Edition number 5; dateline 29 February 2008

Wielding the big stick

So how is the New Year fitness regime going? Is it beginning to die off, or like me do you go training so that you can go in the ‘Hot Tub’ afterwards as a treat? I suppose I am keeping focused but I am in the ‘industry’ and I did set some goals “because I’m a coach and I know about these sorts of things”!

I was sitting in my gym’s ‘tub’ after one recent training session and a conversation struck up about what the government wanted us to do now – don’t smoke, don’t drink alcohol, eat low fat, low salt, lose weight, walk 10,000 steps, etc, etc. Even those of us in the tub who were obviously at the gym already so should be considered ‘motivated’, felt deflated and overwhelmed by the challenges the ‘nanny state’ was putting in front of us. The general view descended into ‘I would rather enjoy a short life than suffer through a long one!’ Now those of us in the know may answer, “Well actually if you don’t keep relatively fit you may suffer through your life – short or long,” but it is difficult to pass on this message without sounding like the doom-mongers in Westminster.

Ignoring the rest of the population (just for a moment), how many of us in the leisure game feel overwhelmed by the challenges and targets set by the establishment? Quite a few I bet. But what do we do about it? We go and pass all of the targets that have so annoyed us onto the hapless public. Sometimes it is just too much trouble to come up with innovative ideas whilst at the same time meeting “the targets” so we settle for the latter. As a young sports development professional I was always being charged with being innovative and that in itself can be de-motivating. I hate being told to go away to my office and be INNOVATIVE! Arghhh!

So how can we meet the targets which we set and are set for us without making individuals feel pressurised? No doubt we could all glibly reel off things like “We can advertise the benefits of doing our activities rather than just the activity” but does that really have much effect? I am afraid I don’t have an answer but it is something I contemplate regularly. One thing I do know is that if we carry on doing what we have always done then we will only have minimal success and the process itself will become tedious for the people who are delivering the service, be they paid staff or volunteers. One thing guaranteed to make my blood begin to boil is the statement “We’ve done it this way for the last 40 years and it has always worked, after all we are still here.” I long to shout back: “You might be, but what about the rest of us?”

Conversely I think some of my most refreshing moments are when working with sports coaches who have got ten or more years into their careers and become a little stale in their delivery. When, through support, training and talking to others people like this find a new way of delivery they suddenly become invigorated and want to carry on for ever and ever! In my experience this comes when we introduce them to asking questions and exploring the answers with their participants rather then telling them what to do.

So perhaps the answer to this problem is beginning to emerge. Rather than telling people what they should be doing to stay fit should we be empowering them? “Easy to say,” you will cry, “but how do we do that for over 100,000 people in our catchment?” So far I am not sure. What I do know is that the influence of friends and family are very powerful tools in changing behaviour.

Over the past year or so, I have been increasing my exercise programme and have changed my diet – well almost. I did have a curry last night but one every now and then is allowed isn’t it? I haven’t shouted too much about it, unless asked, but slowly I have noticed that my friends and family, most of whom couldn’t be described as exercise junkies, have all begun to exercise and, in some cases, change their diet. Twelve months ago if I had said to my caravanning friends: “Are you coming on a ten-mile walk next Sunday?” I’m not sure I would have got an answer beyond a grunt indicating they wanted me to get lost. Yet last weekend not only did over thirty of us do a walk but we were all at the leisure centre the night before swimming and playing badminton and squash.

At the time I didn’t think too much of it but as I contemplated how nice it had been to see everyone I wondered what had changed the group? One in particular had lived all their lives on crisps (at least six bags a day), chips, bacon sandwiches and huge amounts of tomato sauce. Their attitude to exercise had been: “I don’t do walking” and if ever tricked into walking anywhere would moan constantly. They have now changed completely and have started asking questions like, “Where are we going walking next?’” and making statements like: “I’m really enjoying this walk – what have you done to me?” So what has caused this phenomenon?  Well there are a number of things which may have had an effect including a sudden death in the family and the birth of a grand child but I am convinced that much of it has been the growing swell in our group towards doing exercise as a social activity and the regular discussions about lovely fresh healthy food. In other words, the feeling in the group has begun to change attitudes and this hasn’t come from anything the local council, sports development team or County Sports Partnership has done. Or has it?

Some of it has come from the mole in the camp – i.e. me – and I have brought in the knowledge I have from being involved in the industry, albeit subtly. But I haven’t shouted about the government targets or told them they are all going to die if they don’t start running. I have quietly got on with my own exercise and as I lost weight and started to feel much better people started to ask about what I was doing. As they became a little hooked on the subject I began to suggest the odd activity, a bike ride, a walk and so on. And Mr Hot Tub has also begun to spread this ‘fitness infection’ which I think has had a significant effect on the men in the group; perhaps because he is the shortest and largest and they all think they can beat him. We have now reached the stage that seven of us are doing the Derby 10k in April, most of us are doing a thirty five mile walk in June and in addition the youngsters amongst us are cycling, playing football, playing rugby, dancing and all swim (including the baby). Some of the adults now regularly play squash and there is talk of playing badminton on a more organised basis. So from quiet influence and starting off with non-pressurised physical activity we have reached the point of taking part in competitive sport. And all in the space of about eighteen months. Is this sports development? I think so. Is it in the manual? I doubt it.

I have shared this story with you because I believe it shows how we should be encouraging new people to get involved with any of our passions and that includes the arts, museums, sport, play and outdoor activities. Instead of wielding a big stick and telling people they are ‘unclean’ if they don’t conform to the LAW of exercising or diet perhaps we should be spending our time and budgets on influencing much smaller groups, even individuals, who will then quietly go and change their group of friends, who will then influence other local groups, who will then tell us what facilities and activities they want to do. And so on. And don’t just target young people, look to entire social groups which include young people, but also contain parents, aunts and uncles and friends of all ages. But above all it has to be FUN. We all say it but are we so hooked up with targets that it has all become too serious?

I hope this is food for thought and that you will take a look at how you are working with your communities or perhaps I should say with the PEOPLE in your defined area and go out there and rebel. Don’t do things the way you have always done them and I bet you will still achieve your targets and have much more fun in the process.


Kay Adkins is an executive board member of a county sport partnership, chair of a CSN and a member of the interim board of the National Skills Academy for Sport and Active Leisure. Kay is also managing director of KAM Ltd, which offers a range of support services in the sport and leisure industry working in volunteer/workforce development and facility development.



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