Challenging the culture

The Scottish Sports Development Conference came to Crieff and gathered the sports development sector in a highly polished package. Our man in the front row, Mick Owen, found plenty of straight talking, much food for thought and a regular supply of surprises

Conference delegates
Signing up to challenge the culture of Scottish sports development


Jim Blythe gets ready for the event's kick off


Dr Nesti takes the stage
Dr Nesti takes the stage


Cue music
The name's, er, Campbell and Niven

Picture the scene if you will. A group of fresh faced ‘kids’, including Debbie Reynolds and either Mickey Rooney or Donald Connor, are rehearsing a musical in somebody’s barn when they get the news that the purpose-built theatre booked for their gala performance has burned down, flooded or – in White Christmas – been cut off by record snowfalls. Despondency descends. Glum faces are the order of the day. Debbie is inconsolable until one bright spark – usually Mickey Rooney – utters the immortal lines: “Let’s do the show right here!” And they do. Everybody performs perfectly, Donald/Mickey gets the girl and Warner Brothers churn out another classic destined for Sunday afternoons on an obscure satellite channel. Lovely.

It is not recorded whether Jim Blythe, the convenor of the organising group of the fourth Scottish Sports Development Conference, actually uttered Mickey’s immortal words when ISPAL pulled the plug that ILAM and NASD had managed to keep just about in the plug-hole for the first three years but the same perky attitude must have been in evidence or I would not have spent two stimulating days in the Highlands of Scotland at one of the most polished conferences I have ever experienced.

Words like ‘brave’, ‘audacious’ and ‘bonkers’ are apposite descriptors for an entirely volunteer working group shorn of the protective panoply of ‘their’ professional body stubbornly – sorry, determinedly – carrying through with their commitment to their industry to produce as stimulating and innovative an event as a sports development professional could wish. And this despite the challenges of tight budgets, a market depressed by the uncertainty of changing government and the last-minute disappearance of their first keynote speaker.

The opening session was supposed to bring together Stewart Maxwell MSP, the new SNP government’s minister for communities and sport, and the chief executive of SportScotland, Stewart Harris. Normally such juxtaposition would hardly be expected to produce fireworks but since the SNP manifesto committed them to reducing the number of quangos and actually named SportScotland as one of the first to go, the odd squib was always a possibility. Indeed in anticipation of the debate the organisers had pulled in hired gun and professional controversialist John Beattie, known south of the border as a remarkable rugby international but now a broadcaster and writer, to chair the morning’s session.

The theme of the conference was ‘Challenging the Culture’ but the leitmotif of the entire experience was surprise. The first surprise was Beattie’s opener, during which he accused politicians of seeing sport as “irrelevant bollocks”. The second surprise was that the stand-in politician wasn’t a cipher; Keith Brown MSP came across as a reasonable bloke. And the third surprise was that the minister’s speech actually had some substance, with a strong accent on making the “best use of the school estate”.

It was no surprise that Dr Pat Duffy from Sportscoach UK was erudite and engaging, nor was it a shock that Stewart Harris was forthright and demanding of his audience. Harris challenged the room, and the profession beyond it, to build a legacy founded on “what we do on a daily basis” and forcefully used words like ‘integrity’ and ‘honesty’. He also underlined his support for the conference and praised the organising group for having the “get up and go to make it happen”. Duffy took coaching as a case study and, having stated that “great sport needs great coaches”, made the case for both ends of the delivery spectrum. He argued that strategic visions translated into infrastructure were important but so was front-line delivery. His eyebrow-raising moment came when discussing the importance of building a system with a goal for the UK system to be the best in the world by 2016. Duffy claimed that in all his years he had “never met a politician whose eyes don’t glaze over at the suggestion that we should work over a ten-year period”. Keith Brown remained impassive.

Given Dr Duffy’s impatience with politicians, it must have come as something of a surprise to him when in the Q and A that followed John Beattie claimed he had “nice slides – but you talk like a politician”. Clearly this last one is not a skill Beattie himself has any intention of acquiring.

