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21 January 2016

Thursday 21 January 2016

Making sports fun and accessible for all: A new Mayor who prioritises sports for every young Londoner?

This blog has also been published on Huffington Post here.

Zoe Mellis, Head of Sports Development at London Youth, talks about why it's important to invest in sports for the young people of London. She also looks at how the new Mayor can support the growth of young peoples interest in sports.

For those of you with older siblings, you’ll understand what it is like to have been dragged along to various activities – sport, dance, drama – and having to sit, wait and watch because you’re still too young to join in.

It was on one of these occasions at a county short tennis tournament, with my brother, that I first picked up a racket at the age of 3. As ever, the girls’ tournament was very low on entries and I was asked to join in to make up the numbers. I won the tournament, absolutely loved it and have been playing racket sports ever since.

I was very fortunate, but not everyone has such an enjoyable first experience of sport. This can have a detrimental effect and drive a huge barrier preventing young people taking part. On 21 January, a huge range of organisations and young people will be coming together for the 2016 London Sports Awards to celebrate all the good things that are happening to give Londoners a chance to participate.

Since 2009 at London Youth we have been trying to give as many young Londoners the chance to play sport – and overcome the barriers that might be stopping them, by delivering high quality sports opportunities within youth clubs. In that time we have worked with over 14,000 young people all across the capital. 40% of these were previously considered ‘inactive’ – so not doing any sport beyond what was compulsory in school. We’re really pleased that 78% have gone on to complete our year-long programme once they’d got involved. 

The GLA has made sport a priority in London particularly since the Olympics, and provided generous funding for our programme and many others – and the London Sports Awards are a great illustration of what has been achieved.  But in the run up to this year’s Mayoral elections, we’re really keen that whoever becomes the next London Mayor should give an even higher priority to sport. Too many young Londoners are still inactive; at risk of obesity; or simply not having the fun and enjoyment in their lives that sport and other activities can bring, and that I was lucky enough to have access to myself. In particular, I’d like to see more girls and young people with disabilities having the opportunity to get involved.

We know from our own learning that sport is a fantastic way for young people to develop their confidence, resilience and team work. There is of course a place for competition, but first and foremost it should be about people playing, being active and having fun. We’ve asked hundreds of young people about their experience of our sports programme, and were impressed to find that 84% of those took part in sports in their local youth club because they just wanted to have fun.

So what makes sport fun, and what should the new Mayor prioritise if we want more young Londoners to participate? Here’s what our learning has told us…

Good coaching: The coach plays a huge part in whether young people will keep coming back each week. If the sessions are pitched at the right level for the group and delivered in a friendly, non-intimidating environment, young people will have a good experience and want to do it again. At the Laburnum Boat Club in Hackney, hundreds of young people get the chance to try all forms of water sports. One of the reasons they find their approach works is that the coaches are not only technical experts, but are also skilled youth workers in their own right. We need to develop coaches who can work in youth clubs, schools or other community settings who can emphasise the fun element of the sport while still having the expertise to teach the sport.

Offer choice and be inclusive: We want to ensure there is something for every young person to try, whether it is non-contact boxing, tag rugby, trampolining or the more traditional football or table tennis. We’ve found that by offering a range of different sports, and opportunities for girls-only sessions delivered by experienced female leaders, we can encourage even more young people to have a go. With support from A New Direction’s Cultural Education Challenge, we’re now linking sport with the arts to give more young people the chance to do high quality dance in community spaces. And we need more sports programmes designed so that young people with disabilities can take part on an equal footing.

Remove barriers: Instead of hoping that young people will come to specific places, why not take sport to where young people choose to be, feel safe and are wiling to try new things? Places such as youth clubs and community centres, and in settings which make things affordable and accessible to all.

Get in early: We’re delighted that the recently published sport strategy from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport suggests early intervention is key, and aims to address the drop off which inevitably happens each time a young person’s life changes significantly. Sport England has invested hugely in community sport, to great effect, and we hope the new strategy will see this investment sustained and grown.

We want the next London Mayor to build on the successes we have seen in London over the past four years. And most importantly – as youth organisations have set out in their shared vision for young Londoners – to guarantee all young Londoners the chance to play, volunteer, participate in sport, and take advantage of London’s fantastic cultural offer. London is a brilliant city, and we’re delighted to be celebrating at the London Sport Awards tonight. Let’s help all young people to enjoy it so it becomes even more fantastic in the future.

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