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Child’s Play: It’s Time to Give Sport and Physical Activity Back to the Children

The Children’s Coaching Collaborative exists to create a grass-roots movement of organisations and individuals who are committed to providing positive experiences of physical activity and sport for children. Sport England’s Stuart Armstrong and UK Coaching’s Heather Douglas explain to Blake Richardson why it is critical we turn traditional adult-led coaching practice on its head and start educating coaches on the benefits of adopting a child-first approach. And why the time to act is now!

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

Okay, let’s get the bad news out of the way. 

Sometimes it feels like all news is bad news and that our lives are being played out against a backdrop of world-weary voices.

This is the age of perpetual crisis, where everything we read and hear is sad or shocking, or both! Doomsday scenarios of war, national health emergencies and economic crashes flood the news feeds.

These vie for our attention alongside a daily deluge of celebrity drivel and increasingly polarised opinion articles. When even the most trivial content is assigned headline status, truly significant insights that merit our concern and laser focus can sometimes fail to get the attention they deserve.

We must choose our battles wisely, so that we can channel our energies into fighting for what really matters. 

The Children’s Coaching Collaborative (CCC) was formed in response to a piece of research conducted by Sport England which was, in the truest sense of the words, sad and shocking, and which demanded action.

The Active Lives Children survey revealed that 55 per cent of children aren’t doing enough exercise and only 45 per cent of children who take part in sport and physical activity say they really enjoy it. 

Equally troubling is the disproportionate impact on engagement levels amongst marginalised groups. 

As well as the physical, social, and mental health benefits of exercise, the more children enjoy sport and physical activity, the more holistic benefits they will experience, including motivation to participate, increased confidence and greater sense of community. 

Furthermore, activity levels in childhood are an accurate predictor of how active individuals are likely to be as adults and, in turn, how happy and how healthy they will be. 

This is why it was paramount to perform a deeper survey analysis to better understand the significance of the data. 

Fortunately, the industry’s key players recognised that we had reached a tipping point, and that this was a percentage game the nation could not afford to lose.

Harnessing the wisdom of the crowd

And now for the good news!

The primary aim of the CCC is to improve standards and provision of sport and physical activity for children and young people and, through the Collaborative’s Play Their Way campaign – funded by Sport England and delivered by UK Coaching on behalf of 16 sector-wide partners – it has set out clear priorities for a robust response to the research findings. 

The organisations that make up the CCC are taking a solution-focused, long-term approach to the challenge of raising participation rates and improving children’s experiences of sport and exercise, whilst also seeking to improve outcomes and tackle inequalities across all social backgrounds – in particular children from low affluence families, ethnically diverse communities and those with a disability or long-term health condition.

The campaign’s guiding principle is based on the fundamental right of every child to play, to develop to their full potential, and to be heard and have their views taken seriously.

Stuart Armstrong, Sport England’s Strategic Lead for Workforce Transformation, reflects on the birth of the CCC and its mission to reframe the experiences that children and young people have by remodelling coaching and putting all children and young people at the centre of coaching practice.

He says the sense of urgency to act was heightened by the pandemic, which exacerbated existing inequalities, including access to physical activity and sport provision.

It was a pretty scary piece of research with some stark findings. We knew something needed to be done but first we needed to do more research to understand it in more detail.

“Conversations began to take shape between a group of organisations who were already talking on a regular basis about some of these issues and challenges facing children’s sport. 

The conclusion was that it was becoming less and less about what children want and more and more focused on adult-led notions of sport.

“This was backed up by an increasing body of research in academic literature that said children’s sport had become hyper-competitive and all about winning, all about talent development and all about performance outcomes. 

“People started to ask, is there some action that we can take? Is there something that we can do to address this? How can we ensure that children’s experiences are more aligned to the kinds of experiences that they would have if the adults weren’t there to spoil the fun, if you like?

So, we harnessed the wisdom of the crowd – which enabled us to then begin to start to crystallize some of the potential solutions.”

The CCC is the upshot of these myriad outcome-focused conversations. 

Its partners are in unanimous agreement that the traditional model of adult-led, performance-led sport is turning children off participating and that a transformational change in coaching practice is needed.

What is child first coaching?

Stuart explains that the Play Their Way campaign is built on the premise of Voice, Choice and Journey for every child.

Coaches will be encouraged and supported to collaborate with young people on sessions and goals and to centre the child’s voice in their practice.

“Broadly speaking, the notion of child first is meeting the needs of children based on their individual needs,” says Stuart.

