Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 2011, 8(Suppl 1), S32-S39
© 2011 Human Kinetics, Inc.
The authors are with the Dept of Parks, Recreation, and Tour-
ism Management and faculty fellows of IPARC, North Carolina
State University, Raleigh, NC.
“Just Let Me Play!”—Understanding Constraints That Limit
Adolescent Sport Participation
Jonathan M. Casper, Jason N. Bocarro, Michael A. Kanters, and Myron F. Floyd
Background: Organized sport is viewed as a viable medium for promoting more physical activity among
youth. However, participation in youth sport declines significantly among both boys and girls during their
middle school years. This study examined middle school students’ perceived constraints to sport participation.
Methods: Middle school students from 4 schools (6th–8th grade, N = 2465) completed a web based survey
(97.3% response rate). Descriptive analysis, t tests, and ANOVA were used to assess extent of perceived
constraints and differences among demographic and sport participation level subgroups. Results: The most
salient constraint perceived by respondents was time, while knowledge was perceived as the lowest among the
overall sample. Significant (P < .01) differences in perceived constraints were found among all comparisons
groups. Girls, Latinos, lower SES students, and students who did not play sports reported more constraints
than respective comparisons groups. Discussion: The sociodemographic characteristics of middle school
students appear to be a significant factor in their perception of constraints to sport participation. Identifying
constraints associated with sport participation can enable policy-makers and administrators to be more delib-
erate in channeling resources.
Keywords: barriers, youth, middle schools
Most children and adolescents do not get recom-
mended levels of daily physical activity,1 particularly
girls2 and members of ethnic populations.3 Adolescence
marks a period of significant decline in physical activity.
Similarly, participation in sport declines significantly
among both boys and girls during their middle school
years. Because physical inactivity is a risk factor for
obesity and related chronic diseases in childhood and
later life, considerable research attention now focuses on
evidence-based strategies to create policies and environ-
ments that encourage activity.
Organized sport is viewed as a viable medium for
promoting more physical activity among youth. Sport
participation increases LTPA among children and adoles-
cents.4,5 This includes populations at risk for lower levels
of PA such as rural children6 and adolescent females.7 In
addition, studies indicate that children involved in sport
spend less time in sedentary behaviors like watching tele-
vision and playing video games than nonparticipants.4,8
Youth sport participation may also yield long term ben-
efits such as adult LTPA participation,9–13 lower adult
BMI,14 and positive attitudes toward sport participation
Given the immediate and long-term benefits of physi-
cal activity through youth sport, identifying constraints
that limit participation is an important research need.
Understanding these constraints could help explain the
large decline in youth sport participation and overall
LTPA among both boys and girls during middle school
years.16,17 This study focused on perceived constraints
to sport participation among middle school students.
Constraints research is a subfield within leisure studies
that investigates factors perceived by individuals that limit
leisure preferences and/or inhibit participation.18 Insights
from constraints research can inform practitioners and
policy makers in their efforts to intervene against inac-
tive leisure patterns and create environments supportive
of active leisure patterns. Current theory posits that
constraints operate hierarchically on 3 levels: intraper-
sonal, interpersonal, and structural.19 Intrapersonal con-
straints refer to psychological states and attributes such
as perceived skill, abilities, and attitudes. Interpersonal
constraints arise from interactions with peers, friends and
family and potential coparticipants. Structural constraints
are externally imposed barriers that intervene between
preference and participation such as unavailability of
resources required to participate (eg, money, time, prob-
lems with facilities, and social/geographical isolation).
