Edition number 35; dateline 26 January 2012

Are you working harder not smarter?

It seems that “we” are still not getting it right when it comes to the promotion of playing sport. Figures have been released showing that there has been a decrease in the number of young people aged 16 to19 playing major sports such as football, tennis and swimming. We are also informed that there has been a reduction in women playing sport, although, guess what, there is an overall increase in adults playing sport at least once a week. I know that statistics can be strange things and I am often the first to groan in horror at what they tell us but what these figures are saying to me is that there are more men taking up sport than women and young people (especially older teenagers). Does this surprise me? No, sadly not.

You will have heard the rhetoric. We have to do things differently, we have to think differently and introduce new approaches, WE HAVE TO DO BETTER. Our masters may scream at us all they like but what is “better”? I am seeing a few initiatives on my local patch where “those who do stuff” are looking at new approaches but we have a good local team who are truly prepared to think differently. I am not, in contrast, seeing much change nationally.

Our beloved leader at Sport England, Jennie Price, says we have to work much harder with young people but surely the time has come to work smarter not harder? We can carry on working as hard as we like on programmes but if the interventions being used are not working, are we not just working hard in a lost cause?

La Price tells us that working with the national governing bodies of Sport (NGBs) is still the right approach as “they sit at the hearts of their sports”. I would not disagree with her on that, the NGBs are definitely at the heart of their sports and, in terms of developing their sports, they are indeed the best folks to do it. However, the key driver for most of our NGBs is performance not participation, particularly in this very important Olympic year; and so it should be. One of the main problems is that the traditional sports which generally have the largest support from government are not the ones which interest the people (especially the women and young people) who are voting with their feet and causing the participation statistics to drop so alarmingly.

If you are in a governing body and are feeling a little sore with me because you work on a great recreation programme, and I know there are some, let’s face it, life is not black and white and there is some good stuff going on. But football, rugby and cricket hold no great attraction for women. I know all of the NGBs I have mentioned try hard with programmes for women, and long should it continue as they should be doing their bit, but if we are truly honest are they likely to make a huge impact on more women playing sport in the national statistics?

Take a look at the picture more generally. Most NGBs, if they have any regional staff, have one person to cover a large area with a large remit. One of the NGBs that I am involved with has an officer assigned to my “patch”. They are based 70 miles away, across the Peak District hills and they cover from way up north, down to Shropshire and across to east Derbyshire. It is all our NGB can afford and the person in post does their best but after they have looked after club development, support for regional activities, performance-based stuff and driving around a huge geographical area how much time is there for programmes that target older teenagers or increase the number of women?

So what can we do? Not wanting to sound like a government minister but here it comes: I think we need to look at these issues on a very local level. Not rocket science or new thinking you cry. No, but it works. Things which start or stop young people taking up or continuing in sport are often affected on a very local level. If there is a proactive rugby club on the patch then lots of kids will play rugby; if there is an ice rink close by then there will be lots of ice skaters; if a teacher or teaching assistant or caretaker is dead keen on a particular sport then there will probably be children taking up that activity; and so this model goes on. It can also go the other way. If it is very rural in your area, transportation issues will impact or it may mean lots of young people riding horses, bikes and motor bikes and not playing football or swim training because the pool is twenty miles away. I know it is common sense but if there is a good local infrastructure with a good base of younger children playing sport then we have a little more chance of holding on to the older teenagers.
I know some of you will be saying at this point that everyone should have an equal chance of playing whatever sport they want, and I agree with this view in theory. However, if the reality is that there are only two ice rinks in the whole of your region, it isn’t going to be a big solution for keeping young people involved. Yes, it is something that attracts them and yes it has a social element, which may keep young people going along to “be with their mates”. but if you don’t have the ice it ain’t working for you.

There are other ways to increase the number of people taking part in sport and, more cynically, improve the statistics. If we counted the Race for Life events in the statistics, would that show a different result in terms of women taking up sport? I bet it would and I am sure that we will be heading down this route soon. Mass participation events are very popular and, although they may not have competition at their core, there is sport involved. People like to get involved in these events as you are often competing against yourself not the “fit people”. There will be lots of people like you; not the right shape, not megafit, older, younger and so on, and you can do it with your friends. You may be raising money towards a good cause as well as keeping fit, you will not look stupid (unless you feel you must dress up as a giant banana) and there aren’t masses of difficult rules to learn. Competing in a mass participation event is often the catalyst which leads to people taking up a sport more seriously and is something we perhaps don’t capitalise on enough. I could probably ramble on about this subject for hours; in fact, it has been at the core of the sports development industry for many years and we still don’t have a solution, so I guess I better wrap up, at least for now.
As we are now, at long last, in 2012 and I have been talking about events I feel honour-bound to finish with a reference to something happening this summer. I am not sure the Olympics and Paralympics* will get many more women and young people rushing out to do sport just by the fact that they are happening. My guess is that these are probably the groups who watch sport the least but the fact that it is happening and it is on non-sports TV programmes does give us a great chance to go out into our communities and talk to people about sport and what it means to them. We also have to nurture the “enthusiasts”, as an 80-year-old described volunteers to me the other day. Mass volunteer programmes are OK but in the frenzy of hitting those government targets don’t forget the local coach or club volunteer who cares about their community and their sport. They will really make a difference to many people, over many years and many generations.

Good luck with changing the statistics for women and young people and I will see you out there spreading the word.

*I understand that there has been an increase in disabled people playing sport in this latest set of figures which is great news and the exposure from the Paralympics will I am sure be very useful in raising awareness and opportunities still further.



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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“Not wanting to sound like a government minister but here it comes: I think we need to look at these issues on a very local level. Not rocket science or new thinking you cry. No, but it works.”

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