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Building Social Capital through College Soccer


The purpose of this study is to examine the meaning and reason that individuals play college soccer, by taking the experience into account of six different men and women who play college soccer in the southeastern Wisconsin area. This article will demonstrate how social capital, a concept created by Robert Putnam, is viewed as an essential aspect of the game. Through this study, one can learn that soccer is more than just a game, through the experiences recorded and other past knowledge and literature this connection is made. This study shows how the benefits of soccer are more than just physical improvements. There is a substantial amount of mental benefits that are associated as well.


The focus of this study is college soccer and its effects on the individual, as well as its connection to several aspects of sociology and life. I am interested in studying the relationship that playing soccer at the college level has with personal growth and development. This research analyzes how this factor influences the individual. There is a great amount of prior research that describes the connection between sports and sociology, therefore much of this research is focused around this overarching theme. Current sport sociology ideologies are reflected and manifested throughout this research. However, this research is different because it examines specific individuals that are restricted to a specific area. It is focused on individuals in the Milwaukee area and their experiences and knowledge. The fundamental question addressed is how does playing soccer at the college level shape and develop an individual? What does it reveal about the individual?

Literature Review

Substantial evidence from past sociologists and other writers exemplify the connection between soccer and its relation to sociology and the effect on the individual. In general, most of the findings in literature allude to positive relationships and correlations between the two. Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, addresses the issue of social capital, which is a primary theme or concept that can be applied to this research. He discusses how in this day in age, there is a major decrease in social capital or exchange between people. In short, social capital is referred to as the network of connections and relationships who live in a society, which enables society to function successfully. Simply, it is about the value of social networks, bonding similar people and bridging between diverse people, with norms of reciprocity. Putnam argues in his book that social bonds are the greatest predictor of life satisfaction. Putnam is ultimately saying that by increased communications and connections with individuals, we will be able to maximize our personal satisfaction. He writes to us that in increased social interactions, there also will be a better personal benefit. In another study conducted at the University of Michigan, the following words were said to summarize the role of the social capital in sports. “From Putnam's perspective, social capital can be regarded as a public good, which serves the communities with characteristics such as social networks, civic infrastructure, social norms” (Lee, Seung Pil, T. Bettina Cornwell, and Kathy Babiak. 2013). Applying this concept that a soccer team is seen as a community or family, with each member forming individual ties and relationships with one another, one can utilize this information to appreciate the success and power as a unit that functions united. Putnam continues, “social capital matters because our networks if they are extensive enough, connect us to potential economic patterns, provide high-quality information, and vouch for us” (321). Putnam explains that by having a larger network of connections and partners, individuals will have a greater chance of improving life. In this case, he is referring to economic improvement, but it is clear and evident that this theory and way of thinking can be applied also in the world of sports, specifically through the game of soccer. Each team member experiences this social capital.

Other writers and sociologists suggest similar themes to that of Putnam, many of these writers are all in favor of the idea that practicing a sport, (in this case it is soccer) will improve the capabilities of an individual. In a study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) conducted across seven different countries in Europe, several medics and sociologists studied the relationship between physical activity and the great benefits that it gives. Throughout all of the 17,000 participants of the study, the great majority reported that there were great benefits from corporal sports and staying fit. The study concluded that “The intense contact with one’s self in nature also leads to better self-knowledge and understanding of oneself, and has a positive impact on self-esteem, self-efficacy, and self-actualization.” (Thomann et al.) Here the authors are emphasizing the importance that sports can have on an individual. Another important quote to emphasize this point is discussed through Scott Douglas’ study. He states, “This appears to occur because regular running produces the same two changes that are thought to be responsible for the effectiveness of antidepressants: increased levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, and neurogenesis, or the creation of new neurons.” (Douglas) He discusses the various benefits that are associated with participating in sports. In his study, where he analyzes the benefits of running, he makes these two benefits that stem from running and physical activity. Physical activity will improve overall your mental health. The study continues to add, “Furthermore, outdoor sports are associated with increased self-motivation and show positive effects on volitional qualities, assertion and inner strength, endeavor and readiness to face challenges.” (Douglas) As supported by the findings in this medical study, there are many qualities that individuals can aim to increase and enhance in themselves by practicing specific sports.

