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Getting the Message Across

By John Driscoll, sports coach UK Executive Director for Public Affairs

Three weeks on from this year’s UK Coaching Summit, two of the keynote speeches still stick in my mind. They came at opposite ends of Day Two, neither of the speakers knew what the other would say, yet the first was an uncanny curtain-raiser to the second.

Even more interestingly, delegate feedback on Andy Reed’s provocative What Future for Coaching in a fast-changing Environment? was sharply divided. Some delegates failed to see the relevance of looking outside sport at the wider social and political issues facing us, whilst others commented that his was one of the most inspiring sessions of the whole Summit.

As Chair of the Sport and Recreation Alliance and a former MP, Reed was uniquely placed to comment on the increased prominence of sport on the political agenda in recent years, and the complex inter-relationships between physical activity, health, education and an increasingly inactive, unhealthy and ageing population.

He provided a timely reminder ahead of next year’s General Election that we still need a co-ordinated approach to ensure that policy makers across all the relevant Government and shadow departments understand the impact which we can have on the nation’s health and well-being. The message was clear – we cannot assume that others are as sold on the benefits of physical activity as we are.

When Shona Robison MSP took to the stage to perform the Summit handover from Scotland to Wales, her keynote speech left the audience in absolutely no doubt that the Scottish Government has got the message. As Cabinet Secretary for Commonwealth Games, Sport, Equalities and Pensioners’ Rights, Ms Robison has an extensive portfolio.

She made it clear that the multiple health and wellbeing benefits of sport are widely understood and that sport is being used as a key element of the Government’s strategy to get the nation more healthy and active. “We need to ensure we take every ounce of legacy from the Games. We’re committed to get everyone in Scotland more active, and we can’t underestimate the role of the coach/athlete relationship in doing this.”

Scotland has got the message, but does the same apply elsewhere in the UK? Last year we commissioned research into the role of the coach in helping people move from being inactive to active, even if this activity is minimal. The report concludes “There is now compelling scientific evidence that increased levels of physical activity can bring wide ranging health benefits...Regular physical activity is linked with important health outcomes including reductions in cardio-vascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and depression, together with improvements in physical and cognitive function, weight management and quality of life”.

So far, so good. Our next priority will be to take up Andy Reed’s challenge and ensure the relevant policy makers shaping future Government agendas have got the message so that effective cross-departmental and cross-party strategies can be put in place.

This is not just about the politicians, though. Coaches have a role to play if we’re to succeed. The same report goes on to state that in spite of a very large number of initiatives and interventions aimed at increasing participation, there is no robust evidence to demonstrate exactly how such interventions can produce the best results, nor how individual, and often volunteer, coaches can achieve the best outcomes.  

As our Research Manager John McIlroy has previously commented, coaches are well placed to deliver health benefits, especially those experienced coaches who have developed the softer skills to work with different groups with very different needs.

There’s a further complication in that some other coaches don’t even see increased health and well-being as part of their role. They’re still focussed on skills development, even though our research insights show that many participants rate improved fitness and enjoyment higher than increased performance. The market segmentation within the England Coaching Plan confirms that the traditional club model of sport is in decline compared to less formal approaches. Coaches across each of the sectors, especially those working with inactive adults, must adapt too, understanding the varied needs of their participants and modifying their sessions accordingly.