Tim Crabbe, Chief Executive, Substance
Sport is of course the term we use to describe competitive physical activity or games that involve the use of physical skills whilst providing participants and spectators with entertainment and pleasure. In essence, it has no wider meaning or purpose beyond itself. Whilst it might not appeal to everyone, for many, sport is simply one of the good things in life!
Unsurprisingly then, like most things that people enjoy, it has long been put to other uses, whether that be to placate the masses in the form of a contemporary religion, a surrogate form of warfare or simply to make lots of money. The shame of these seemingly Machiavellian purposes is their focus on what people’s love of sport can deliver for those who are already in positions of power and influence. In a context where sports greatest virtue is its universality, both in terms of its appeal and its accessibility, what sometimes gets missed is what sport can do for those who participate in it… beyond the pleasure of the sport itself.
Whilst not wishing to suggest that the Youth Work in Sport partners were engaged in the kind of subterfuge practiced during the Trojan War, we should not underestimate sport’s power to open gates to those individuals that others may have found difficult to engage. Launched in September 2011, the Youth Work in Sport Initiative (YWiS) was a partnership programme between The Robertson Trust, The Rank Foundation, YMCA George Williams College and community sports organisations based in Scotland. It aimed to create a better understanding of what works when using sport to engage young people, particularly those considered ‘hard to reach’.
For a number of the delivery partners, this was new territory. Whilst they all worked with young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, for some, there was still a prime focus on simply helping people to get better at sport. The potential game changer the YWiS programme wanted to explore was whether placing a youth work trainee in the middle of these organisations would broaden that outlook and lead to greater community benefit.
Substance’s task, as the programme evaluators, was to help capture the changes that emerged at the level of the individual trainee youth workers, the organisations that hosted them and in the wider community. As the programme was itself a form of participatory action research the process was at times both challenging and inspirational. Trainees, often being exposed to completely new theoretical paradigms and ways of learning, could be daunted or converts to a cause. Host organisations’ responses ranged from resistant, to tolerant to transformative.
Perhaps the biggest change that occurred was that all those involved began to think more about the difference their work made. Stepping outside the bubble of delivery, individuals and organisations began to think more about the purpose of their work, how the way it is delivered affects who engages and the wider potential for personal and community development that sport can generate. They also thought about how to record and share those achievements to help make the case for the work they do.
Unusually, the programme and the evaluation were never themselves focused on measuring ‘success’ in terms of the achievement of some pre-set targets. Rather, much like the experience of the youth work trainees themselves, it was a learning journey intended to explore the drivers of organisational and cultural change within community sports organisations.
Whilst the YWiS programme may not yet have flung open the gates to a new wave of youth workers, we have learned so much from which others can benefit. A new micro-site draws together the key learning from the programme and suggests approaches that clubs and organisations using sport may want to think about if they are seeking to involve young people and broaden the purpose of their work.