Reacting to the challenge of empathy

Responding to Martyn Allison's assessment of the leisure industry's failures, Tim Dent asks: if we accept that an absence of empathy is at the heart of the problem, what else is to be done?

I read with interest Martyn’s thought-provoking analysis, which seeks to explain why the industry has failed during the last 40 years to close the health inequality gap or deliver a step-change in sport and physical activity participation levels among those who are traditionally under-represented.

This debate touches on many themes: health policy, pricing, programming, funding, behaviour theory, leadership, capacity building, training, education and the desirability or otherwise of positive discrimination. To help stoke the debate here are some of my observations.

To summarise as best I can, Martyn asks whether the main reason for failure over the years is managers, leaders and policy-makers lacking empathy. If so, is this largely a result of a traditional, white, male, middle-class bias, which has led to a lack of understanding of the cultural backgrounds and barriers faced by those who are most in need of sport and physical activity, and which results in a lack of motivation and will to tackle this head-on? Examples cited to support this view are the strong focus on promoting memberships and driving revenue at the expense of social inclusion programmes, the over-zealous protection of peak times in venues for activities for more economically viable activities, and, in the case of sports governing bodies, focusing on elite performance at the expense of inclusive participation programmes.

In my experience, getting the inactive active, rather than the already active more active, is a widely recognised and understood objective; most of those I meet in the industry appear to genuinely support this approach. Most would also agree that in an ideal world most resources , time and energy should be geared towards promoting this important policy objective. So is it just a lack of empathy that stops this from happening? Are the majority of those who manage and shape policy in sport the ‘wrong’ people, with skills and experiences which are inherently ill-suited to promote a more equitable sporting system?

I would agree that across the sector there is a lack of diversity and empathy, which does hold back progress. But I would caveat this by saying it is important to point out that no one deliberately goes out of their way to exclude and that any lack of empathy is more likely to stem from an unconscious bias towards ‘people who think, look and act like me’. We should accept that most people working in the industry (and I include myself in this) are not representative of the wider population. However, as well as ethnicity, gender, class, and disability being under-represented, our experience of sport and activity is also likely to be unrepresentative of the wider community. This is subjective, but in my 30-plus years of experience my observations are that most working in sport are: (a) good/proficient/above average at sport and have been for most of their lives; (b) exercise regularly,  have a reasonable level of fitness, and are certainly less likely to be overweight or obese; and (c) get enjoyment from sport and activity, and had a positive school/childhood experience of PE and sport.

This mindset can foster a world view that sport and activity is inherently good and enjoyable, and a sense of bewilderment that other people don’t seem to get it. If we only shout the same message using the same imagery loud enough and with sufficient missionary zeal everyone, no matter what their characteristic, will eventually be persuaded.

If we accept that a lack of empathy is part of the problem and if there is change, will this bring about meaningful and sustained improvement or are there other factors at play?

First, we should note that 10 years of austerity have had devastating consequences on public sector provision and a huge negative impact on health inequality across government departments. In addition, if we consider the traditional public sector, I would suggest one the biggest barriers to progress remains the systematic failure to address a broken business model. Let’s consider the local government business model. Most councils grant fund (an ever-decreasing amount) a third-party organisation – a trust or company – to cover part of the costs of providing the service. This organisation makes up the rest of the cost of the service (mostly facilities and staff costs) by selling memberships and generating other income. A proportion of income is then used to cross-subsidise the cost of providing social inclusion programmes. However, the reality for many service providers is that they need to meet ambitious financial targets just to survive.

If financial targets are not met and the council refuses to be the banker of last resort, the only alternative is to increase revenue, eg selling more memberships or increasing prices, or by reducing costs, which typically means closing unaffordable programmes or venues. Neither of these options are likely to result in widening access to services. Consequently, the nature of this facility-centric approach is that operators have to prioritise revenue generation over social inclusion. There are great examples of where an effective balance has been achieved but this is challenging.

So what is to be done?

1. There is clearly a critical role for organisations, educators, trainers and professional bodies to develop and promote better leadership, social awareness and depth of understanding about the barriers and practical solutions to achieving wider participation and reducing health inequality.

2. All organisations should aim to ensure that their workforce broadly represents their wider population. This won’t be a quick and easy win. Sweden, which is often held up as being among the most progressive of nations, still only has 35% of women holding executive positions within sports federations. Also representation should not be just about race, gender and disability; to be properly representative, organisations should include those from different socio-economic backgrounds, different ages and body size! In the meantime, continue with current governance improvement standards to ensure sports boards are more diverse.

3. Reducing health inequality and increasing participation among under-represented groups should be the most important critical success factors for any organisation in receipt of public funds, for which they should be held to account. An adult debate about moving away from traditional, facility-based sports provision towards investing in more innovative activity experiences that take place in communities where it is more convenient to get to and more affordable, is long overdue.

4. The success of the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign and the focus on inequality in the next iteration are excellent examples of how to break the mould. This change of approach should be supported and encouraged across the sporting system.

Finally, let’s shift the strategic direction away from ‘no compromise’ elite athlete performance, towards developing creative, innovative and transformative social inclusion programmes.



Tim Dent is Director of Re:creation Consulting.

Read Martyn Allison's orginal article, titled '40 years of failure: can sport and leisure bridge the empathy gap?'




The Leisure Review, March 2019

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“No one deliberately goes out of their way to exclude and that any lack of empathy is more likely to stem from an unconscious bias towards ‘people who think, look and act like me’”
Download a pdf for printing

“We should note that 10 years of austerity have had devastating consequences on public sector provision and a huge negative impact on health inequality across government departments.

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