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Engaging young people through sport and physical activity - Atlantis Community Leisure’s story

Please note that The Robertson Trust has published its new Giving Strategy. This sets out the priorities we will have when awarding funds through our open grants programme. The existing application form and guidelines can still be used until July 31st. In line with our existing procedures, we will aim to assess and present all applications received by this date to our September Board meeting. In the event that we are unable to do so, your application may be held until our November meeting. In such cases a member of staff will contact you and provide any assistance required to realign your application with the new Giving Strategy. Find out all you need to know here.

Nick Wesley, General Manager Atlantis Community Leisure

When Atlantis Leisure opened its doors in 1998, the aim was to provide the town of Oban with a leisure centre it could be proud of; a resource which offered something for all in the community, regardless of background, age or sporting ability.

Despite having this ethos from inception, our involvement in Youth Work in Sport (YWiS) over the past five years has been the catalyst for us to ask many of the questions necessary to understand our role and impact.  Were we really making the difference we thought we were? Were we collecting the right data and responding appropriately to the voices of the people we wished to help? And, perhaps most importantly, were we really doing all we could to engage the hardest to reach groups in the community?

In that sense, the legacy of YWiS has been twofold; teaching us both about the effectiveness of a person-centred, youth work approach for widening access to our facility; and the importance of adopting a learning approach to encourage organisational buy-in.

Engaging hard-to-reach young people

While partnership programmes with local schools helped us engage many young people in the community, we were acutely aware that there were some groups we were simply not engaging. In fact, very often, these groups did not feel welcome in the centre (even although we did try hard). This could have been for many reasons; cultural, peer pressure, anxiety or perhaps a bad previous sporting or group experience.

The introduction of Donna, our youth worker through YWiS, transformed this. Firstly, she put time and effort into building strong relationships with organisations we had not previously engaged with, including the local hostel and children’s home, where she even did a week’s placement.

As a result, she got to know many of the young people we were struggling to engage with. Donna would arrange activities at places that they felt comfortable with, and would then introduce them to the centre, and she would build activities around their needs and interests. This person-centred approach is the key difference from traditional sports development approach, where the focus tends to be on the activity and increasing participation and performance within it.

Consequently, Donna became somebody on the ground the young people could relate to and trust. She helped encourage many who would previously have been turned away to visit the centre and even undertake work experience placements, some of whom are now full-time employees despite non-sporting backgrounds. Indeed, one employee, Robbie, who came to our attention through YWiS, still tells us how his current job is “the most unlikely thing I ever thought I’d do," - in fact, you can read Robbie's story at the bottom of this article.

"Donna became somebody on the ground the young people could relate to and trust"

Hiring the right person is key to success stories like this; in Donna, we had a local person who was not only passionate about becoming a community leader, but whose sporting and personal background the young people could recognise and easily relate to.

Understanding our impact

Perhaps even more importantly, Donna also became confident enough to challenge our internal culture. Those who believed certain groups of young people were “ruining it for everyone else”, had to be convinced of the merits of removing barriers and reaching out, and this required consistent communication of learning and successes.

As well as making YWiS a standing item at our board meetings, we also introduced a ‘success story’ slot at the start of each meeting, which has completely changed the dynamic. Instead of beginning meetings with the usual challenges of running a centre (breakdowns, leaky roofs etc), we now begin with stories written by young people which bring the work of YWiS to life. Celebrating success is key to maintaining enthusiasm and we now aim to collect at least three stories every month.

Meanwhile, YWiS has helped us become more creative in understanding the impact of the programmes we run. As opposed to feedback forms, we use more engaging ways to gather feedback from young people, such as throwing footballs into buckets, and use this data to help make the case internally and learn more what about what’s working and what isn’t. We also encourage young people to take more of a role in designing sessions; for instance, we have created a forum which has allowed the young people to tell us what they would like to see at Friday Freestyle, a weekly event which sees the whole leisure centre made available to all high school children on a Friday evening. This event is very popular and offers the opportunity for other local youth organisations to provide staff and volunteers, and in this way they can get to know the young folks in an informal fun setting.

YWiS Legacy

It’s important to emphasise that YWiS has not been a silver bullet. There are still young people we struggle to engage, particularly older teenagers, and, following the end of the programme and Donna’s departure, there are inevitable time and resource constraints for carrying on the work to the same level.

However, the success of YWiS in terms of culture change at Atlantis can be seen on a daily basis. Where once we may have seen hassle, we now see opportunity. Where once we may have asked certain groups to leave, we now ask ourselves, “can an effective community resource really ignore members of its own community?”

There are no longer any physical barriers at Atlantis and this is a microcosm for how we now operate as an organisation. As a community facility, we are there for all, and YWiS has helped us realise the importance of not forgetting this.


Robbie’s Experience

Starting here at Atlantis Leisure was a new experience in many ways for me. This was my first occupation after leaving school and coming into the world of work in 2015  was certainly a shock to the system. I originally started my tenure here as a receptionist, later moving on to work as a full time leisure attendant. I learned a great deal during this time and gained some much needed life skills to which I can take to just about any other job I have in the future. Skills such as interaction with customers, planning and development, delegation, the ability to remain calm in emergencies, working within a team and improving my communicative skills, but most importantly, I learned what life in the workplace was like. Atlantis was a terrific first job as it allowed me numerous opportunities to develop in terms of both gaining qualifications, including my first aid and Lifeguarding certificates, and as a person.

My time here has been marked with huge developments to my confidence, self-esteem, professionalism and work ethic. I've been mentored by some exceptional people and gained many friendships that will last a lifetime. Despite not being an especially sporty person the management here at Atlantis Leisure find ways to make use of my other abilities, such as writing short adventure games and stories for our 'Freestyle Friday' programme.

I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunities presented to me by Atlantis, and hope that I can give back to Atlantis just as much as it has given to me. 

Our Youth Work in Sport microsite pulls together key learning from the programme and provides a range of case studies and tips for organisations seeking to engage young people through sport and physical activity. Our summary guide, meanwhile, distills much of this learning into a handy two-page PDF.