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Posted 11th July 2019

It’s now over a couple of years since the most recent strategies from the government and Sport England about how to get people more active. They signalled a sea-change in our focus and the way we work.

Sucked into doing the day job, I don’t often step back and take the thinking time that I need to do. Well, this week I’ve taken some time to think about the shift in our sector’s learning and approach during that period.

It’s not so long ago that National Governing Bodies were central to all development work; the theory being that if each NGB were to increase its numbers, then the sum of the parts would increase. It’s a whole separate debate about the why’s and wherefores of the approach and it’s not necessarily useful to try to dissect that now. But, importantly, what it did bring with it was a shift in the sector to be more business-like and marketing led. Very quickly we were thrust into the language of value propositions, consumer choice, routes to market, market segmentation and customer centricity, whilst products (actually services) were being prototyped and scaled up. I personally went full steam on the learning picking up an MBA along the way.

Taking an in-depth, systematic approach to marketing and keeping the customer at the centre of decision making obviously remains crucial to those directly delivering services, programmes or facilities. However, it fails to recognise that the decision and ability to be active, including playing sport, is much more complex than that of buying a pair of trainers. People aren’t consumers when they’re being active by taking a walk, playing in the park or cycling to work. They’re nobody’s customers choosing to consume the service of someone supplying them. They (probably) value being active, have the ability and capability to be so, and in most cases organise it themselves. Unfortunately, far too many people are not in the same position and, as a result, remain inactive.

We have now moved into a different world since the publication of the latest national strategies and our learning and focus of attention has shifted tremendously. It feels like now I should enrolling in an academic course on Public Health. That world is towards a local place-based approach to planning and delivery, and I have to say it’s really refreshing.

In my view, being locally driven, we’re overlaying at least three separate yet inter-related disciplines:

I am seeing a huge amount of great work and thinking taking place in all three and there are fantastic examples emerging from across the country. But, as yet, I’m not seeing enough of where the three come together, and that includes the work we at Yorkshire Sport Foundation are doing. My instinct is that all three need to come together throughout our thinking and our work.

Systems Building

I have to admit, when the terminology of “Whole System Approach” was starting to emerge a couple of years ago I found myself heading to Google to try to understand what is actually meant by it. The word “system” to me conjures up images of order, routine, method and logic. But we know that the world we live and operate in is much more organic and fluid than that. Having read some of the literature, I’m starting to get a better understanding, but I still think we could do without blandly throwing around such terms as “systems change” without really understanding its meaning.

In one sense it’s about making physical activity and sport everyone’s business. If we can get every teacher, every social care worker, every employer, every GP, every transport planner and everyone else to make a real commitment to include physical activity in their day-to-day work then that has the potential to make a massive shift in activity levels. For this to happen we’re talking about creating a “movement of movement” that we can all get behind.

I’ve attended a number of system mapping exercises over the last eighteen months which usually end up in a big sheet with lots of circles and arrows on it. I do understand it’s often more about the process in drawing up the map rather than the map itself, but I do think we can cut to the chase a bit sooner – especially when you consider the World Health Organisation’s framework sets it out neatly and succinctly.

Probably more important than the mapping, is the need to concentrate on how the eco-system works and each other’s role within it. This brings into play the importance of collaborative leadership that shapes values and behaviours. And I mean genuine collaborative leadership where letting go of decision making is the right thing to do.

The best articulation of this I’ve heard has come from Robin Tuddenham, CEO of Calderdale Council which has “kindness” at the core of how they all work. Stephen Covey talks of “moving at the pace of trust” which is one of those pithy lines that sums things up well. Again, there is a lot of learning opening up around collaborative leadership from both within and outside of the sector. Embarrassingly, it was only on a leadership course some time ago that it dawned on me that it really is all about people and not organisations and structures.

For the eco-system to work, it goes without saying we need to influence high level decision makers to make physical activity and sport a priority. Greater Manchester has done some terrific work there on embedding physical activity within policy across the county whilst closer to home for us, Doncaster and Calderdale have physical activity as high-level strategic priority in its own right.

This influencing work has required us to adopt and bring in specialist skills and a more thought-through approach. In particular, we have needed to be better at gathering and showing the stats and stories that make the case for physical activity and sport better than we have ever done previously.

Sport England’s local delivery pilot pages are really useful in signposting to further reading around systems thinking.

(Asset Based) Community Development

One of the biggest concerns over the last few years has been the widening of the gap in activity rates between those in the higher social groups and those in the lowest. No doubt the roots of this lay in a wide range of societal and economic factors way beyond our sector, but nevertheless, it is disheartening at the very least.