Current theory also holds that individuals can negotiate
perceived constraints using various coping strategies and/
or available resources.20
One of the most comprehensive reviews of published
studies on children’s physical activity showed that per-
ceived barriers are the most consistent negative psycho-
logical correlate of physical activity among children.21
Constraints to Adolescent Sport Participation S33
Some of the primary barriers reported in the few studies
examining middle school children’s PA youth include:
lack of time,22,23 being too tired,24 being unmotivated,22,25
lack of facilities and equipment,22 and a perceived lack
of skill or confidence.26 Furthermore, environmental
barriers related to safety, proximity, cost, and facilities
were more evident among middle school children living
in low socioeconomic status (SES) areas.26 However,
quantitative studies on barriers to PA among middle
school students are lacking.24 In addition, the majority of
studies examining physical activity barriers were focused
on girls22 resulting in a lack of comparative analyses
involving both boys and girls.24
To date, little research has examined sport and
physical activity participation among adolescents in
middle school grades.27,28 This oversight is particularly
troubling since sport drop out and increased levels of
physical inactivity are prevalent among adolescents.29,30
Although studies of PA among children have examined
barriers, we found no studies that focused on how per-
ceived constraints differ across gender, grade level, eth-
nicity/race and SES among middle school aged students.
Furthermore, given the potential of sport to positively
impact children’s PA level, an examination of constraints
to sport participation is warranted. The purpose of the
current study was to examine the perceived constraints
to sport participation among middle school students. The
following research questions were addressed: (1) What
are the most (and least) important reported constraints
overall? (2) What is the relationship between perceived
constraints and prior sport participation? (3) How do
perceived constraints differ across sociodemographic
groups (gender, grade, ethnicity, SES)?
The data collection procedures were approved by the
Institutional Review Board at the researchers’ university
and the County school board’s Evaluation and Research
Department. Data were obtained through an online
survey administered at 4 public middle schools (grades
6–8) in a southeastern United States city. The survey was
administered in early September about 2 weeks into the
traditional school year. Each school provided a computer
room where surveys were preloaded on computers. A
total of 2465 (response rate = 97.3%I) students completed
the survey. The sample was 50% female, 33% 6th grade,
32% 7th grade, 35% 8th grade, 52% Caucasian, 36%
African American, 11% Latino, and 32% received free
or reduced-price lunch. Seven percent of the sample indi-
cated they had never played sports, 10% played sport only
in school, 15% participated in a combination of school
and community sport, and the majority of the students
(68%) played sport exclusively in the community. Sixty-
eight percent of the respondents indicated that they would
like to play sports more often. Sample sizes of the groups
are reported in Table 2.
Constraints to sport participation were assessed with 3
theoretical constraint categories derived from previous
research.19,20 Specifically, our measure was constructed
based on previous leisure research focused on recre-
ational sport31,32 and wording was modified for youth
sports to reflect sport participation rather than general
leisure activities. The 25-item scale represented 7 con-
structs which are subsets of the 3 theoretical constraint
dimensions: intrapersonal (interest, knowledge, and psy-
chological), interpersonal (social support/partners), and
structural constraints (accessibility, facility cleanliness,
and time) (Table 1). Respondents were asked if each of
the constraint items stopped them from playing more
sports. Each item was measured on a 5-point Likert-type
scale indicating level of agreement (1 = not at all; 2 =
not really; 3 = sometimes; 4 = most of the time; 5 = all
the time). Past constraints research has found acceptable
reliability and validity of the constructs relating to sport
participation31,32 and in other leisure settings.33,34
Demographic measures included age (years), gender,
grade level, race, and self-reported free or reduced-price
lunch (socioeconomic status (SES) indicator). Sport par-
ticipation categories were created based on respondents’
responses to the following 3 past participation items: (1)
playing sport previously (“have you ever played sports
before?”), (2) if they played school sponsored sport and
what school sport programming was offered (varsity or
intramural), and (3) if/where they played sport outside
of school (we termed this community sport). Based on
those responses, 6 participation categories were created:
(1) nonsport, (2) intramural sports, (3) varsity sports, (4)
intramural and community sport, (5) varsity and com-
munity sport, and (6) community sport.
Item wording, variable means, standard deviations, and
internal reliabilities of the constraint constructs used
are shown in Table 1. Individual items were averaged to
create a construct total. Internal consistency of the con-
structs was within acceptable limits with alphas ranging
from .69 to .78.35,36 Multivariate tests of means found that
ratings of the constraints constructs were significantly
different (Hotelling T2 = 891.57; F[6, 2540] = 148.31;
P > F = 0.000). Univariate tests of means found 15 of
the 21 construct pairs to be significantly different (P <
.001). Descriptive analysis of the construct means for
the adolescent sample found that time constraints were
rated highest while partners and facility issues were the
next highest reported constraints. Accessibility was the
fourth highest constraint followed by psychological con-
straints. Interest in sports and knowledge were the lowest
constraint constructs across the entire sample.
