later as an adult.

This study supports similar research which found that being picked last in PE (Physical Education) or not enjoying PE as a child was related to being less active later in life (Cardinal et al., 2013; Ladwig et al., 2018).

The research publication can be found in the academic journal entitled Psychology of Sport and Exercise. Authors are William V. Massey, Alexandra Szarabajko, Janelle K. Thalken, Deanna Perez, and Sean P. Mullen.

Video: Peace and development indicators in Liberia youth through sport for development programming.

Here is a video I made about a recently published research article.

The article is titled Peace and development indicators in Liberia youth through sport for development programming.

It was published in 2020 by researchers at Ball State University and Claremont Graduate University.

The purpose of the study was to explore if and how aspects of positive youth development (specifically social responsibility, personal relationships, peace, and purpose) were cultivated through the sport and character activities of a sport-for-development program, called Life and Change Experienced Through Sport (LACES).

LACES is a 40-week sport-for-development program, established for marginalized youth of Liberia in 2007. LACES uses mentor-based soccer and kickball leagues to teach children life skills.

The goal of LACES is to develop positive role models and leaders with a sense of purpose and direction. LACES hopes to serve as a buffer against recruitment into negative groups. A long-term goal of LACES is to ultimately help safeguard Liberia from another civil war.

The program includes 32 weeks of full programming and 8 weeks of modified programming. Full programming entails designated coaches working with teams and holding two practices and one game per week. LACES staff visit the youth monthly. Meals are served at each practice and game. At practices, coaches teach life lessons based on the LACES curriculum, as well as sport skill development.

The study did not have a research hypothesis, but was instead guided by three research questions, which are listed below:

  • Can participation in a sport-for-development program increase social responsibility, close personal relationships, peace, and purpose among Liberian youth?
  • How did participation in a sport-for-development program cultivate these important indicators of positive youth development?
  • What experiences, relationships, and conditions cultivated and stymied healthy development among Liberian youth?

Mixed-methods data collection allowed the researchers to triangulate data obtained from surveys, interviews, and photovoice data.

The researchers found that LACES did indeed contribute to small decreases in attitudes toward violence and increases social responsibility, purpose, and relationship with coaches.

Sport, in combination with character-development components, was meaningful for positive youth development.

Original Research Citation:

Blom, L. C., Bronk, K. C., Sullivan, M., McConchie, J., Ballesteros, J., & Farello, A. (2020). Peace and development indicators in Liberia youth through sport for development programming. Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology. Advance online publication.

WHO’s “Conceptual Framework for Action on the Social Determinants of Health” – A Synopsis

In 2007, the World Health Organization released a seminal paper entitled, “A Conceptual Framework for Action on the Social Determinants of Health.” The original 79 page document can be viewed at this link. My own synopsis of the paper follows.

The previous paradigm of improving health was a strictly biomedical health model. Stakeholders and medical leaders erroneously believed that improvements in medical care alone would generate major gains in population. This paradigm assumed, for example, that scientific improvements in surgeries or medicine would make all of a population healthier. However, this strictly biomedical health paradigm has been debunked.

Instead, the World Health Organization (WHO) presented A Conceptual Framework for Action on the Social Determinants of Health. As presented by the framework, various social, economic, and political mechanisms give rise to individuals’ socioeconomic positions. In other words, populations of people are divided by income, education, gender, and ethnicity. These hierarchical socioeconomic positions in turn directly affect people’s specific determinants of health status (also known as the intermediary determinants of health). Social determinants of health can be defined as the structural social stratification mechanisms, institutions, and processes – which are in turn embedded in socioeconomic and political context.

An individual can be more exposed and vulnerable to health-compromising conditions as a direct result of his or her socioeconomic position. For example, a migrant farm worker from Mexico can potentially be more exposed to the harmful effects of pesticides. Or perhaps a Vietnamese American woman who provides manicures and pedicures is more exposed to the hazardous chemicals found in glues, nail polishes, and nail polish removers.

The guiding principle of the WHO Social Determinants of Health framework is health equity. The term health equity can be defined as the absence of unfair and avoidable differences in health among groups of people. The first element of the WHO Social Determinants of Health framework is the socioeconomic political context; this refers to a spectrum of societal factors that are immeasurable at the individual level. These are the broader structural, cultural, and functional aspects of a social system. They have powerful influences on one’s hierarchical position in society and, as a result of this position, one’s health. 

The second element of the WHO Social Determinants of Health framework are the structural determinants and the resulting socioeconomic positions. Socioeconomic positions can be measured at three levels: the individual level, the household level, and the neighborhood level. Structural determinants generate or reinforce social hierarchies in the society. They can also define individual socio-economic position. These include elements such as income, education, occupation, social class, gender, and ethnicity.

Finally, the third element of the framework recognizes that these structural determinants operate through intermediary social factors – also known as the social determinants of health. The WHO purposefully chose the vocabulary of “structural determinants” and “intermediary determinants,” because they wish to underscore the causal effects of the structural factors. In other words, if the model only focused on the intermediary determinants, then it would fail to consider the root causes. These root causes are the structural determinants. According to WHO, intermediary determinants can be material, psychosocial, or behavioral and biological. Examples of these material determinants are housing, neighborhood, work environment, as well as money to purchase food and warm clothes. Examples of the psychosocial determinants can include stressful living circumstances or social isolation. Examples of behavioral and biological factors include nutrition, physical activity, alcohol, smoking, and genetics. 

The WHO Social Determinants of Health framework makes it a point to explicitly state that the health care system itself can be considered a social determinant of health. Not everyone has equitable access to healthcare. Moreover, the WHO Social Determinants of Health framework also incorporates a feedback loop. The model recognizes that illness can feedback on, or directly affect, an individual’s social position. For example, if a person becomes very ill, he may lose his job, and as a result lose health insurance. Hence, this directly feedbacks and affects how this person can cope and treat his illness. Another type of feedback involves how pandemics can feedback and change the influence of social, economic, and political institutions.  

According to the WHO Social Determinants of Health framework, there are three key strategic directions to ensure that policy to adequately addresses Social Determinants of Health. These helpful strategies suggests that we (1) address the context, (2) encourage intersectional action, and (3) enable social participation and empowerment. In conclusion, positive changes can be strategically be made to address social determinants of health – including the participation and empowerment of community members.