“More than a Game: Harnessing the power of sport to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people” A report by the Centre for Social Justice.

“More than a Game: Harnessing the power of sport to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people” A report by the Centre for Social Justice. Initial thoughts.

The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) is an independent think tank established by Ian Duncan-Smith in 2004 to find ways to eradicate the poverty that exists in pockets in the UK. The CSJ believes there are a number of paths to poverty; broken family, failed education, debt and drug and alcohol addiction and that once a young person has more than three of these in their lives they are on a slippery slope to poverty.

The report that the CSJ has published is entitled “More than a Game: Harnessing the power of sport to transform the lives of disadvantaged young people” and broadly looks at how sport can act as an agent to transform the lives of the least privileged children in the UK. It is a fascinating and challenging report that has started me thinking even more about the transformative power of sport.

There are a number of areas that the report delves into that I think are crucial in helping us to understand the role that sport can play. There are also a couple of areas where I think the report could have touched on.

1) The importance of coaching and coach development
This is something very close to my heart. My Dad still fondly recalls his coach as someone he had great respect for and from whom he learned not only how to box and get in shape to win, but life lessons. I know that my coach is closely involved with the development of a large number of youngsters not only from an athletic point of view, but also socially and academically. As a former school teacher he is well placed to do that. Even I, at my grand old age, benefit from some sound advice from my coach now and then about issues such as how to deal with stress at work or how to approach some of life’s big events.

I completely agree with the report and it’s findings that one of the weakest areas in coach development in the UK is the lack of modules focused on teaching coaches to interact with young people. The report seems to accept that current coaching programmes are sufficient when it comes to teaching necessary skills and developing training programmes, but that is not enough to engage with the people who stand to gain most from sport

2) The importance of the education system owning sport as a tool for development
I am happy to state that in my opinion many of the problems that the CSJ report aims to tackle and a few that it doesn’t are due to the destruction of sports in schools. My personal mission is to try to find a way to tackle childhood obesity (more on that later) and as such I think that successive governments have been responsible for the sell-off of school playing fields and the removal of meaningful sport from timetables so that now we are reaping the seeds sown over the last few decades. If there is an answer to the social problems that the report looks at, then it is only through engaging with youngsters at school that we have any hope of succeeding.

3) The value of long-term programmes, not just ‘taster’ sessions
I was initially surprised to read that the report recommends that taster sessions should be abolished. My feeling was that anything is better than nothing and that taster sessions are a good way to get lots of youngsters to try different sports and see what resonates with them. However my understanding of the report is that the authors believe that the money currently directed at taster sessions would be better spent creating programmes where the participants have longer-term and more significant engagement with… yes, you guessed it – well trained coaches who know how to teach the technical aspects of the sport as well as engage with the youngsters of the programme and help them develop. I can’t help thinking that this must be a more expensive proposition than the current taster programmes but then again if in-depth programmes have the effect of reducing the effects of poverty, then the money will have been well spent.

Throughout the report there was a theme that I found fascinating – that of using sport to connect disadvantaged youngsters to the mainstream. I never thought of connecting someone to mainstream as a desirable side-effect of sport, but my understanding of this is that sport can have the effect of giving youngsters a reason to steer clear of drugs and alcohol and crime – the paths to poverty – and engage with education (especially if education is the vehicle delivering the sporting opportunities) or employment. In that way sport connects those involved in it with the mainstream.

I mentioned that there were two areas which I feel the report could have touched on;

The first is my bête noire – childhood obesity. I believe that sport is crucial for health and particularly in the fight against obesity. I also think that poor health is inextricably linked with and therefore to some extent must exacerbate the poverty trap both for individuals directly and for society as a whole through the need to pay for the treatment of diseases associate with obesity. I would have liked the report to draw a connection between the ways that sport – more so than any other activity that might help disadvantaged youth to beat the five paths (like music, theatre, etc) – can help to combat poverty both through helping youngsters to engage with the mainstream and by improving general health.

The report also clearly states that it is not concerned with elite sport. I am not sure it is sensible to completely ignore this issue. In this context I think there is a value and importance in elite sport in that it is often the promise of fame and fortune that has excites and motivates youngsters in the first place and so it must be considered. I think that there is also the opportunity, by engaging with elite sport, to secure more funding and access to facilities that could create more opportunities for development through sport.

As might be clear from this write up, I have only really had an opportunity to briefly read the report and I would encourage anyone interested to download it from the CSJ website here. This is such an important area and I think that this should be a debate that we pursue as quickly as possible so that we can help as many youngsters as possible.

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