A brief look into the psychology and sociology of disc golf.
By Josh Woods ~
The other day my seven-year-old daughter asked me, “Why do people get married?”
I gazed into her curious brown eyes, knowing that my answer would not satisfy her. “Because they want to,” I said.
“Why do they want to?” She chirped, of course.
“Because it makes them happy,” I said.
“Why does it make them happy?”
I tried to explain that people get married for different reasons, that not everyone wants to, and that the reasons for getting married usually depend on where people live, when they live, and what the people around them think about marriage.
“I’m going to be a zombie bride for Halloween,” she said. And that was that.
The Why Game
I love the why game, especially the relentless way kids play it. In this post, I’m going to play the why game with my favorite question: Why do people play disc golf?
I’ve asked dozens of disc golfers this question. Here are some common answers: “It’s so much fun.” “I like the competition.” “It’s good exercise.” “I enjoy getting outdoors.”
When pushed to explain why some people like disc golf and others do not, the conversation shifts to issues of access, affordability and community. It’s hard to make disc golf your passion when you live fifty miles from a course, when it’s pulling teeth to find a partner, or when your beloved hobby is the butt of an ongoing joke at work.
In other words, it’s not enough to like disc golf. You need access to a course, equipment, and like-minded friends. When studying behavior, psychologists refer to these predictors as attitude (“I like it”), perceived control (“I live near it”) and subjective norm (“my friends like it”) (1).
In numerous studies, these three variables have successfully predicted all kinds of behaviors, such as exercising (2), swimming, playing outdoor field sports (3), spending time at the beach, jogging, mountain climbing, boating, biking (4), attending a volleyball match (5), playing team sports and cycling (6).
For many psychologists, this is where the why game ends. Why do people play? Attitudes, norms, perceived control. Game over.
Yet, as all kids know, there’s always another question. What predicts people’s attitudes? Where do norms come from? What determines perceived control?
As illustrated in Figure 1, I’ll examine five sociological answers to these questions. Each involves the demographics of disc golfers, including gender, race, geography, socio-economic status and age.
It’s no secret: Women are hard to find on a disc golf course. Per the PDGA, between 1999 and 2017, the percentage of women among PDGA members ranged from 6 to 8 percent. Other disc golf studies offer similar or lower estimates (7).
Research on similar types of outdoor recreation and park visitation tells a similar tale (8). Based on surveys, all the known park participation constraints are perceived to be greater by women than by men, including a shortage of time, health, interest, knowledge, transportation, someone to participate with, distance to the park, and the costs involved (9).
Most sociologists would trace women’s lower levels of disc golf participation to the different ways that women and men experience the sport, to the organizational structure and culture that dictates league play, tournaments and club life, and to broader social forces, such as gender roles, the expectations placed on women to be family focused and other oriented, media myths involving women’s safety and the popularity of stereotypes that can discourage women athletes (10).
Little is known about the racial composition of disc golfers. In the past, the PDGA did not collect data on the racial characteristics of its members; its most recent survey did include a relevant question, but the results have not yet been released.
Among the few disc golf studies that consider race, Oldakowski and McEwen (2013) found, based on a small, geographically limited sample, that roughly 95 percent of players are white. Two additional studies based on non-representative samples produced similar estimates (11). An underrepresentation of minority groups has also been found in participation studies on other types of outdoor recreation and public park use (12).
Some scholars argue that differences in the values and beliefs of blacks and whites lead to varying rates of participation in some outdoor sports and park activities (13). The racial disparity in disc golf play may reflect the way U.S. culture and institutions connect outdoor recreation more so to the lifestyles of male, middle-class whites than other demographic groups (14).
The study by Oldakowski and Mcewen (2013) suggests that some people’s thinking about disc golf may rest on negative stereotypical beliefs (15), which function, via attitudes and subjective norms, as barriers to playing disc golf among racial minorities. In addition, perceived or actual discrimination may discourage participation (16).
As discussed below, perceived control may also be lower among racial minorities because they tend to live at greater distances from disc golf courses than do whites.
More is known about the geographical barriers to playing disc golf. The PDGA and other groups track the opening and closing of disc golf courses. As expected, states with large populations, such as California and Texas, tend to have more disc golf courses, more PDGA members, and a greater number of PDGA-sanctioned events than small states (17).
However, when controlling for population size, public access to disc golf courses appears to be limited in large states with highly populated cities. For example, California has the largest, most urbanized population, but ranks 36th in PDGA members per 100,000 people, 38th in PDGA events per 100,000, 42nd in disc golf courses per 100,000, and 29th in courses per 1,000 square miles.
In contrast, Iowa, which ranks 30th in population size and 40th in the percentage of residents living in urban areas, ranks 1st in PDGA members per capita, 1st in PDGA events per capita, 1st in courses per capita, and 7th in courses per 1,000 square miles.
Although early disc golf communities developed strongholds near large metropolitan areas, the diffusion of disc golf activity over the last two decades has been driven primarily by “the availability of existing parkland to accommodate a disc golf course or the creation of new parks” (17, p. 367).
This availability likely favors the largely suburban and rural populations of the Midwest over the more urbanized Pacific Coast and mid-Atlantic regions. Among the four Census regions, the West and Northeast have significantly higher percentages of the population residing within urban areas than the Midwest and South (18). In short, Midwesterners likely have greater perceived control over playing than other populations because of their closer proximity to disc golf courses, communities and events.
Several studies have revealed socioeconomic disparities in the distribution of recreational resources, public parks and green spaces, where roughly 90 percent of disc golf courses are located (19). Most of these studies find that as the poverty of neighborhoods increases, the distance from these neighborhoods to parks and green spaces increases.
