Sport: Blurred boundaries

| 22 February 2006

Sport and youth work have traditionally gone hand in hand. But does teaching young people sport constitute youth work? PJ White investigates.

Does sport attract young people to youth projects? Can it keep young people attending who otherwise would drift away? Definitely, says Aldo Roncella, who runs Team projects for The Prince's Trust. The standard version of the 12-week programme aimed at re-engaging 16- to 25-year-olds is a mix of community-based volunteering, work experience, teaching and challenge. The aim is to provide a stepping stone back into education and jobs for troubled young people, says Roncella.

A couple of years ago, Roncella started a one-off Team project that incorporates cricket coaching and playing, held at Edgbaston cricket ground in Birmingham.

The game is a "great motivational tool", he says: "Cricket keeps young people engaged because they enjoy it so much." The programmes now run twice a year using an executive corporate box at the international cricket ground. Roncella finds it easier to recruit. And he reports that young people commonly admit they would have dropped out if the project was running at a local college instead.

The Prince's Trust now works with more than 60 football league clubs and 14 county cricket clubs. This capacity for engaging young people was reflected in the Youth Matters green paper, which featured ambitious proposals for delivering sport to 16- to 19-year-olds (see panel, below).

Ambitious target

No details of how this might happen have been worked out. But the target of offering two hours a week for all 16- to 19-year-olds is certainly a challenging one, says Peter Jackson, lead officer for sport, leisure and cultural services at Rochdale Council. Rochdale already has a big commitment to sport, with a team of six full-time sports development managers and part-time and sessional equivalents adding another five. Yet Jackson admits he wouldn't know how to go about delivering such a requirement for all young people.

Obviously it is easier to meet through large-scale team sports. But Jackson points out that many young people are more interested in individual sports.

This raises the central question - why provide sport for young people?

For Jackson, sport can be an end it itself. It can provide relief from boredom and diversion from semi-criminal activity. And it can bring health benefits to young people. But if it is used as a platform to build informal social education, then it moves beyond sport into the province of youth work, says Jackson.

Bernard Davies, experienced youth worker and youth work historian, points out that there is a strong tradition of sport and youth work running hand in hand. Youth workers would use sport as a way of developing good relationships with young people. But he has concerns that the effect of the Government's agenda could be to redirect resources away from youth work. He wrote in a recent issue of youth work journal Youth and Policy that the green paper did not see development managers as necessary "to support music or IT or other areas of interest".

Davies argues that if the youth sports development managers envisaged in the youth green paper are selected for their expertise in sport rather than because of any insight into youth work, that may mean "the exclusion of the already excluded". He acknowledges that sport has been a way out of deprivation for many young people who went on to realise their potential as top-class athletes. But equally, he says, there are many stories of young people being bullied by staff and by peers because they were no good at sport: "Unless it is happening in a youth work environment where some of the principles of youth work are being actively pursued, then I fear that could happen again."

Claudia Cockburn, a consultant on inclusion in sport, echoes Davies' recognition that unadulterated sport can be competitive and achievement-oriented. But she believes sport has considerable potential, not just to avoid those traps, but to challenge them.

When she runs sessions with youth workers, Cockburn stresses the need to be thoughtful, inclusive and cohesive. She often sees the opposite.

If young people want to play football, the thoughtless, exclusive and divisive approach is for the worker to let young people pick teams of 11 players each, then grab the whistle and run the session as if they were Arsene Wenger, she says. It doesn't fulfil potential, excludes those who aren't picked, doesn't share power, and reinforces barriers. "For instance, it often happens that you'll get Asian kids versus White kids," she says.

Look for reasons

Cockburn urges greater clarity about why young people want to play sport.

Some really want competition, she says. Some want to improve and develop their skills. They may want to keep fit. Or there are social reasons - to have fun with their mates, to get away from home. Each of those can be developed.

So rather than a full-scale football game, she suggests using benches to divide the space into three. Those who want competition can run a mini-tournament, splitting into four two-a-side teams, playing each other and taking it in turns to referee. In one space, a group could be practising their dribbling skills and in another young people could be playing keepy-uppy or just larking about. Everyone gets to join in, in a way that matches his or her reasons for being there.

There are doubts that the two-hours-a-week promise will achieve very much on its own. As Peter Jackson points out, two hours' respite from criminal activity is not a lot. Nor will it actually make that much difference to an individual's personal health and fitness.

But it may make a difference if youth workers use sport to challenge some of the competitive traditions - including redefining what it means to win. Cockburn would rather see, say, a young man beating his chest in celebration of success, not because his team has won but because he has contributed to some other achievement. That could be earning a fair-play award or playing a session without getting an asthma attack. As she says, redefining success is something youth workers can do.


The Government is keen on activities for young people.The Youth Matters green paper singled out the low level of participation in sport among over-16s as a concern. So it outlined ambitious proposals:

- All 16- to 19-year-olds - not just those at school or college - will be offered a minimum of two hours' sport and physical activity a week. To achieve that, the Government plans to invest in a network of local youth sports development managers

- The managers will "support the development of new opportunities within youth settings by advocating the use of sport for personal development"

- They will also provide youth workers with additional training on the delivery of "high-quality sporting opportunities"

- To reach those young people not in education, employment or training, the youth sports development manager will work with local partners and use existing national models of good practice, such as the Positive Futures programme, to engage young people in sport.

No-one knows yet how this will all work, or what level of funding there will be. No job descriptions for sports development managers have been published and it is not clear what kind of personal development will be offered within the initiative, or whether the Government regards sport as a means to deliver youth work or as a worthwhile end in itself.

The Department for Education and Skills says it has nothing more to add at the moment. It simply says that "further work will continue throughout the year to develop the proposal".


Basketball and football are the draws that bring young people to Haringey Warriors Youth Organisation in north London. Coming soon will be dance, says founder Jesse Peters. He explains that while a high standard of coaching attracts young people, there is much deeper personal development work going on as well.

"We advertise that you can play in the professional leagues and competitions as a way of engaging young people initially," he says. "But we teach our staff that they are not just there as coaches but also as youth mentors.

They get training in mentoring. They can then not just coach but build young people's life skills." There are 13 core elements to the life-skills programme that the project offers. They include confidence building, anger management, understanding people, character building, leadership skills, working with others and creating friendships.

Results are achieved over time, says Peters, and methods include one-to-one mentoring. The emphasis is on finding out what each young person needs so that they can become positive members of the community. "Our ethos is not only creating sporting excellence, it's also on creating real positive change within Haringey," says Peters.


There are coaching and refereeing opportunities too. Those who are not aiming to be top-class athletes can work towards professional qualifications in sport, such as the Community Sports Leader Award or basketball coach awards.

The project, set up in 2001, now has 100 young people a week attending, with more than 1,000 names on the database. Peters, himself an ex-offender, has an inspirational commitment that won him a Whitbread Young Achiever of the Year award in 2005. He is evidently proud of the way the project has grown. "In a community that is disadvantaged and doesn't have many opportunities for young people to become positive members of society, it's really good to see the way they've embraced it," he says.

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