Disc Golf and the Robin Hood Effect on Public Health

By Kristian Vernegaard ~

Nick Buysse (beside R. Hood) takes aim at the Seth Burton Memorial Disc Golf Complex in Fairmont, West Virginia. Photo by Jesse Wright.

Hearing the name Robin Hood, you might think of Russel Crowe, Kevin Costner, or an anthropomorphic fox. But thanks to a recent study by Vernegaard, Johansen and Haugen, you can now associate Robin Hood with disc golf as well.[1]

Vernegaard, Johansen and Haugen surveyed the attitudes of 637 school kids toward physical education—aka gym class. Next, they exposed the kids to a disc golf lesson and a soccer lesson. After each activity, they measured the students’ attitudes again.

In their analysis, the researchers separated the students into three groups based on their attitudes toward gym class: negative, medium and positive attitudes toward gym. Not surprisingly, students with negative attitudes toward gym reported the lowest levels of intrinsic motivation to participate in gym.

However, when the researchers exposed these students to a disc golf lesson, their levels of intrinsic motivation rose significantly. In fact, those who disliked gym were more intrinsically motivated to participate in disc golf than both soccer and gym.

Meanwhile, the students with positive attitudes toward gym experienced reduced intrinsic motivation in the disc golf condition, even though they were still the richest in terms of intrinsic motivation in all three conditions (gym, soccer and disc golf). In short, when gym teachers incorporate disc golf in their lesson plans, they may boost reluctant athletes’ motivation to exercise, while robbing motivation from gym-class enthusiasts.

Ergo, the Robin Hood effect of disc golf.

The study by Vernegaard, Johansen and Haugen did not identify the causal mechanism behind the Robin Hood effect, but did suggest an explanation involving the lifestyle aspect of disc golf. Several scholars classify disc golf as a lifestyle sport and argue that its culture differs from that of traditional sports like soccer.[2] Developed during the countercultural social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, lifestyle sports are typically more adventurous, creative, expressive and spontaneous than traditional sports. For some, lifestyle sports, including disc golf, are more akin to “play” than “competition,” as discussed previously in Parked.

Disc golf’s cultural distinctiveness is seen most clearly in the “Spirit of the Game.” Although it does not represent the beliefs of all disc golfers, Spirit is an ethos that prioritizes the simple joy of throwing discs, the importance of fairness on the course, friendship between players and calm interaction. It also discourages the win-at-all-cost attitude that often pervades competitive events.

Spirit is promoted by several disc golf organizations and associations, such as the Professional Disc Golf Association and the World Flying Disc Federation, as well as top organizers like Steve Dodge.

In Vernegaard, Johansen and Haugen’s study, the teacher of the disc golf lesson emphasized the mutual respect between players and the joy of playing. It is possible that disc golf’s alternative ideological orientation explains why non-athletes experienced a greater increase in intrinsic motivation to participate than students with traditional attitudes toward sports.

The key takeaway from the study is that disc golf attracts a wide variety of participants—people with diverse physical abilities and ideological predilections. For this reason, public health officials may see disc golf as a public health gold mine.

Plenty of research has shown that intrinsically rewarding activities are more likely to be performed again.[3] If disc golf inspires intrinsic motivation to exercise in people who would otherwise remain inactive, then disc golf can help cure the nation’s health problems. Inactivity has been linked to a range of aliments, including obesity,[4] coronary heart disease,[5] diabetes,[6] and osteoporosis.[7]

Promoting disc golf as a public health intervention could lead to more funding for disc golf course construction and maintenance. More high-quality disc golf courses would further the interests of all disc golfers, regardless of whether they see it as a lifestyle activity or a competitive sport.


Kristian Vernegaard

Kristian Vernegaard, faculty in the Health and Sports Sciences department at the University of Agder, Norway, is first author of the study discussed above (“Students’ motivation in a disc golf-lesson and a soccer-lesson”). The complete article is available here.



Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.

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[1] Vernegaard, K., Johansen, B.T. and Haugen, T. (2017). Students’ motivation in a disc golf-lesson and a soccer-lesson: An experimental study in the Physical Education setting. Journal for Research in Arts and Sports Education, 1(3): 32-46.

[2] Plansky, M. G. (2013). Disc Golf Course Design: Inscribing Lifestyle into Underutilized Landscapes, Quality Landscape Architectural Press.

[3] Pelletier, L.G., Fortier, M.S., Vallerand, R.J., and Briere, N.M. (2001). Associations among perceived autonomy support, forms of self-regulation, and persistence: A prospective study. Motivation and emotion 25(4): 279-306.

[4] Wickelgren, I. (1998). Obesity: how big a problem? Science 280(5368): 1364-1367.

[5] Lavie, C.J., Thomas, R.J., Squires, R.W., Allison, T.G., and Milani, R.V. (2009). Exercise training and cardiac rehabilitation in primary and secondary prevention of coronary heart disease. In Mayo Clinic Proceedings 84(4): 373-383.

[6] Sigal, R.J., Kenny, G.P., Wasserman, D.H., Castaneda-Sceppa, C., and White, R.D. (2006). Physical activity/exercise and Type 2 diabetes: A consensus statement from the American Diabetes Association. Diabetes Care, 29(6): 1433-1438.

[7] Nordström A., Tervo, T., and Högström, M. (2011) The effect of physical activity on bone accrual, osteoporosis and fracture prevention. Open Bone Journal, 3: 11-21.

4 thoughts on “Disc Golf and the Robin Hood Effect on Public Health

  1. Just discovering this blog, and I’m pleased . . . but cautiously optimistic about whether any platform, blog or website or social media page can make tournament players truly embrace the idea of attracting new players to the sport that are outside the stereotypical demographic if regular disc golfers. I’m trying to form a new club to boost beginnership and a nine-holer to attract kids and seniors and give them some fun holes to hone their skills on. Going outside the typical fee-based membership model for the club, and beyond the idea that only through competitions can financial assistance for equipment and maintenance be acquired we are looking to turn the traditional model for funding upside down. Involving schools, youth groups and senior associations I believe we can be successful and hold our parties under a bigger tent. There’s nothing wrong with college educated while middle class and middle aged men – I happen to be one myself – but wouldn’t our sport be benefit from greater diversity?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great point Sydney. The PDGA Women’s Committee is doing some great work on encouraging more participation among women, though the emphasis may be on the competitive side of disc golf. In general, there is not a whole lot of discussion of diversity in the disc golf community. How much do we have? How can we encourage more people from outside the mainstream demographic (white, male, suburban/rural, 25-45) to play? We need more answers. If you have some ideas, maybe you’d like to write them up for Parked (follow the “call for contributors” link above). I’d also suggest the 3DiscGolf group on Facebook. They have many enthusiastic people who are happy to share their views.


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