Can 2021 be the year when community sport makes a welcome return?
Nobody really knows what the situation will be like once this latest lockdown ends but there will be some kind of transition period before community sport can get back on track. So many sports clubs rely on a volunteer infrastructure and we simply don’t know how their volunteers have been affected by the pandemic. We just don’t know enough about their mental and physical wellbeing and whether they will feel able to continue to volunteer once things return to normal. Circumstances at home or at work may have changed significantly during the last year and that’s certainly going to be the case with some volunteers. I’m expecting a real mixed bag in terms of what can be delivered once lockdown restrictions are eased. Some of that will be determined by what individual governing bodies allow but there is bound to be an impact on the volunteer network. It’s going to be a tricky landscape for clubs to navigate. We can all point to one or two individuals at each club who are key to how that club is run and if they have to take a step back as a result of the pandemic then that could have far wider repercussions. Hopefully we can see the welcome return of community sport this year because so many people are working incredibly hard to make that happen.
Volunteers really are the lifeblood of community sport and do you feel they will require extra support as we emerge from lockdown?
There has been a lot of additional pressure on volunteers and especially those whose responsibility it is to comply with safety measures around Covid-19 — when it has been possible to play. There are Covid officer roles which have been created and the responsibility on the shoulders of these people has been huge. It’s a significant undertaking and my fear is that there will be a lot of volunteers who just don’t feel as if they have the skills to fulfil that role safely and successfully. As we transition out of lockdown again will we have the people required to get community sport back to where it needs to be? I hope so but I think that all volunteers will need extra support as we emerge from lockdown. That could be practical support — to allow clubs to operate safely — or social support to give volunteers the confidence they need to return to their roles.
Earlier this year Sport England released their latest Active Lives survey. In your view, what were the key findings?
In terms of the opportunities available to children I think there were a number of interesting things that came out of the Active Lives survey. While activity levels for children may not have dropped as significantly as they did for adults — maybe kids have been doing the Joe Wicks sessions or something similar — what has been lost is the social interaction that clubs provide. A significant impact of the pandemic is that lack of social interaction and social support and that’s probably going to be a long-term issue which doesn’t have a quick fix. So, the sooner that we can get children back into community sports clubs — where they’re able to interact with their peers and learn the skills associated with being part of a team — the better. The longer that those opportunities are denied to young people the greater the negative impact in the long term.
Do you fear successive lockdowns and limited opportunities will mean some young people never return to community sport?
When you’re in a weekly routine of going to school or going to your football club you’re exposed to all sorts of new opportunities and there are targets to hit and goals to achieve. As soon as you slip out of that routine — and in this case because of a global pandemic — getting back into it and approaching your health and wellbeing with a positive mindset becomes more and more difficult. When we have gaps like we’ve experienced during the last 11 months, when provision for physical activity has been suspended for so long, it has a serious knock-on effect. Momentum and motivation is difficult to maintain and even when we can get back to reopening our clubs a full return won’t happen overnight. My concern is that more and more people of all ages and abilities will find it difficult to return to sport for a number of reasons.
Have you been surprised at how resilient people have been in terms of maintaining physical activity in spite of the restrictions associated with COVID-19?
Believe it or not, there has been a plus side to everything that we’ve been through during the last 11 months. There’s been so much innovation in terms of delivering sessions using digital technology. Courses have been delivered online and coaching sessions have taken place virtually. There are elements of what we’ve seen happening in this respect which will be retained in the long term. There will be a change in terms of how people can access a full range of club activities but we have to remember that not all young people have access to laptops, computers or reliable internet connections. National governing bodies need to work on establishing productive partnerships which can help clubs and individuals navigate their own journeys using digital technology.
What is your greatest concern as we look towards a future when community sport can return?
I do worry about those kids who might be living in households where people have lost their jobs during the pandemic and income might be stretched more than it was this time last year. Parents and carers might not be able to afford to send children back to their clubs and of course we’ve always had a higher proportion of low income households in the North East.
North East based organisation GiveToLocal is committed to supporting community sport on a national scale — how do you think its service can make a difference?
I first came across GiveToLocal in North East Times Magazine and I immediately felt that there was an obvious connection to Rise and the work we do. Our mission is to tackle inactivity and successful community sports clubs are an integral part of that. If GiveToLocal can help clubs to survive and thrive then that’s fantastic. Anything that helps young people and adults to stay active and engage in regular physical activity is hugely important. The benefit of the GiveToLocal approach, as I see it, is the focus on connecting clubs to local businesses and embedding these clubs within the community. It’s easy to focus on the financial perspective but by raising awareness around community sport the benefits to clubs might include businesses offering their time or advice. That can be invaluable to volunteer-led community sport clubs. The profile that GiveToLocal can bring to community sport clubs could make a huge difference. Once it’s safe to get out and about again it’s important that clubs make the most of opportunities to reopen up their facilities to the community. GiveToLocal is in a position to spread the word at what will be a critical time.
For more information on how you can support Rise’s mission to help more people enjoy the benefits of an active lifestyle visit www.wearerise.co.uk
To find out more about GiveToLocal, register for one of this month’s free webinars on February 16 and 17. Visit www.givetolocal.com/nee-webinar