Fit for purpose?

The lack of opportunities to play sport through the pandemic has created problems for physical and mental health. Can government support for grassroots sports clubs get them back on track?

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The government’s new Levelling Up White Paper includes an aim to narrow the gap in healthy life expectancy between richer and poorer areas, and grassroots sport has a critical role to play in that. But another gap – between government rhetoric and the money to pay for it – remains just as large.

“I’d like to see focus and money go into more engagement with disadvantaged communities.”

The UK has around 150,000 grassroots sports clubs with around eight million regular participants but cuts to public sector sport, from £1.5 billion to £1 billion between 2010 and 2022, have affected everything from leisure centres to football pitches. There’s no doubt Covid-19 has had an adverse impact, but challenges predate the pandemic.

“My concerns stem from what we call stubborn long-standing inequalities in grassroots provision for certain communities, and people in society,” says Dr Chris Mackintosh, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and lead researcher for five northern Active Partnerships on a report on community sport.

“These were flagged for the first time in 1960 with the Wolfenden Report. Roll on 60-plus years, and we’ve barely touched it. Having said that, I think the shock of Covid shone a light on lots of areas of society that were pretty dark beforehand.

“Big money is spent on sport. The Olympics in this country cost £9.3 billion alone, and every four, five years, we throw another billion pounds at 46 main sports,” adds Macintosh.

“There are also the same old sports, the ones sometimes referred to as ‘male, pale and stale’, like golf and tennis, which have seen real booms. But what I’d like to see is focus and money go into more engagement with disadvantaged communities.”

Olympic triathlete Alistair Brownlee, 33, from Dewsbury, advocates the importance of grassroots sports for youngsters. He began his career at local sports clubs and has founded the Brownlee Foundation with his Olympian brother Jonny to encourage kids to take up sport.

“Alongside schools, grassroots sports clubs are where the majority of young people can experience sport,” he says.  “The benefits to health are the obvious ones, but there are a multitude of other benefits such as encouraging community spirit, communication and socialising.

“But a lot of grassroots exists on a knife edge. They rely on an enormous amount of goodwill from volunteers and on limited revenues from their members. It would be great to see sporting federations support local sports clubs more, both financially and by recognising the contribution of volunteers.”

Wheelchair racer and Paralympic champion Hannah Cockroft, 29, agrees. She joined Yorkshire’s now defunct Cardinal Wheelchair Basketball team at the age of 11, and still trains with a grassroots club in Kirkby, Liverpool.

“It took me a long time to find a grassroots sports club that would accept me with a disability but once I found the Cardinals, it changed my life,” she says. “Until then, I’d never been around other disabled people and believed sport wasn’t for people like me. But the club gave me the opportunity to get involved and try a range of different sports. I still rely on grassroots volunteer coaches to get me through my sessions, and I love the inspiration the youngsters give me when we push together.

“It also helps to build a community. You can turn up to a grassroots sports club and no matter what language you speak, or where you’re from, you’re accepted and made part of the team.”

Asylum seeker Reza, 41, from Derby, has first-hand experience.

“I was transferred to Derby straight away after I arrived in the UK, and soon found out about the football project. It was a no-brainer since I played football back in my home country,” says Reza, who belongs to a football club run by Migrant Help’s Jakub Szukaj.

“When I play football, I don’t think about any of my problems and what happened to me back in the past. Football helps me with my mental health and also physically to keep in shape and break up the monotony of the week. I’ve also managed to make new friends as you don’t have to always speak the same language to play football – the game is a universal language.”

In truth, no one would deny the benefits of grassroots sport – the issue is how to bolster the sector. The House of Lords Select Committee on the National Plan for Sport, Health and Wellbeing has set out a range of recommendations to address low activity rates and the fragmented way sport and recreation policy is delivered.

These would see the responsibility for sport policy move to the Department of Health and Social Care, give greater importance to physical education in schools, support a national audit of grassroots facilities and implement measures to address weaknesses in child protection and safeguarding.

In addition to the committee’s report, and the Levelling Up White Paper, Sport England is over a year into its own 10-year strategy called Uniting the Movement.

“It means targeting our investment and support towards those most in need and ensuring we all have what we need to get active – regardless of where we live, how much money we have or what background we are from,” says Sport England’s chief executive, Tim Hollingsworth.

He says better data collection on participation and facilities has shown where investment is most needed.

“It’s why the last three years has seen us invest more than three quarters of our funding outside of London and the South East.”

Hollingsworth adds that Sport England is simplifying access to funding “with one simple, single point of entry”, and points to Active Travel England, a new government agency to improve cycling and walking infrastructure, as a way to help embed regular activity into daily life.

He says: “Along with future funding plans, the continuation of our Covid-19 recovery and reinvention packages is also important in helping organisations and projects build back in the short term. It also ensures those we fund are aligned with our ambition to tackle inequalities in their local communities.”

Mackintosh acknowledges these policy initiatives “feel like a reset”. He says: “Sport is pretty much the last sphere of public sector services when it comes to engaging and using evidence. The pieces of the jigsaw are only just being connected.

“Yes, grassroots sport can be about playing football but it’s also about all the other work that goes on around it and meeting complex needs. Sport is the hook, if you like, and buys people into the principle, but they can also access a drug and drink issues counsellor and peer group support, which is extremely powerful.

“This is a critical policy window for community grassroots sport in England. New tensions have arrived, but ultimately stubborn inequalities remain alongside established structural community issues in coaching, volunteering and facilities. The question remains: will the fit remain getting fitter and the least active continue to find it hard to engage in this new Covid-19 landscape?”

Back on the team

Active Communities Network is a national youth and community development charity which uses sport as a pathway into education, training and employment for young people. The charity’s been applauded for taking an all-round approach to individual needs, which incorporates a wide range of activities, such as football, basketball, boxing and dance.

“We use local community champions who advocate for the sessions and activities to and for their community,” says Laura Cole Clark, a programme manager for ACN Manchester.

“Once the relationship is established, we guide the young people through a pathway which consists of volunteering, training and informal education such as workshops around local and current issues, whether that’s greater awareness around mental health, or issues such as drugs and alcohol.

“The young people have the option to volunteer, by helping a sports coach, organising equipment or arranging teams. This helps them to develop leadership skills and to feel empowered. Through our training centre the young people get qualifications which equip
them for further employment.

“We’ve managed to survive Covid-19 but it’s been hard at times, especially as young people have been considerably impacted by lockdown with regards to digital poverty and their own sense of self-worth.

“Coming back to face-to-face activity, young people have more severe mental health and wellbeing struggles regarding confidence and self-belief, or they’ve put weight on and felt self-conscious, so it’s been about reconnecting with them. But I am hopeful for the future as we continue to provide a pathway of opportunities which benefits the young people and communities we work with.”

Photo: Hannah Cockroft

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