As well as the shift to more local-based planning in the national strategies, there was a re-emphasising of the social outcomes of physical activity and sport. I’ve often winced at the over simplistic terms of “sport for sports sake” or “sport for good” as if there is a binary choice to be had. Forever and a day there will be wider social outcomes attached to be being physically active and playing sport; it’s who the focus of the work is aimed at, who gets the most benefits that may differ. A more relevant discussion is whether we focus on population level reductions in inactivity or on the social outcomes of physical activity and sport. Whilst connected they aren’t one and the same thing, and at the moment it does feel we’re trying to do both.

And, to that end, almost inevitably we start to target our resources on the areas of our country that have most issues; usually our lowest income areas.

Martin Allyson recently distributed a thought piece arguing our sector’s “empathy gap” has been a major cause in our sector’s inability to address inequality. Again I reach for Google to stop me from making assumptions about its meaning:

Empathy: the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation (Cambridge Dictionary)

This is a major challenge: how can I as white, male, and (some would now say) middle-class really imagine what life is like in some of the areas in which we work? That’s not a cop-out, but a realisation of the privileged position I am in on a whole range of fronts. To bridge the gap we need to get into areas and talk to people we’ve never done so before. We need to genuinely understand how people live their lives before ever broaching physical activity and sport.

We’re not the first and won’t be the last to work in communities. Those working in Voluntary Community Organisations, Housing Associations, Local Authorities, the Health sector, police forces, and schools are much better placed and have a much greater understanding of the issues than us. It’s vital we connect and, on many occasions, work through and with those people and organisations. Around our county, community champions/activators/ambassadors are being employed in paid or unpaid roles, to get activity going – our Safiya in Burngreave is a shining example.

The asset-based approach turns past social interventions on their head, when we had various identified zones and regeneration programmes swinging in doing things to and for people. Starting from a position of strength rather than weakness seems obvious when thought about; as does working with – and having things delivered by – local people. It’s also taught us to be careful with language. We no longer consult with people we talk to them; nobody is really “hard to reach” we just haven’t looked hard enough; people aren’t customers, they’re people.

Yet we need to get beyond this rhetoric. Striking the right balance of doing “to, for, with and by” people is often difficult to find. Understanding sustainability doesn’t magically happen even with well thought through planning and investment. But, being difficult, unpredictable and taking a long time is no excuse for not doing the right thing. And this approach does feel to be the right thing.

Behaviour Change Models

Ultimately, as we all know, we’re trying to affect behaviour change so that physical activity is part of the day-to-day lives of everyone (I know words to that affect are written in everyone’s strategy).

Sport England’s strategy outlines the Transtheoretical Model which shows the decision making stages. It’s a bit limited in application and there are many other behaviour change models we can turn to.

A few years ago I listened to Nick Rowe speak about his theory of Sporting Capital and was immediately turned onto it, and since invited him to speak at various workshops in Yorkshire. Without going into detail, the principle of us all having a personal stock of psychological, physical and social attributes from which we draw upon to make the decision to be active, resonates. In the public health world, the COM-B model is similar and is far more common.

They turn on its head the pure concentration on removing “barriers” we have focused on in the past and instead recognise the importance of concentrating on the individual’s attributes – personal asset building, if you like. Once the personal stock is developed then individuals can be far more resilient in withstanding changes to their lives or circumstances.

Having an understanding of the principles of behaviour change is crucial for me. At an individual level we can’t just expect when people attend formal sessions or be active by stealth, that somehow their propensity to be active throughout their lives will increase. This needs to be worked at. So our deliverers should be concerned about, for example, their motivation, their network of friends, their skill levels, and so on.

It also brings into play the importance of the system. For example, Early Years and primary schools have obviously a huge role to play in ensuring the basic skills (agility, balance and coordination) are in place so that people are better equipped to choose being active for life. Similarly, social prescribing programmes need to include motivational interviewing within them.

There is very little, if anything, new in the environment our sector is now in – we’ve been here before and many have never left. However, I do believe we have huge opportunities here if we are able to connect these three areas together rather than as separate entities. At the moment, I see discussion on systems change expecting behaviour change to automatically flow from it; I see fantastic community development work still being frustrated by policies at a more senior level; and I see well-meaning programmes drift away as they are not owned or led by communities. We need to be better than that.

We could get carried away by all the theory on all three aspects and there are many academics and consultants, around who no doubt have their place. But my plea is to keep it simple and straightforward. Yes, we need to have a broad understanding of the three concepts and yes, we need to do the studying to get that understanding. And yes, it can be a complex environment. But in the language we use and in the way we deliver we need to keep it simple, real and grounded.

Along with our partners, we’re starting to think and act on bringing it all together at Yorkshire Sport Foundation. All our team have had basic awareness training on all three aspects. We support local partnership structures that give the hard wiring for system change and collaborative leadership. We have identified and started to work with specific low-income communities, with and through community organisations and local activators. And we are starting to measure aspects of behaviour change better.

But it’s only a start and we have much more to learn – and that’s the fascinating place we’ll be over the next few years.

Follow Nigel on Twitter – @NigelH4

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