Game theory: introducing adolescents to sport
Despite all the idealism that surrounded our Olympic bid, fewer teenagers than ever are playing sport. Now there’s a new state initiative to get things back on track. Samantha Laurie explores its chances of success
This summer a new sport arrives on the playing fields of Surrey. Rush hockey is a fast and furious five-a-side version of the mother game with fewer rules, mixed teams, an informal drop-in nature and a large dollop of public subsidy.
Funded by Sportivate – the government programme charged with inspiring more young people to participate in sport – it’s one of a number of events that are currently getting going around the county designed specifically to attract that most reluctant of sporting demographics: the teenager.
No small task. Last year, despite half a billion pounds of public funding and a four-year project to boost participation post-Olympics, the number of 16-19 year olds playing sport actually fell. Sport England, the agency responsible for the project, missed virtually all of its targets: of the promised one million new sports participants, a paltry 111,000 have emerged, while the number of women taking part in sport three times a week is less now than seven years ago, when Seb Coe put creating a lasting sporting legacy at the heart of the Olympic bid.
It was from that embarrassment that Sportivate emerged, and its brief is specific: to attract 14-25 year olds who play little sport to half a dozen free taster sessions, with a view to providing an entry route into local clubs.
In fact, it’s an impressive showcase of the breadth, diversity and quality of grassroots clubs in Surrey. Courses on offer include a six-week introduction to cable wakeboarding at JBSki in Chertsey, with coaching from one of the world’s leading female wakeboarders; a six-week kayaking course at Guildford’s Wey Kayak Club, which has three members currently in the GB squad; an introduction to parkour – a physical discipline based on movement around obstacles – in Tadworth; and a new girls’ rugby league team for 14- and 15-year-olds run by the London Broncos. Some courses run through links with local schools, but many are available to all via the website: activesurrey.com/sportivated.
Critical to Sportivate’s success will be its ability to reach the most disengaged group of all: teenage girls. This year the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) found that only one in ten girls at age 14 meets the official guidelines of one hour of physical activity per day – half the number of boys. Many are put off by school PE – too competitive, too traditional and too skewed toward the sportier achievers.
Girls’ sport needs to be more accessible, fitness-driven and social, insists Paul Reynolds, founder of Women SportsNet (wsnet.co.uk), a volunteer-run body that aims, inter alia, to introduce women to new sports through TRY days. He points to the success of ‘whole school fitness’ at private girls’ schools like Surbiton High, which have used sports leader courses and fitness events to involve every girl.
One sport that has been quick to catch on is netball – one of just four enjoying an increase in participation (the others are mountaineering, cycling and athletics). Back to Netball – a drop-in programme, run at leisure centres and colleges, which focuses on fitness and fun – has been key to attracting new players, as has FastNet, a pacier, more informal version of the sport.
But making sport appealing to women has to start in school. Funding cuts for the School Sports Partnerships – which gave schools access to a much broader range of sports than just traditional, competitive games – have been no help at all. The WSFF research found that girls begin playing less sport than boys during the last two years of primary school, tailing off completely by age 14. Yet primaries have been worst hit by the cuts, with access to sports teachers halved. Damningly, when the Schools Games – showpiece of school Olympic legacy policy – opened in May, only half of all schools were there.
Rush hockey, FastNet and the like are positive signs of a new approach, while Sportivate is a fine way of tackling the fall in participation when adolescents leave school. But these are efforts to recapture what should never have been lost. Without centrally earmarked funding, school sports will remain a patchwork of provision, with some heads prioritising funding and others not. In private schools, by contrast, the benefits of sport are well understood. That half of all our gold medallists in Beijing were privately educated speaks volumes.
For 2000+ free taster sessions in Surrey: activesurrey.com