“So, really trying to place both the needs and the wants of the child at the forefront and skilfully then being able to ensure that they are provided with an experience that feels to them very much like it’s what they want – without losing sight of the fact that we have a responsibility to make sure it’s safe, to make sure people equally participate and all of these other essential elements.

In terms of what it looks like as a coach, in many cases it is a little bit like being a chameleon. It’s about being adaptable and responsive to a range of different children’s needs.”

Ultimately, the CCC’s strategic vision is to raise the bar of children’s coaching by creating a nation of child-first coaches, where the emphasis switches from controlled, one-size-fits-all, coach-led sessions to more inclusive, response sessions with children as co-creators. 

The like-minded organisations that comprise the CCC recognise the fundamental role that coaches play in enabling children’s enjoyment of sport and physical activity and strive to implement systemic interventions that empower coaches to enhance the way they coach by putting the needs and motivations of children and young people first. 

Fundamental rights of the child

The shift to Play their Way will challenge the existing delivery of children’s coaching. Clearly, driving this cultural shift will require the full support of sector partners, but for the movement to be a success, learning must start from the ground up and will also require the buy-in of the wider coaching community.

UK Coaching Head of Policy & Impact Heather Douglas says she appreciates that influencing cultural behaviour change will take time but presents the argument for why igniting a grass-roots movement on a national scale simply must happen. 

“Every child has the right to have a great experience in their lives and the bedrock of what we’re trying to do at the CCC is based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its three key rights: the right to play, the right to be heard, and the right to develop.

We can make allegiances with those three rights in sport and physical activity and make sure every child’s fundamental right to be active and healthy is protected and promoted.”

For Heather, coaches are “an undervalued change agent in a child’s life” and can make or break the experience of sport and physical activity for children. 

In other words, they should be an enabler, not a barrier to enjoyment.

Their style and the culture they create can have a huge impact on children’s levels of motivation. By forming quality relationships and providing enjoyable, creative, autonomous environments, coaches can positively influence the extent to which children value sports, play and exercise. 

When you consider that, according to the Coaching in the UK 2019 survey, there are currently 3 million coaches in the UK, that 80 per cent of these coaches engage with children and young people over the course of each year, and that 82% of children who are coached reach high levels of happiness, the role of the coach in developing a lifelong love of being active in children becomes plain to see. 

“Coaches in my mind – however they label themselves, whether they are an activator, a leader, parent, helper, coach – can have a profound effect to make that experience special,” adds Heather. 

“And if 55 per cent of children who are engaged in sport don’t really enjoy it, what is the variable that we can try to influence to make that happen and make that difference?” 

That variable is listening to the voice of the child. 

Echoing the earlier comments of Stuart, Heather adds: “Often, and historically, coaching has been an adult construct placed on a child – because we want them to be safe; we want them to be responsible. But children and young people have independent minds. They have their own motivations and their own attitudes. 

We need to see children not as mini-adults, but as individual young people themselves with different developmental rates, different kinds of attitudes and aptitudes to the things that they’re being invited to try out, and just really listen to the end user in terms of what makes them tick and what makes them happy.”

And the beauty is that it doesn’t matter if you have access to an iconic stadium or a state-of-the-art 3G pitch. Your sporting arena could take the form of a rundown shack with a hole in the roof but, if you have access to an amazing coach that consistently provides great experiences, you can rest assured the children under that coach’s wing will have a great time, every time. 

A marathon not a sprint

The CCC is a long-term project that has set a high bar – but the greater the effort the sweeter the reward.

But how we will know if the Play Their Way campaign has been a success?

“We will know if that conversation shifts from a conversation of deficit towards a conversation of positivity around what we’re seeing now, the cultural dimensions, and the perception of if children’s experiences are changing,” says Stuart.

“The other way we’ll know it’s a success is if people join in and choose to take action. It’s one thing people saying, ‘oh, that’s a great idea’, and then doing nothing about it.”

Ownership and advocacy for the campaign amongst grass-roots coaches – the power of word of mouth – will be vital in building a groundswell of support in local communities. 

Converted coaches who enthuse over child-centred coaching practices online and in person and encourage others to join the movement can help to set off a chain reaction. 

As Stuart concludes: “What this campaign exists to do is to enable people to build a movement together – a network of grass-roots coaches – and connect with each other; strengthen each other; support each other; take action together; bring others on the journey... creating the conditions of change so that it builds its own momentum and starts to take on a life of its own. Then we’ll know it’s been a success.”

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Related Pages

  • Children's Coaching Collaborative

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  • Foundational Insight

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  • Play Their Way: Reframing Children’s Coaching

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