Shake, Debate, Shape – The future of physical activity and sport

Posted: Sat, 07 Nov 2020 12:35

Shake, Debate, Shape – The future of physical activity and sport

I'm writing this with the news of a second national lockdown ringing in my ears. It seems the last six months have provided ample time for reflection upon almost every aspect of our lives but in the very early weeks of this years' extraordinary events, my mind locked on to how we truly value physical activity and sport within the UK. There were clues aplenty!

Firstly, the national government continually chose, when referring to 'leisure' to preface it with the word 'hospitality', suggesting that as far as the government was concerned, frankly, our sector's value is akin to a couple of pints on a Friday night! This despite, the Chief Medical Officer stating (in a moment of enormous opportunity!) "there is no situation, no age, no condition, where exercise is not a good thing." Seemingly a view not shared, understood, or valued at the most senior leadership level across the country.

The narrative then shifted to 'gyms', and culpable in this were parts of our sector's leadership and it's journalists. A crass disservice to the rich breadth of physical activity was being done to championing 'our' cause, by suggesting that our sector was 'gyms'. In many respects this would only serve to confirm in the government's mind that our sector is, after all, just another 'commercial commodity'.

To illustrate further that we do not necessarily help ourselves, events over the "Liverpool Tier 3 weekend" (for want of a better term!) encapsulated it all. There was an earnest effort for 'gyms and leisure centres' to remain open, but I was left confused as to how the argument was being articulated.

Was it because the data was suggesting that transmission rates were low? Or was it because closure would lead to business failure? Or was the argument that physical activity is always important, but particularly at a time of ill-health, to maintaining good physical, mental and social health, a strengthened immune system, and as an inhibitor of major chronic disease?

Of course, all three are relevant but surely it is the latter where our true purpose and value lies?

Finally, to last weekend. By the wonders of modern technology, my mobile device alerted me that during the second lockdown, premier league football would continue. Maybe this means that "watching sport is more important than doing it"!

To be controversial, if our 'value' amounts to the 'narrative' I've just described, then what does that say about our sector's ability (including its' leadership) to get its message across?

I'm left to reflect on what to do now. Many of us have committed all our working lives to sport and physical activity – and we've contributed to its development – for good and for bad! The pandemic has profoundly affected organisations in the sector; facilities and activities are operating under restrictions and with reduced capacity, business models are no longer appropriate and sustainable, and services are under threat. It is my contention, that the pandemic has not caused these difficulties, it has merely exposed issues that have prevailed for some time.

I don't seek to disregard the amazing work that many professionals throughout many parts of the sector accomplish. I just believe that the evidence is clear; as a nation we neither value sport nor connect health to physical activity.

Sport and physical activity within the public sector have its roots in delivering inclusive, affordable and community centric activity, but my contention is that it has drifted into a place where it's services could be dispensed with.

As a non-statutory service, it has always been marginalised as financial pressure has intensified within local government. Consequently, it has become a convenient and irresistible financial receipt to local government; necessary as more acute funding challenges prevail in statutory services. Increasingly, sport and health intervention programmes have become marginalised and, in some cases, have become commercially unsustainable and therefore lost to the local community, and leisure facilities have become a totem market commodity (offering precious little difference to a commercial health and fitness club) rather than a component of a collaborative wellness service.

Sadly, the increase in facility supply (public and private) has not delivered a proportionate increase in participation and the failure of the system, compounded by the current pandemic means that issues of health inequality are more likely to deepen.

The solution? While the rest of the world are consumed by dealing with the here and now (understandably) there is a need for smart 'whole system' thinkers to 'shake, debate and shape' a reformed accessible and inclusive sport and physical activity sector.

It is time for us all, and particularly the leaders in our sector, to put aside vested interests and commit passionately to sport and physical activity and its role in society. We must think differently than we've thought before and we must show humility; we've contributed to what we've got but collectively and by embracing more diverse opinion and perspective, a 'wellness movement' could emerge, and I trust then that we could make a transformational change upon the health and well-being of our communities.

John Oxley - Now of Brand Oxley and until recently COO at Place for People Leisure

If this has resonated, you can see the shoots of a pathway forward at


Shake, Debate, Shape – The future of physical activity and sport

Tags: Featured, Local Government, Policy, Sport, Sport and Development, Sport for development, UkSport, community sport, school sport, sport england


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