The morning was rounded off by a session with Novlette Rennie from England’s Sporting Equals, a presenter who is so powerful when she goes ‘off script’ that it’s a wonder she bothers with the PowerPoint. Beattie was clearly in her thrall but had his work cut out translating questions delivered in the local vernacular and focusing on local issues. At times it was difficult not to see two nations already separated by a common language being split apart by diverging sports systems.

At lunchtime the delegates went off to sample what would undoubtedly be called ‘provender’ in this part of the Highlands, while senior managers were hived off to lunch in the baronial drawing room. Meanwhile the hoi polloi were given the added bonus of ‘drop in’ sessions with the University of Stirling’s Fiona Grossart and the high-profile and very Dutch people from Schelde Sports. Now in its second year, this particular sponsorship is an exemplar of partnership working: the company gains great exposure, not least because their easy-going attitude embraces rather than repels the merely curious, and the conference bottom line gets a welcome fillip.

The afternoon saw the senior managers unpicking the mysteries of social enterprise while the bulk of the delegates enjoyed CPD sessions on diverse subjects, including volunteering and business planning, the UKCC and working with the media. An early finish gave everyone a chance to ‘hit refresh’ before the evening’s networking session. It is common journalistic practice to look away when the conference dinner kicks in but one final surprise was on its way in the shape of Provost John Hulbert of host authority, Perth and Kinross Council. Dr Hulbert holds forthright views on sports funding, particularly when it comes to major games, and he is happy to share them. If he is representative of SNP attitudes then the lead up to the 2012 English games and the 2014 Scottish ones looks like providing a fascinating competition in itself.

Day two should have started slowly considering how late day one finally finished but the conference organisers were taking no prisoners when they programmed sports psychologist Mark Nesti as the first keynote. This is a man whose middle name should be “surprise”. His theses are complex, his language challenging and his style entirely engaging. Quoting Kierkegaard, GK Chesterton and Jean Paul Sartre, he argued that “skills and techniques are not enough in football, sport or sports development” and that anyone who wanted to do a job rather than answer a vocation should “go away and be an accountant”. So impressed and bemused was your correspondent that Dr Nesti was immediately buttonholed and asked to write it all down. The resultant article will appear in The Leisure Review in the New Year.

After a short ice cream break, the delegates’ next appointment was with the facilitators of their second CPD session, then lunch followed by the hard-to-say Scottish Showcase. Hosted by James Bond look-alike Iain Campbell of SportScotland and the very fetching Lynne Niven of Edinburgh Leisure, the sessions allowed practitioners to tell the world about their good practice. The Casino Royale theme may have been a little stretched but with Stewart Fowlie of Scottish University Sport incorporating a roulette wheel into his presentation and Niven’s frock, it had to be deemed worthwhile and it added a welcome sense of the surreal to the after-lunch graveyard shift.

Taking the last session in reverse order of interest, the presentation by Derek Casey was slick and professionally done (as one would expect his Commonwealth Games to be) but anodyne. The inspirational speaker Chris Moon was inspirational and quite funny. One of his many messages was that you should never be a victim and it was interesting that Stewart Harris who preceded him showed no sign of the pressure his political masters are putting him under. He had spent the morning making the case for sport to a committee of MSPs and if anyone is going to pull SportScotland’s rabbit out of the hat (or perhaps more accurately, the snare) of quango rationalisation, it will be him.

Harris saved the best surprise till last when he discussed the future of the conference itself. He has always championed the event and supported it with cash, with staff involvement and with his own endorsement. Like him, it now faces an uncertain future but he clearly sees the event and its organising team as a vehicle to create and sustain the collective energy that he believes will be needed by the sports development profession in Scotland. Was it a good event? To answer that we need look no further than Stewart’s own assertion that it was “good enough to come back next year”. I am sure it was and I hope it does.

Mick Owen is the managing editor of The Leisure Review

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