Neighborhoods with higher percentages of blacks and Hispanics also tend to be located at greater distances from parks and green spaces. Even when nearness to parks is more equitable across low- and high-income neighborhoods, there are more facilities and resources available in the parks located in high-income areas than low-income areas (20).
Financial costs have been shown to reduce the participation of lower-income people in several types of outdoor recreation (21). These studies suggest that people of higher socio-economic status may have greater access to disc golf courses, more money to cover the cost of equipment, and therefore higher participation rates than people of lower socio-economic status.
Based on cross-sectional studies, older people report lower participation rates in many sports than younger people, especially for strenuous activities (22). As people age, concerns about physical ability may lead to less disc golf participation among older adults.
However, studies based on longitudinal analyses show that sports activity increases with increasing age (23). There is also greater stability in participation throughout life in low-impact sports and recreation, such as swimming, walking, fishing, cross-country skiing and disc golf (24).
Some evidence suggests that disc golf attracts participants from all age groups. For instance, the 2017 State of Disc Golf Survey showed that almost one third of competitive disc golfers were over the age of 41 (25). Given the mixed findings of previous studies, the effects of age on participation should be examined as an open question.
Why? Why? Why?
Whether you are trying to explain marriage or disc golf, the why game almost always generates interesting speculation about the motives, values, beliefs, norms, attitudes and perceived constraints of individuals, as well as the social forces that shape these psychological traits.
Thinking along these lines leads to predictions about why people play disc golf, as well as who plays it. To summarize this review, at least five sociological variables—gender, race, geography, socio-economic status and age—likely explain the characteristics of the disc golfer population.
Yet, there’s little evidence to support these claims. As discussed in a previous post, we don’t know much about the general population of disc golfers. Most of the studies cited above focus on public park participation and other types of outdoor recreation.
To quote another kid question, one should ask, “How do you know?”
Although I don’t have a perfect answer, I’ll discuss a method for studying the gen pop of disc golf in my next post.
If you’d like to support disc golf research, like Parked on Facebook, and share us with friends.
Parked is underwritten in part by a grant from the Professional Disc Golf Association.
This post draws from my article, “Using Social Media to Estimate the Size and Demographic Characteristics of Hard-to-Reach Sports Communities: The Case of Disc Golf,” forthcoming next year in the International Journal of Sport Communication.
(1) Ajzen 1991. (2) Godin 1993. (3) Bright 2003. (4) Ajzen and Driver 1992. (5) Lu, Cheng, and Chen 2013. (6) Eves, Hoppéa and McLaren 2003. (7) Hegeman 2016; Nelson et al. 2015; Rahbek and Nielson 2016. (8) Anderson and Shinew 2001; Culp 1998; Johnson et al. 2004; Jun and Kyle 2012; Little 2002; Scott and Jackson 1996. (9) Shores, Scott and Floyd 2007; Zanon et al. 2013. (10) Henderson 1991; Henderson and Allen 1991; Lee, Scott and Floyd 2001; Rojek 1985; Ching-hua et al. 2005; Henderson et al. 1996; Little 2002; Koivula 1999. (11) Siniscalchi 2004; Woods 2016b. (12) Cordell, Betz and Green 2002; Mowen et al. 2015; Payne, Mowen and Orsega-Smith 2002; Wolch and Zhang 2004. (13) Parker and McDonough 1999; Johnson et al. 2004. (14) Lewis and James 1995. (15) Conley, Rabinowitz and Rabow 2010; Stone et al. 1999. (16) Dwyer 1993; Blahna and Black 1993. (17) Oldakowski and Mcewen 2013. (18) U.S. Census Bureau 2012. (19) Estabrooks, Lee and Gyurcsik 2003; Moore et al. 2008; Wen et al. 2013; Wolch, Wilson and Fehrenbach 2005. (20) Moore et al. 2008. (21) Zanon et al. 2013. (22) Cozijnsen et al. 2013; Eime et al. 2016; Palacios-Ceña et al. 2012; Physical Activity Council 2017; Rudman 1989. (23) Breuer and Wicker 2009. (24) Son, Kerstetter and Mowen 2008. (25) Durrant 2017. (26) Wilkins in EcoPress.
5 thoughts on “Why Do People Play Disc Golf?”
Thank you once again, Josh, for your informative and thought-provoking work. I am glad to report that I am bucking the trend here in NZ, and have installed one DGC in the poorer part of the rich side of town, and have installed one DGC on the poor side of town. I also have another 3 courses planned for the lower socio-economic areas before I turn my attention back to the richer side of the city.
I firmly believe DGCs in poorer neighbourhoods provide a fantastic outlet for disaffected youths with little to do, while also promoting family participation in the sport/activity/recreation of disc golf.
Rich people can easily afford to cross town to play in poorer neighbourhoods, but the reverse is not always true. And this is why I am concentrating my efforts where incomes are lower. Rich kids already have plenty to do.
Thanks for the comment Chris. I share your grow-the-sport philosophy. I believe in it for the reasons you mention, but I also see it as an untapped potential for institutional funding. I’m not sure about NZ, but many of the courses in the U.S. are funded (or at least supported) by grassroots groups. This is a wonderful part of the sport, but it sometimes places financial limits on course development projects (it’s often hard to afford professional design, for instance).
If course development plans could be framed as community development projects that provide opportunities to under-served groups, I think the funding streams would flow.
Building courses near poorer areas may also help solve the problems of under-utilized public lands (a huge issue in the post-industrial U.S.), and may be a crime deterrent.
In 2018, in the U.S., disc golf is still a public parks project. We may be moving toward privatization, but I still think that understanding where the public/institutional buckets of money are located and how to tap into them is one of the keys to growing the sport.
By the way, I’m a big fan of your blog (with Galley) at Vortica (https://www.vorticasport.com/blog). I’ve found myself on it more than once.