Lessons from the Raducanu story: transforming fairytale dreams into real world results
Posted: Mon, 11 Oct 2021 09:30
Emma Raducanu's victory at the US Open dominated the headlines in recent weeks. Her fairytale win as a qualifier, her willingness to think differently and her recognition of team have marked her out as an athlete on a mission. It's a story that has lasting lessons for all of us with a passion for increasing physical activity, community inclusion and personal well-being.
Believing the fairytale
The past decade has seen wide-ranging efforts to get our nation more active, healthier and stronger. As the importance of mental wellness and the benefits of activity on chronic health conditions become ever clearer, there have been numerous worthy initiatives intended to get us moving. Leisure centres have opened their doors, offering subsidised programmes, free use of facilities for the homeless and free swimming for under 16s. Start-up gyms have disrupted the market, with value pricing and extended opening hours. Community sports clubs have evolved their offers to be more inclusive and accessible. Sporting bodies and funding partners have adapted their language to focus less on organised sport and more on informal activity.
And yet getting our nation active still feels like something of a fairytale win. Despite all these initiatives and invested funds, Sport England's Active Lives study showed that the number of active or fairly active adults effectively flatlined from 33.0m in November 2016 to 33.1m in 2020. Over the same timeframe, those reporting as inactive increased from 11.3m to 12.3m. While some encouraging gains were made in the intervening period, these were wiped out by Covid and many children missed out on the informal recreation that goes hand in hand with schooling and open parks.
An even more recent study by ukactive, the leading voice for the physical activity sector, highlighted that just 27% of UK adults say they are as physically fit as they would like to be following the pandemic. Other findings reinforce what many of us in the sector know by anecdote or experience: hard won habits can quickly be lost.
While health inequalities are stubborn, clearly the answer is not to give up on the fairytale. No one thought a qualifier would win the US Open. Focus, determination and resilience are key to success. But perhaps part of the answer is thinking differently: not just about the terminology and language of sport, but about its physical location and delivery.
Convention dictates that, outside of the education system, sport takes place at leisure centres and clubs. Many of us working in the sector will have been fortunate enough to grow up with swimming lessons at our local pool, matches at the football club or dance classes in a sports hall. Yet in the wake of Raducanus's win, Scott Lloyd, former CEO of the UK's leading commercial tennis operator and now at the helm of the LTA, is focused on revamping local park courts - not private members clubs - in a bold mission to 'open up tennis'. Backed by the government, the LTA will commit over £30m to refurbish and activate up to 4,500 park courts. Lloyd recognises (along with Judy Murray too) that tennis courts in parks are accessible to more people than those behind the walls of a club, and more affordable too. The 'Emma effect' may provide the inspiration but, if tennis is to capitalise on her win, its leaders need to think differently and ensure there is opportunity to play locally in an easy and welcoming environment, which parks provide.
The same is surely true for other sports? Parkrun - established by a social entrepreneur rather than a governing body - has demonstrated that providing opportunity to get people involved in easy, local and community-led activity can drive lasting behaviour change. Other park facilities, from tennis courts and MUGAs to ping pong tables and 'all wheels' ramps, can draw people in. There are no memberships, dress codes, intimidating buildings or rules to follow. There is little or no requirement to pay, whether playing or spectating. Co-locating amenities and a community cafe in multi-activity park hubs with motivated teams means not-yet-active people can 'happen upon' activity, 'bump into' others like them and 'discover' local support networks on their doorstep. Low-cost, entry level exercise options can be offered, on a drop-in or pre-booked basis, co-designed with participants and differentiated by lifestage, intensity or ability. Green (outdoor) exercise enables fresh air and natural light which help body and mind, facilitate enjoyment and adherence, and tap into our desire for community.
And yet this 'movement for movement', as some might call it, hasn't happened to date, or perhaps not in the way that maximises its potential. Volunteers do fantastic work at a local level but lack the infrastructure to amplify their reach or the funds to commit to leases that require on-going investment. Nor do they have the slick online booking, sustained promotion and good customer care which go hand in hand with the personal responsiveness that leads to transformative outcomes. Commercial operators, meanwhile, are drawn to larger sites or portfolios of facilities because, understandably, they have higher overheads and financial stakeholders to manage. The media have reported pervasively throughout the pandemic how complex it is for leisure centres with even the most energetic teams to make the economics work.
And so as Raducanu was willing to think differently about where she trained (staying local), how much she competed during her A-levels (not much) and taking bold decisions with her team (two coach changes since Wimbledon), perhaps it is time to think and act differently about how we deliver leisure and sport.
Translating the fairytale into real world results is a goal we all share. Our experience suggests the sequential and separate interventions in sport do not adequately move the dial within a locality. A lot of P's - place, people, programme, platform, promotion and partnerships - have to come together at the same time. Thinking differently means really collaborating across the board as a team.
Winning as a team
Raducanu is a Toronto-born Brit who has a Romanian father and a Chinese mother. While she plays an 'individual' sport, she is clear that her parents, childhood coach, physio and the LTA all form part of a team that made her Grand Slam win possible.
The team is also central to helping park hubs achieve the fairytale of getting more people more active. The blend of skills and ideas that emanate from individuals adept in community outreach and delivery, in food service and hospitality, and in marketing and events - all underpinned by passion and purpose - can create the conditions for success. Commercial heads and community hearts must align to drive sustainable economics that escape a grant funding dependency, and social outcomes that transform local communities.
While the team operating a park hub may be diverse, they are just one node in a network. Stakeholders must work together to put physical and mental well-being front and centre in their strategies, policies and routines. Councils must resist the short-termism that often restricts investment and system change and, after successive budget cuts that have hit their leisure and parks teams hard, they need to find new ways of working. Governing bodies, industry associations and strategic funders must also be open to trying new things (and failing, and trying again). GPs and social prescribing link workers must continue their excellent efforts to refer target groups and individuals into relevant, practical and life-affirming activities. Community hub teams, assisted by volunteers, can then shine and offer support to those who need it most, alongside others who are already happily active.
We're yet to see what happens next with Raducanu but all of us working in physical activity and leisure can learn and apply three key lessons from her remarkable story.
First, we can believe in the fairytale of an 'activity epidemic': we should not underestimate the challenge, but nor should we over-engineer the solution. Even with limited resources, change is possible.
Second, we can think and act differently: while Emma has time on her side, others stuck in the cement of inactivity might not. Let us try, try and try again to free them for living better and longer.
Third, we can celebrate the importance of teamwork: Raducanu won 10 matches in New York one point at a time, drawing strength from the team around her. So too can we work towards combating inactivity together, one step at a time.
By Jeff Hunter: CEO, Courtside Hubs CIC
About the author
Jeff has been a pro tennis player, management consultant, MBA student and sports event operations director. Following London 2012, he took over a tennis business with a passion to increase participation and the diversity of those playing. Activity camps in the holidays led to coaching programmes in schools, outreach programmes in the community and tennis in local parks. Tennis in local parks led to a community café and co-located multi-activity hub, which led to the development of the community interest company, Courtside.
Courtside is a CIC dedicated to increasing physical activity and promoting community through the transformation of local parks. Founded in 2015 and run by an experienced and entrepreneurial management team, it operates an award winning multi-activity hub in Oxfordshire and has local partnerships in 35 parks from Sheffield to Southampton. Courtside has 55,000 customers and has driven almost 2 million hours of community participation. To find out more about how the company improves lives and communities, take a look at their 6 P's and get in touch.