Analysis of variance (ANOVA) and t tests were used
to examine sociodemographic group differences among
each of the constructs that comprised the constraints
measure. Tukey post hoc tests were used to determine
S34 Casper et al
which constraint constructs differed within individual
groups. A Bonferroni correction was applied to control
for groupwise error. Table 2 includes the mean scores and
significance testing results of the constraint constructs for
each of the comparison groups. There were significant (P
< .01) differences between all sociodemographic groups.
Girls rated accessibility (t = 3.03, P = .002, Cohen’s d
= .12), knowledge (t = 3.46. P = .001, Cohen’s d = .14),
partners (t = 3.53, P < .001, Cohen’s d = .14), and psycho-
logical (t = 5.00, P < .001, Cohen’s d = .14) constraints
higher than boys. No differences were found for facilities,
interest, and time constraints.
Only 1 difference was found in a grade-by-grade com-
parison of perceived constraints. Seventh grade students
reported significantly lower facility constraints than 6th
and 8th grade students (F = 4.95, P = .007, Cohen’s d = .20).
Latinos generally had higher perceived constraints than
Caucasian or African American participants. Latinos
reported significantly higher accessibility (F = 20.12, P
< .001, Cohen’s d = .54 Caucasian, .17 African Ameri-
can), knowledge (F = 13.11, P < .001, Cohen’s d = .58
for Caucasian, .32 African American), and partners
Table 1 Items, Descriptive Statistics, and Internal Reliability of the Constraint Variable Constructs
There are no sports near my home
I do not have transportation to get to sport opportunities
I cannot afford the money to play sports
I am not interested in playing sports
I played sports in the past and did not like them
I do not like the sport activities offered
The sport facilities are poor quality
The sport facilities are not good enough
The sport facilities are crowded
I do not know where to participate
I do not have anyone to teach me sports
I do not know where I can learn sports
My friends do not like to play sports
I do not have anybody to play sports with
It is difficult to find others to play sports with
Sports make me feel tired
I do not feel confident enough to play sports
I am afraid of getting hurt in sports
I am not fit enough to play sports
I am not skilled enough to play sports
I am too busy with my school work
I am too busy with family
I am too busy with friends
I do not want to interrupt my daily schedule
The times to play sports do not fit in with my life
1.59 (.91) 0.69
1.61 (.70) 0.74
1.99 (.72) 0.71
Table 2 Means, Standard Deviations, and Statistical Differences for Each Constraint Construct According to Socio-Demographic
No free/reduced lunch
Free reduced lunch
Prior sport participation
Intramural and community
Varsity and community
a, b, c Denote groups that were significantly different (P < .01) from each other.
S36 Casper et al
(F = 6.15, P < .001, Cohen’s d = .30 Caucasian, .29
African American) constraints compared with Caucasian
and African Americans who did not significantly differ in
these constructs. Latinos were also found to view facility
(F = 8.04, P < .001, Cohen’s d = .40) and psychological
(F = 6.80, P < .001, Cohen’s d = .32) constraints higher
than Caucasian students. No significant differences based
on ethnicity were found for interest or time constraints.
Respondents from more affluent families (no free or
reduced lunch) generally reported lower constraints than
respondents from low-income households. Significant
differences were found for accessibility (t = 10.03, P
< .001, Cohen’s d = .40), facilities (t = 4.12, P < .001,
Cohen’s d = .16), knowledge (t = 7.89, P < .001, Cohen’s
d = .31), partners (t = 3.51, P < .001, Cohen’s d = .14)
and psychological (t = 3.84, P = .001, Cohen’s d = .15)
constructs. No differences were found for interest or time.
A comparison between nonsport participants and those
who previously participated in sport showed that nonsport
participants reported significantly higher constraints (P
< .008) for all constructs. Post hoc analysis of the 6 par-
ticipation categories revealed several noteworthy trends.