Finally, a third author suggests other findings that are related to sports are visible through the work of Tim Delaney, in his book, The Sociology of Sport. Delaney addresses many issues that are intertwined and connected to sports, however the overarching theme that is present in his literature is the benefits that sports can provide for people. To dive deeper into detail, Delaney and Madigan present the associated sociological benefits that are present in practicing a sport. Delaney writes in regards to the connection between sports and socialization, “At the micro-level, the socialization process also enables an individual an opportunity to acquire a personal identity wherein he or she learns the norms, values, behavioral expectations, and social skills appropriate to his or her own social position.” (Delaney, Madigan 95) In the previous passage, the authors are emphasizing that through sports, a process of socialization will occur. In this, the individual (athlete) discovers their identity and role as a teammate. This process of socialization is important because, on a team, everyone has a specific role that they all need to follow. Additionally, by having a higher level of socialization, Delaney continues to write that, “Throughout time, people have derived much of their identity and sense of self from groups to which they have a membership. Identity involves those aspects of one's life that are deemed essential to the character and maintenance of self.” (Delaney 99) Through the development of his argument on socialization and the impact that it has on sport, a simple deduction can be made. Sports that serve as membership or separate communities, enables an individual the potential to explore and determine their identity by analyzing their separate role and how it helps the whole collective group or team. Although these authors do not write specifically about soccer, the concepts can readily be applied.


The primary method of qualitative research employed was through interviews. Concise and exact data collected from these qualitative interviews were extracted in pursuit of the research question. Six interviews from individuals who attend two different schools, four students who attended Marquette University, Saul, Larry, Doug, and Mark and Andrew and Nancy attended Cardinal Stritch University. Subject names have been changed to maintain anonymity. Five of the subjects were male and one female. Interviews were conducted with consent and confidentiality by phone, email, texting, and face-to-face. Interviews were recorded while field notes were taken and later transcribed for detailed analysis.


Three themes emerged from the data: organization, strong work ethic, and leadership skills. All of the interviewees had several different themes or codes in common between them.

1. Organization

Upon interviewing the six different participants in the study, while coding the interviews, the ability and skill to be organized and prepared for whatever obstacle the individual has to surpass and overcome surfaced. This theme was one of the most prominent and prevalent themes that were extracted. All six interviewees had much to say about their lifestyle in reference to the organization. All participants believed and had similar opinions regarding their organized and methodical daily routine. Nancy stated:

During preseason. I wake up early. Eat a light and healthy breakfast. Arrive at training a good 30-40 minutes before that way we can get our training gear on and get out on the pitch to get some touches on the ball and stretch. After training, stretch again, hydrate and get another meal in. I would probably take a nap and again wake up about an hour before the next training session. During preseason we usually had 2 training sessions, sometimes even three. Then repeat the process and go to sleep early because I know we have early training session the next day.

The activities that Nancy partakes in on a daily basis are very methodical and scheduled, there is a clear sense of discipline and dedication to her activities. Concurrently, Andrew also had a very similar experience to that of Nancy in that he also had a daily routine strictly followed. He said:

During school, a typical day as an athlete would be waking up early, eating a good healthy breakfast, going to class all day, eating a healthy lunch, and once classes were over, we would have a training session. Once the training session was done, we would stretch and hydrate. After that we would then have enough time to finish our homework. I would usually just stay at school to do homework after because I know that is where I concentrate the most.

From the preceding quotes, individuals who attended and played at Cardinal Stritch had similar patterns analyzed within the data. Their responses demonstrate that being organized and methodical with routines can bring great amounts of personal growth and enhancement.

At Marquette University the daily routine was like the routines and schedules of those who played at Cardinal Stritch. The two players, Larry and Saul were very intriguing interviews as the two players came from completely different backgrounds. When interviewing Saul, the similarities with the past interviews that I conducted were striking. Saul described his typical day:

My typical day as an athlete starts off with breakfast in the morning, then go to class until. Once class is done, I will go to the soccer locker room and get ready for training, including rolling out, stretching and any physio treatment needed. I have training which is at 12:00pm or 12:30pm. From there I will either have to lift in the gym or will go to class again. Later on in the day I tend to socialize with friends, go to my tutoring appointments or complete any other school work that I have set.

Likewise, Larry had similar experiences, even as he was the captain of the team for two years. He perhaps faced an even more disciplined and orderly routine, having more responsibility for the other members of the team, he stated:

My days are pretty routine. Right now, I wake up and get something to eat, before I head to class. After class, I try and have a small meal before practice starts at 12:30. After practice, I head to the gym for a lift. Some days I would have class after this, but most days, I go home and relax for a bit. I usually spend the rest of the night making dinner and doing homework.

