Where will government take sport next? The ministerial choice

The Leisure Review readership generally comprises management professionals but when we received an impassioned piece from a volunteer involved in the grass roots of their sport it caught our attention nevertheless. Given that the interests of grass-roots sport is supposed to be at the heart of what our sporting politicians are seeking to achieve, we thought we would offer this contributor some space on the TLR platform to see what our regular readers might make of it. That our author requested anonymity for fear of damaging the funding prospects of the club with which he is involved says something significant right from the outset.

Grass roots
Grass roots: stuck in a corner

This article was first written some weeks ago. It set out to criticise, with details and scorn, the culture secretary for the inappropriate policy he announced. Since then James Purnell has been replaced by Andy Burnham, avid soccer supporter and player. Hurrah, a true sports man. He will see sense. But no. I was told the other day that he is going along with Purnell’s policy of change. So we must still protest. 
Pause and consider. All we know of Mr Purnell was that he came and went as quick as a flash at his master’s nod so he may not have really known what a nest of anger he caused. His replacement though has got some background and he had the wit to declare that this post in sport is his “dream job”. Will he react wisely to the comments on the policy that are coming his way?

The policy is “to create a world class system for community sports“ to go with other so called world-class systems for everything else and so satisfy the promises made to the IOC. But it is worded in terms which are clearly elitist with a statement that no consultation would happen. All of us at the grass roots level could only gasp in horror. I witnessed the reactions of local council leisure officers, the very guys who organise what facilities we do get: incensed times ten and fearful that all their carefully nurtured partners in the voluntary sector sport would walk away. There was then a period that felt like mourning. All the people who are involved in providing local sports had been ignored again.

This is simply unacceptable to the grass-roots level sports people and clubs. To spell out in detail the depth of the error made one must go back years. Successive governments have tried and failed to get Britain to become active, failed because of inadequate funding or a lack of skilled people to give the right kinds of encouragement to persuade people to take up active pastimes. The growth of TV/consumerism has been too enticing.
If you go back about six years the previous minister introduced a policy that stopped over 100 Sport England initiatives working with the grass roots of sport (I guess because they could not find anything to audit) then he adopted a “strategic role”. So the senior people retreated to ivory towers and all the sports development workers who had made working connections with the grass-roots players and clubs disappeared too. Since that there has been a sequence of detailed strategies, ephemeral booklets with lots of posh pictures of active kids and a mode of expression which, like political pronouncements of the time, implied that a task was completed as soon as it was announced. Ideas about fulfilling, enabling and facilitating; three different targets with one project using, [wait for it] “ cross cutting partnerships” and other entanglements of jargon.

The result at the grass roots was total bafflement. Capital funding was put in Sport England hands and single-sport clubs forgotten. Local councils have tried, in an ever tighter financial climate, to keep sport going and only succeeded in high-profile urban areas with good business support. Rurally all is at stop; no funds. A recent local survey found participation at about 12% but it was probably always that low. Who wants to rush round a field at the weekend when they have been shoving cows in and out of the stalls all week?

The communication gap between funding organisations and the funded grass-roots clubs has remained now for about four years and its pervasiveness is complete. There is a kind of collective conspiracy of silence. While Sport England with its new CSPs, Delivery Systems and CSNs meet with all the other public service agencies who are assumed to commit themselves to these ideas, they never ask the grass-roots sports people what they want. Grass roots have got used to this situation and carry on as if Sport England does not exist

Yet over all this is the issue of the national activity participation at 22% while Europe’s average is 50% plus and the 2002 government target to fix this by 1% per year for 20-plus years. Mr Brown just announced big bucks to tackle obesity but does he even know about Game Plan, the report from which the target came? That is the one thing that has been proved right in the last ten years: Britain is unfit. It needs a unique effort to get better. That requires inspiration. Since the 1950s all we’ve done is fail to get fit with one exception. In about 1980 Chris Brasher came back from New York, talked to London and the TV and the London Marathon happened. Now a fixed part of our culture, it was inspiration not government entreaties.

Now there is an opportunity to create the same inspiration if we can use the Olympic euphoria of 2012 to get people along to their local sports club or centre and make everything ready to welcome them, begin to coach them and coax them till they become committed to sport “come hell or high water”.  That will then start a change in the whole culture of the country: From FAT 2 FIT.

How ? Who? This is a national project. There are not enough professional coaches to do it. All grass-roots clubs want more members but have no resources. At the heart of this is getting fully committed people ready to start as soon as recruits appear, people with a mix of basic sports knowledge and human understanding. Who would you like to meet, even if you are nervous and ill-prepared yet wanting to get fit?  Not stranger: a local person. It has to be the guy from up the road. He does not know you but he knows the same places as you,  the same roads, shops and pubs but he knows a little bit from the local gym. He wants to share it with you; you want to learn. There it is: your mentor [posh word] or buddy  [not so posh ]. The welcome is essential.

The message to the new minister and all in grass-roots sports development is: please listen. Put aside your existing policy. Have the wisdom to recognise that only TV or personal meetings with local sports people can ever make real contact with the general public. Just look at the way people all join in fun runs. It is the togetherness thing, the London Marathon thing: shared aspiration. Try it yourself and you will never feel more united with your fellows.

You, minister, have a choice that will effect six million of our population directly, maybe double if you count the potential growth in participation that could be lost. If you follow the current policy for community sport that you inherited we stand to lose years of building done by local councils, clubs and other agencies at grass-roots level. Do not try to split us into haves and have-nots by involving the health people. I know the health views from serving in the Community Health Council and its successor, CIPPH. Although they badly wanted to be involved, they admitted readily that they did not know where to begin. They have no experience of sports and an ethos that is too prescriptive. They could bring little to the practical tasks, which is not their fault.

Start talking to local clubs and listen. They have been ignored. Building a community sports system needs professionals and volunteers to trust the people we want to influence. Organise courses and skilled coaches to train club members ready to give recruits introductory coaching; get every club and centre ready now for recruitment. Explain how outside volunteers (for example past players) can do this too if you can get them into clubs as qualified helpers. The answer is all here in our communities. It does not need Mr Browns’ event managers. It needs local club co-ordinators and loads of them. Clubs can set up events.
Coaches train players/ex-players/volunteers/club members to introduce recruits to sport. Once trained, these players etc will take recruits through their first experiences in sport to become players too. Recruitment can begin once clubs are ready with promotions. By 2011 we could be proving how we are raising our national fitness and becoming long term winners in the battle for life.

Is that not a better legacy than a few medals ?



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“While Sport England with its new CSPs, Delivery Systems and CSNs meet with all the other public service agencies who are assumed to commit themselves to these ideas, they never ask the grass-roots sports people what they want. Grass roots have got used to this situation and carry on as if Sport England does not exist”

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