First, there was significant variation in the importance
of constraints for each prior sport participation category
(F values ranging between 6.13–24.75; all p-values
<.001, Cohen’s d between .23–1.20). Second, in all
cases, respondents who participated in either community
sport or a combination of community and school sport
reported significantly lower constraints compared with
nonsport, intramural-only, and varsity-only participants.
In addition, respondents who participated in both varsity
and community sport reported significantly lower con-
straints than all other respondents for facilities, interest,
and psychological constraints. Finally, there were no
significant differences between nonsport respondents and
school sport-only respondents. Therefore, participation in
community sport appears to be a significant influence on
perceptions of constraints across all constructs.
Organized sport can facilitate physical activity among
children and adolescents. Our findings indicate that
there are significant differences in constraints to sport
participation among subgroups of middle school students.
Specifically, the sociodemographic characteristics of
middle school students appear to be a significant factor
in their perception of constraints to sport participation.
These differences have implications for sport program-
ming, policies related to youth sport and physical activity,
and sport in the context of community.
Consistent with other constraint studies, time was
viewed as the most salient barrier to sport participation.
Time, as a constraint to participation, has multiple
meanings, and varies across cultures and by individu-
als.37 While 2 individuals may have equal time commit-
ments, one may view time constraints as more pressing
than another. Previous research has found time to be
an important constraint across age groups and activity
types.31,33,38,39 A majority of respondents had previously
played sports indicating that most students had at least
partially negotiated time constraints. Furthermore, non-
sport participants reported the highest time constraints
suggesting that the decision to participate in sport may
reflect an inability to negotiate time constraints.
The availability of partners was the second highest
constraint. Sport is often a social experience40 involv-
ing coparticipants. Peer influence among adolescents is
particularly important41 and can either hinder or promote
participation in different leisure activities. The third
highest constraint to sport participation was the quality
or crowdedness of available facilities. Physical activity,
especially for children and adolescents, has been posi-
tively associated with accessible and convenient facili-
ties.42,43 Therefore the accessibility, construction, and
maintenance of facilities serve as important factors to
reducing constraints. Knowledge was rated as the weakest
constraint and may have been influenced by the nature of
the community environment in which the participating
schools are located. The community is predominantly
urban and sport opportunities are widely promoted and
available to middle school children (in school, after
school, and within the community).
An unanticipated and potentially policy relevant
finding from this study was that children who played a
combination of school and community sport reported
the lowest perceived constraints to participation in sport.
While nonparticipants reported the highest constraints
overall, significant differences were only found between
those not playing sports or only school sport with those
playing community sport or school and community sport
at the same time. Having access to a combination of
community-based sport (including places for informal
sport participation) and school sport was also associated
with higher levels of participation. This suggests that
opportunities for community sport participation, whether
through informal play or organized sport leagues may
minimize barriers for adolescent sport participation.
Community sport opportunities may also contribute
to lower perceived constraints among adolescents. For
example, unlike the traditional model of school sports,
community based organized sports tend to offer a wider
range of skill levels, more organized opportunities or
places to play, and more opportunities for practice and
Our results also show that with the exception of
interest and facility quality, girls rated constraints sig-
nificantly higher than boys. The schools that participated
in this study had equal participation in sports (equivalent
percentages of male and female participants) and there
were no major differences in the numbers of boys who
played sport outside of school than girls. Therefore, while
Constraints to Adolescent Sport Participation S37
opportunities may be equal, the girls in this study viewed
constraints as more of a limiting factor toward continued
participation. This may be partially explained by the
notion that girls are perceived to have more restrictions
due to household tasks and family responsibility,44 lower
confidence and self-esteem in physical activity/sport
activities45,46 and less social approval.47
We also found that the lower SES group perceived
higher constraints for all constructs except time and inter-
est. Raymore, Godbey, and Crawford found that lower
SES high school-aged adolescents experienced interper-
sonal constraints (partners) more than upper SES groups,
but found no differences for intrapersonal or structural
constraints.39 While there has been little research compar-
ing SES and constraints, the results of this study suggest
that structural constraints such as accessibility in the
form of transportation support for either community
or school based sports could have a significant impact
on sport participation (ie, late buses, or coordinated car
pooling). Furthermore, children from lower SES back-
grounds are more likely to live in neighborhoods where
there are either a lack of facilities or facilities that are of
substandard quality.48 Higher intrapersonal constraints
such as psychological barriers may be due to a lower
self-competence resulting from less or poor coaching,
poorer quality programming or fewer opportunities to
be involved in programs that explore different sports or
develop sport ability.49–51
Similar to SES, race/ethnic comparisons resulted in
differences for all constructs except interest and time.