Finally, the last set of players that were interviewed were those that had played previously with the Marquette soccer team. Doug was an active member of the program and his routine exposes organization as a vital component to his identity. He said:

During our actual season, our days are very busy. The usual practice day began with eating breakfast at about 8am. Then a combination of classes/breaks/studying/lunch from 9am-2pm. Practice began at 4pm, but we would have to report by 3pm for rehab in the training room, film, etc. Practice ended at 6pm, and we would then head back up to campus to shower, get ice, etc. At 7pm I would have dinner, and then do homework from 8pm to about 11pm.

Mark, also a graduate from Marquette, had some organized structure to his daily routine.

I usually wake up and go get treatment and physically prepare for practice for an hour. Then, go down to practice and usually it’s all jokes with me until after the warm-up. Practice for two hours and get up to shower and get to class. In between class get a quick lunch. After class get another workout in or go down to the field and do some ball work. Get dinner and usually do a bit of homework and sleep it’s like this every day during the week. It is very easy to get behind in school and soccer if you’re not on top of your stuff.

Throughout his career Mark experienced several injuries, an important aspect of his preparation is to physically and mentally be prepared for the training sessions and daily routine. All six players demonstrated that in order to play at a high-level one needs to be very organized. Their collective discipline allows them to develop and define their identity as successful members and ambassadors through sports of their respective schools.

2. Strong Work Ethic

Another code or theme that surfaced was resilience and a hard work ethic. All these athletes’ hard work and dedication of time to playing the sport. Not only are they working hard to improve their skills on the field as soccer players but they are also working hard day to day improving themselves. They are constantly growing and developing. At Cardinal Stritch through both the men and women teams, both Andrew and Nancy’s experience on the team was a way to practice and build important life skills and lessons. Nicole mentioned, “Some values soccer has taught me is how to treat someone with respect. It has taught me how to be more responsible not just of myself but of others.” Life values learned in soccer can be applied to other aspects of one’s life. Andrew has used soccer to his advantage. Playing the game he was able to acquire many important lessons that he will keep close to himself. Andrew said, “Some values soccer has taught me is to never stop giving it your all until the game is finished. And without defeat, winning does not seem all that great. People must go through lows so that when the highs come around, it seems as if all the time and effort you put in was worth it.” Andrew found soccer not only to practice a physical sport, but he can also clearly take away many important life lessons that he keeps very close to him. They both have many tasks to complete with their busy schedule, and the best way to address this is with a motivation to succeed and be scrupulous in what they do.

Similar findings were discovered in the interviews with players that currently attended Marquette University. Players interviewed alluded to components and ideas closely related to having a strong work ethic. Larry stated, “I believe the game has taught me many values, including friendship, honesty, and the desire to never give up. Another member of the team, Saul had specific ideas and thoughts about the lessons and impact the game has had on the specific individual. Saul said, “It has taught me to be appreciative of every day, every chance I get to play the sport, put on a pair of cleats and play every day. Also, taught me to work hard in everything I do. To be punctual, respecting, engaged and motivated every day. Also, it has taught me that if I work hard enough then I can create whatever vision I have.” These ideas that Saul gets from playing soccer can greatly impact his life and overall well being as an individual. By being motivated and driven to pursue whatever goal is being in pursuit. The lessons and skills that he learned can be applied to life situations that occur off the soccer field.

Doug, having a lot of experience playing the game growing up throughout his life, has made it always a priority and something to hold as important. Playing soccer has always been an outlet for him and a place to explore his identity and persona. He states, “I have experienced many different values through the game in my 15 years, some of the most significant include, strong work ethic, teamwork, leadership, relationship-building, dealing with failure, communication.”

3. Leadership

The last theme or code that was extracted from the findings was individuals developed a great sense of leadership and strength. This theme was present throughout all six different participants in the study. Doug mentioned, “Soccer really helped me develop as a leader. I have had many coaches who have aided this development, and I have been around other teammates who have shown me how to lead.” Doug was able to discover himself as a leader and guide to success and positivity. Larry revealed he has experienced and practiced leadership by being the captain of the team. He said in the interview, “I think soccer has made a huge contribution to forming me as a leader. Specifically, for the past two years, I have been the captain of our team, and I take great pride in that. I enjoy being the guy others can rely on, and I try to do my part in making everything easier for others.” Being a captain of a soccer team demands great responsibility and strength. One is responsible and accountable for all the actions of every member of the team—the rock and foundation of the team. The captain must put the needs of himself or herself behind the needs and requirements of the team. Therefore, by being a captain for two years is evidence that Larry experienced leadership in a present and active level.

