This study examined the contribution of a recreational adult women's soccer league in rural Kenya to the development goals of enhancing social support and improving women's emotional health. We hypothesized that 1) women who participated in the soccer league would have greater perceived support from friends than their peers who did not, 2) the social nature of a team sport would contribute to self-reported lower stress and improved well-being, and 3) the adult women's soccer league would be a valuable resource in this setting where mental health services are scarce.
We used a sequential explanatory mixed methods approach to examine the relationship between social support, women's emotional health, and participation in a recreational soccer league. The study took place in 2018-19 in ten villages in southeastern Kenya near the border with Tanzania. Sport-for-development and social cognitive theories relating to social support provided the conceptual framework for the development of questions in both phases of the study and in the interpretation of findings. First, 702 members of women's health and literacy program, 229 of whom played in the program's soccer league, completed in-depth surveys administered by a field team of local women trained by the study team. A five-item scale, perceived social support from friends (PSF), measured women's access to emotional and instrumental support. Bivariate and multivariate analyses examined attributes associated with PSF. Based on these findings, 225 women who played in the recreational soccer league participated in focus group discussions (n=20). Focus-group discussions with each village team were facilitated by members of the research team who were fluent in Swahili. Women's perceptions were examined using thematic analysis.
Quantitative findings indicated that soccer league members had greater odds of reporting high social support than their non-soccer peers. Qualitative findings suggested that soccer provided a social space in which team members formed a network of friendships within and across villages, tribes, and religions. The cooperative nature of the team sport quickly supported women's forging of new friendships and created opportunities for sharing and learning. These new relationships provided emotional and instrumental support that women associated with decreased stress and improved well-being.
Conclusions and Implications:
Social support has been widely recognized for its positive effects on health and well-being. Findings from this study offer foundational evidence that recreational soccer for adult women may be an effective and simple intervention for building social support, reducing stress, and contributing to overall emotional well-being. Soccer provides a social identity for team members as well as a shared activity whose structure encourages mutual dependence and support. Given the popularity of soccer in many parts of the Global South and the low costs associated with initiating such programs in rural areas, gender-development programs should consider introducing recreational soccer activities for adult women in under-resourced settings where more complex and costly mental health initiatives may be difficult to implement and sustain.