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Youth voice can be a game changer

During #iwill week, our head of volunteering Kristen Natale lays out why we should be listening to the voices of young people and how it can have a positive impact on sport and physical activity participation levels.

20th November 2020

by Kristen Natale
Head of volunteering, Sport England

Before coronavirus (Covid-19), more than half of 5-16-year-olds were not active enough to get the associated health, social and educational benefits.

The single biggest driver of activity for young people is enjoyment, but too often the current system doesn’t deliver this. In order to change this, we need to listen more to children and young people and involve them in decision-making to create the type of experiences young people want.

By embracing youth voice and allowing young people to have a say in shaping sport and physical activity, we can help to make opportunities more relevant, more fun, and enable young people to support their peers to be more active.

A group of boys at a Volunteer it Yourself project, building a clubhouse, throw footballs at the camera

It can also help us better understand and address some of the barriers young people face, from confidence to take part or issues like body image or sexism. We’ve seen this demonstrated by our Potentials Fund projects.

It’s about creating opportunities for the ideas, opinions, knowledge and experiences of young people, in all their diversity, to inform and shape decisions and what you do as an organisation.

Youth voice has the potential to be a game changer for sport and physical activity.

What works?

Every day, thousands of young people are supporting others to get active and experience the benefits and #iwill week is a great time to celebrate this. But embedding youth voice goes beyond just having a programme or project to engage young people.

So, here are some of the key ingredients behind some of the successful approaches to embedding youth voice in sport.

It's got to be genuine

It’s not enough to just have young people in the room where decisions are taken, there needs to be a genuine openness to listening to their views and commitment to taking action in response. Without this, it can feel tokenistic and organisations miss out on the benefits of the ideas, skills and experience young people can bring.

This requires buy-in and commitment to youth voice across the organisation, and an understanding that part of this commitment requires giving young people the support and training they need to feel confident going into new contexts and articulating their views in spaces like a board meeting.

It must be inclusive

Creating accessible opportunities for young people from diverse backgrounds is a key priority for many sports and something we need to build on.

There’s a significant gap in participation between low-income young people and their wealthier peers, and we see a similar inequality in activity levels – with 54% of children from the most affluent families considered active, compared to 42% from the least affluent families.

Before coronavirus

More than half of 5-16-year-olds weren't active enough

It’s therefore crucial we provide accessible opportunities and tackle the barriers low income young people face to getting involved. This can include addressing practical barriers such as providing expenses for travel to events or meetings for all young people, or making it possible to join meetings online or remotely. Scheduling meetings and opportunities that fit in around work, studying or caring responsibilities can also make it easier to join in.

Making adverts for roles or communications about getting involved feel accessible and relevant is also important. For example, using social media to share adverts for roles or allowing video applications.

Why not collaborate more, too? Working in partnership with organisations that young people trust and relate to can be an effective way of reaching out to new audiences, or a way to seek expert guidance on how to improve access to opportunities.

Remember that young people know how to do this better than you

This perhaps should be obvious! But sometimes it’s easy to forget that young people are experts in what works for them, or for us to not give the views of young people enough weight in our decision-making when we’re looking through the lens of our role as professionals, or indeed as adults.

We often think it’s up to us to find the solutions, but in this mindset we fail to really embrace the value young people can bring and we take a familiar path.


of children from the most affluent families were considered active, compared to 42% from the least affluent

What came across from some of the examples shared with us is that if we truly embrace young people’s ideas, imagination, creativity and skills, and are brave enough to try something new, it often delivers a much better solution than we could ever have come up with.

Why not ask a young person to work with you to reflect on the mindset and culture of your organisation and look at your decision-making processes to helping you enable more of this to happen?

It's a journey

Embedding youth voice doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time and resource, and so it’s important to plan and invest in the longer term.

The ultimate ambition for many in the sport sector is to get to a place where consulting with young people is not an afterthought, but instead is embedded at all levels throughout their sport.

England Golf shared with us the journey they’d been on with their Young Ambassadors, developed in partnership with the Golf Foundation. It took time, but they’re now in a place where young people are actively involved in key decisions and the Young Ambassadors are finding their feet in leading the development of the game – helping to make the sport feel relevant to young people and sharing their passion to help challenge stereotypes about the sport they love. They produced this film to do just that.

What next?

Our role as a match funder in the #iwill Fund, a joint investment from The National Lottery Community Fund and the Department for Digital, Culture and Media and Sport, was an important step on the journey for us and our Potentials Fund has helped us learn more about how to put youth-led social action at the heart of sport and physical activity.

Other funders are also considering how they can do more, like the National Lottery Community Fund and their Young People in the Lead advisory panel.

Considering how effectively we involve young people in our work will continue to be important as we move to implementing our new strategy next year, with positive experiences of children and young people an important priority for us.

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