Language and Positioning - or the case of ‘Finding Nemo’

Posted: Fri, 24 Nov 2023 10:07

Language and Positioning - or the case of ‘Finding Nemo’

If there was any hope and new dawn to emerge from the pandemic - goodness, we've almost forgotten about it! - it was that many across the sport and physical activity sector began to examine, far more earnestly than ever before, our true purpose.

There have been considerable challenges across the landscape over the last three years that have affected, public, commercial, third and voluntary sectors, but almost unanimously, there has been a realisation that the one thing that is common to us all is that we contribute to the nation's good health.

Whilst that has become more apparent to those who work across the sport and physical activity sector - to the extent that it is probably more appropriate to refer to ourselves as the active well-being sector - the perception of others, particularly decision-makers and policy makers at both local and national level, does not quite have the same sense of clarity…….and frankly why should it?

If I can draw on a scene from 'Finding Nemo' (bear with me!) as I do in my Transformational Leadership Programme, it illustrates that the responsibility lies first with ourselves.

Bruce, a shark, has assembled a self-help group of other sharks with a desire to change the perception of others in the deep sea world. Their mantra is:

"I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends not food."

You see, whilst the realisation might have dawned upon ourselves that we have a role to play in contributing to the good health and therefore well-being and productivity of the nation, it is incumbent upon us to articulate ourselves consistently AND to show understanding AND behave in a way that demonstrates integrity and sincerity.

It is something we haven't always done, but the stakes are much higher now.

The nation's aquatics facilities reside almost exclusively within local authority ownership. The ability to competently swim 25m by the age of 11 remains a statutory educational standard, yet the financial pressure placed upon the public purse is seeing community 'leisure' facilities close.

And there lies our first clue.

I believe our principal objective is to position ourselves appropriately and respectfully as a component of a preventative health service.

That means we must challenge the use of the word leisure - it suggests that it's privileged and optional. Surely, the nation's health is more valuable than that?

And whilst 'leisure' is a non-statutory service and unlike local government library services, it's 'business model' has a fee-paying component to it, it's purpose is to meet the needs of 'communities' not 'markets'.

So if we go back to our principal objective, how best might we position ourselves more purposefully, not to make a financial 'ask', but to be valued by (the likelihood of) a new government as a contributor to a better society?

Firstly, we must speak consistently and articulate with a single voice. We have a myriad of national bodies which hasn't always helped our cause as inconsistencies of messaging have spilled out. Thankfully, we now have the National Sector Partners Group - this can and should be the single voice that articulates to central government effectively - it will demonstrate common cause and understanding across a varied eco-system and manifest itself as collaboration in action!

Secondly, we must talk about mental and social good health as much as physical (exercise is just a means to improved mental and social well-being). My personal experience of listening to others who are physically active, almost exclusively centres around the emotion of just 'feeling better' - that is being healthy in mind and being socially connected.

Thirdly, if we are to be understood by others and wish to articulate ourselves in 'health' terms then we must be prepared to listen and learn 'the language of others'. It is not acceptable to glibly use new terms and phrases; we must be prepared to have a deep, learned and collective understanding of terms such as population health, health inequalities, social determinants of health, place-based initiatives - before we use them.

And so to the question of value. Our sector has been seemingly obsessed by the notion of social value in order to prove its worth, and has merrily grabbed the social value protocol developed by Sheffield Hallam University ……… when all along HM Treasury has already defined the social value metric that it recognises. It's called the WELLBY, it can be matched across to the QALY which is used to establish value in health, and we should universally adopt this measure in order to present ourselves more relevantly and meaningfully.

Which brings us to my fifth point. If we are to be meaningful and relevant in the context of the health of the nation, then surely now is the time to extract ourselves from the irrelevance of DCMS, where we sit shoulder to shoulder with pubs, clubs and betting, and strive to 'fit in' to the DoH - I don't doubt that it will be any 'easier' but it is more relevant!

So to the sixth dimension! Two years ago the Health White Paper set in statute the notion of preventative health as an objective of a structural re-organisation and the creation of an Integrated Care System. There are some outstanding examples of health intervention programmes being delivered within the sport and physical activity system - we simply need to ensure that we match the outcomes desired from those programmes with those described by Integrated Care Boards.

And so to the final, and arguably most important imperative. Leadership Leadership Leadership. This is about a preparedness to talk to others and not ourselves. It's therefore critical that we acquire the habit to listen and the skills to collaborate and influence. We are simply a component of a wider system and therefore must work with others in education, social care, children's services, criminal justice and others…….and listen to what they have to say and hear of the challenges that affect those traditionally excluded and under-served by sport and physical activity.

Undoubtedly, we are further on than we've ever been; more aware and more appreciative. Those with whom we have a desire to collaborate may be less appreciative and that's Bruce's point in 'Nemo'. To change the views of others we must first change ourselves.

It will require us to have a selfless mentality and leave ego at the door - those our unnatural and rarely seen features within sport and physical activity BUT they will be ESSENTIAL in the arena of health and well-being.

John Oxley

Tags: Health, Local Government, Policy, Sport, Sport for development, community sport


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