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Collaboration key to achieving ambition in Uniting the Movement

Our chief executive Tim Hollingsworth says we must embrace new and innovative ways to increase participation.

22nd June 2022

by Tim Hollingsworth
Chief executive, Sport England

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Elevate Conference in London.

I was delighted to give the keynote speech – one of the first I’ve been able to give in person for almost two years.

It was an opportunity to talk about the work we’ve been doing with our partners to deliver on our long-term strategy – Uniting the Movement as well as what our work will look like over the coming months and years. I wanted to share here some of what I said about our view of the world in which we operate.

A girl prepares to take a shot while playing netball

Without doubt, the last couple of years have been very difficult, and the sport and physical activity sector is still recovering from the unprecedented challenges brought on by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

Thanks to our latest Active Lives Surveys, we know that despite activity levels dropping significantly during the national lockdowns we are now starting to see a recovery.

This is testament to the investment and work of so many dedicated individuals who worked unbelievably hard to help people stay physically active despite a level of restrictions few of us could ever have imagined.

However, while it could have been so much worse, we can’t be complacent. Activity levels are still down compared to pre-pandemic with 600k (1.9%) fewer active adults and 1.3m (2.6%) more inactive adults than there were in 2019. 

Furthermore, while the pandemic impacted everyone in some way, certain parts of our sector have been hit harder than others.

The leisure industry is a good example here, and while it is great to see good numbers of people returning to use their facilities, we know the additional burdens around rising energy costs, and recruitment and retention of the workforce continue to present challenges to this part of the sector. 

Certain groups have also been hit much harder than others and this is exactly why our strategy has tackling inequalities at its heart.

A few weeks ago, just two years after our Sport for all? conference, which looked at the ethnicity gap in sport,  we co-hosted Closing the gap in Manchester where more than 100 delegates from community organisations, governing bodies, athletes and politicians discussed some of the solutions to tackling inequalities in the sport and physical activity sector – many of which we’re working hard on already.

It was a fascinating and thought-provoking event, the insight from which will continue to fuel all of our work with our partners in helping to break down the barriers that stop certain people from reaping the benefits of taking part in sport and physical activity,

In recent years, we’ve shown that Sport England can adapt and help our sector face challenges head on.

From providing £270m worth of quick and essential support to sport organisations and to tens of thousands of clubs and community groups during the pandemic, to the development of our new strategy, we have sought  to provide the leadership and support needed to our sector so that grassroots sport, leisure and physical activity can thrive.

"Uniting the Movement sets out our intention to build a collective movement of people and organisations who will come together to tackle inequalities, level-up access and use sport and physical activity to help create more resilient, inclusive and connected communities."

But we can’t, and nor do we want to, do this by ourselves.

Uniting the Movement sets out our intention to build a collective movement of people and organisations who will come together to tackle inequalities, level-up access and use sport and physical activity to help create more resilient, inclusive and connected communities.

I believe that there’s a deepening understanding now that our collective role is to unlock the advantages of sport and physical activity for everyone – but in order to create a more level-playing field, we need to introduce new and innovative ways to increase participation.  

And for that we need to listen to local communities, grassroots networks, sports clubs, their volunteers, and our expert partners in these areas to understand local priorities, what works best and where investment is most needed.

Two of the organisations I shared a platform with – CIMSPA and ukactive – have been leading lights in working with and corralling their partners on key issues around tackling inequalities.

There are many other examples, of course, but we need to keep seeing more. This is just the beginning.

The challenges around us today – from the cost-of-living to continued post-pandemic uncertainty and the horror of the war in Ukraine – could easily make us feel disheartened that what we’re doing doesn’t impact enough on the massive issues around us.

But now more than ever we need to help people to embrace a life in which playing sport and being active can help them to be healthier and happier.

Work with those organisations that can help you make a difference. Find new ones who might hold the key to unlocking the change you want to see.

Don’t hold back. The prize of truly creating a healthier, happier nation is within our grasp.

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