While there was little differentiation between Caucasian
and African American respondents, Latino middle school
students’ constraint perceptions were significantly higher.
This could have important ramifications in view of their
general health status. For example, Latino youth have
the highest prevalence of overweight and Type 2 diabe-
tes in the United States.52 Our findings show that Latino
participation in both school and community sport may
be limited by a combination of structural, interpersonal,
and intrapersonal constraints. These findings suggest
that it may be important for school and community sport
organizations to target Latino groups to help reduce con-
straints to sport participation. While additional research
is needed to specify the exact nature of the constraints
perceived by Latino youth, general strategies might
include providing transportation to facilities or locating
sport facilities closer to their communities. Programs
might focus more on communications tailored for the
Latino culture and Spanish language to inform parents
about sport opportunities and associated benefits. Lastly,
programming could include encouraging friends to sign-
up together and afford more social opportunities to lessen
Finally, the fact that more than two-thirds of the
students in this study wanted to play sport more often sug-
gests that current barriers may be a major factor restrict-
ing initial and/or continued participation in sport. A pos-
sible explanation for this finding is that before 1980, the
majority of youth sport programs were publicly-funded
and neighborhood-based, enabling children to partici-
pate without extensive parental involvement or financial
resources.53 However, as youth sport programs became
increasingly entrepreneurial and privatized, social
equity became less important in decisions about leisure
resources and services. Thus, participation in youth sports
has become increasingly dependent on school-based pro-
grams or limited to those with the ability to pay.54 This
is consistent with our finding that students from affluent
households (ie, no free or reduced lunch) perceived few
constraints to sport participation. For example constructs
such as accessibility, which includes opportunities and
costs, were more significant factors for females, minori-
ties, and low SES students.Overall, this study contributes
new knowledge on children and youth by documenting
some of the primary constraints to sport participation
among middle school students. While previous studies
on middle school students have examined barriers based
upon gender22,24 or SES,26 this is the first large sample
study—to our knowledge—that examined PA barriers/
constraints with multiple sociodemographic constructs
(eg, gender, race/ethnicity, SES, grade level).
Three primary limitations should be acknowledged
when interpreting the results. First, the constraints used in
this study were not exhaustive, so additional constraints
could be explored. Second, while we did ask about prior
sport participation, including activities in and outside of
school, we did not assess nonsport extracurricular activi-
ties (eg, clubs, drama, family obligations) which may
relate to the constructs in this study, especially time con-
straints. Finally, with our sample consisting of students
at middle schools in 1 county in a Southeastern state, the
generalizability of our findings may be limited. Other
researchers are encouraged to explore constraints beyond
those suggested by Crawford and Jackson.20 Future stud-
ies should also consider the influence of nonsport leisure
activities that compete for the attention of this age group.
We also encourage other researchers to examine percep-
tions of constraints in other geographic regions.
However, through identifying specific constraints
associated with sport participation this study may enable
policy-makers and administrators to be more deliberate
in channeling action and resources toward reducing con-
straints that limit youth sport participation. For example,
developing and expanding partnerships and joint-use
agreements could enhance access to more physical
activity resources creating more opportunities for physi-
cal activity through sport and improving accessibility.
In addition, more concerted and coordinated efforts to
market, inform, and reach out to nonsport participants
particularly groups at greater risk for inactivity and obe-
sity (eg, Latinos) merit consideration.
This research was funded by Active Living Research, The
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
S38 Casper et al
[Total school population – (absent students on day of survey +
students who opted out)] ÷ total school population.
The response rate was calculated by the following formula:
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