Mark, also a captain said:

It made me a leader. As a captain of the team and centerfielder you are in control of the entire game and of people. The more you play, the more people look up to you and want to learn so you kind of take the role rather than it being appointed to you. I take these similar values that I use on the field and apply them to my activities off the field in my daily interactions.

Playing in the center of the field, you have a lot of control to either press and attack forward to score a goal, or if the other team has the ball you can drop back and play in a more defensive role and style. Mark’s experience playing as a midfielder and being a captain of the team truly exemplifies his nature and background as an individual. Finally, Saul mentioned that there is a positive connection and many positive outcomes that are rooted in the game. He mentioned to me that many skills and life lessons have arisen from him in playing soccer. Saul stated:

Sport definitely does contribute to forming you as a leader. It helps you to develop leadership skills because you motivate yourself and your teammates every day and you take that responsibility. It allows you to recognize and learn what is wrong and right, which you can then pass on to anyone else, whether that be your teammate or any other individual. In sport you have your own role to fulfill and everyone is held accountable to their own role, this can then be reciprocated in everyday life.

The point that Saul made was valid and interesting. He said that in summary, our actions have consequences and we are to be held accountable for everything that we do. Sam had the privilege to learn this principle through the soccer field. It is through here that he learned the importance of a strong work ethic, and never let down.


To conclude, the experiences and identities of the participants in this study demonstrate the importance of playing soccer at a high level. The physical benefits that are associated are obviously appealing to many. High-level soccer players are always at the peak of their fitness and always training and working hard to win on and off the field. In this setting, participants all attended a university full time while playing soccer, truly demonstrating a clear formula for a “well-crafted” and strong individual for society. By closely analyzing the emerging codes, and by studying other previous literature, these participants were not simply playing the game to satisfy their personal love for the game—it was a main reason, however, there was a greater purpose. All participants saw the sport as not just a game but a true way of life. It created a culture of success where, by having the winning attitude, individuals develop life skills and grow mentally stronger.

Although this research is different from past literature, it supports many of the past findings that have been presented. There are close parallels between the literature, and the conclusions gleaned by interviewing these six men and women. The arguments that Robert Putnam writes about are closely connected with this subject, especially the themes of organization, a strong work ethic, and leadership skills. Through his concept of social capital, where social satisfaction and success are closely determined by the social connections that one has, draws close connections to these findings. Through a team network, each member works together to play as a unit and this in return yields wins and/or losses. Regardless of the outcome of the match, players measure success on how everyone performed. His concept of social capital is closely related to the behavior and actions of the participants, through their interviews.

For possible future research, there are several unanswered questions. To begin, this study is only limited to the Milwaukee/Midwest regions of the United States. Primarily, with more funding as well as other resources, this topic could expand the subjects of the research to examine college soccer athletes in different parts of the country. By only having a restricted sample size to individuals who are only in this area, the results can and may be inaccurate as it does not consider the larger greater picture if including a greater mixture and variation of data—a greater sample from different schools in different geographical locations. Another aspect could expand and provide more information is the variation of gender. To have a good balance between males and females would improve the precision of the specific research question; that is to examine the effects that playing at a college level has on an individual. College soccer developing organization, a strong work ethic, and leadership skills is a way of life where individuals are forged into legends.


Delaney, Tim, and Tim Madigan. The Sociology of Sports: An Introduction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015.

Douglas, Scott. 2018. “Therapy at Your Feet.” Runner’s World 53 (3): 78–84.

Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2007.

Thommen, Andreas, Mike McClure, Larissa Davies, Maxine Gregory, Ulrich Dettweiler, and Eduard Ingles. "Benefits of Outdoor Sports for Society. A Systematic Literature Review and Reflections on Evidence." National Center Biotechnology Info, March 15, 2019. Accessed April 18, 2019. doi:10.3897/bdj.4.e7720.figure2f.

Lee, Seung Pil, T. Bettina Cornwell, and Kathy Babiak. 2013. “Developing an Instrument to Measure the Social Impact of Sport: Social Capital, Collective Identities, Health Literacy, Weil-Being and Human Capital.” Journal of Sport Management 27 (1): 24–42.


About the author

Leonardo Konewko

Leonardo is a 22-year-old Italian-born native living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He's an ambitious student-worker, studying at Marquette University and will graduate in May of 2020 with a degree in sociology. He works in a food truck around the city and also as a Lyft driver occasionally. He's an aspiring athlete and coach who loves to watch soccer as well as other physically demanding contact sports.

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