Fit for the future: the Sport and Recreation Alliance 2019 conference

National governing bodies and sports organisations are modernising as our changing world creates new problems and presents new opportunities to the sporting world. How can the sports sector tackle these problems and take advantage of those opportunities? How can the sector ensure it is “fit for the future”? These were the questions posed as the Sport and Recreation Alliance hosted its annual conference at the Holywell Convention Centre in Loughborough on 22 January, with the theme of changing behaviour.


A key theme was that there is an increasingly scientific approach to the problems and opportunities within the sports sector. Elspeth Kirkman (of the Behavioural Insights Team) asked who the sector is targeting and what the barriers are to their involvement in sport and physical activity. Broadly, the target audience is those who are active but not active enough, since those are people who need to be (and indeed can be) “nudged” towards increased participation. Their barriers to participation might be structural (e.g. lack of funding in the local area), situational (e.g. too expensive) or cognitive/emotive (e.g. embarrassment), each of which need to be addressed in novel ways, using behavioural science to inform decisions. As Barry Horn of the Activity Alliance said, “traditional approaches have failed to engage the least active in society”. This scientific approach was echoed by Will Watt of Jump Projects, who emphasised that a data-intensive approach to the challenges has helped to identify needs and solutions, exposing (for example) how reliant the sector is on volunteers and how to recruit and retain those volunteers (a point which was emphasised later on by Andy Parkinson of British Rowing). This was complemented by Tim Hollingsworth’s assertion that data can inform our creative decisions – our “insight” – to produce innovative solutions.

The next theme was change and how to go about implementing change. Farrah Storr, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, spoke about how the brief moments of discomfort inherent in any systematic change are only temporary and encouraged us to step into our “discomfort zone”. The semantics of terms like “problems” are misleading because periods of change create great opportunities; “constraint is a creative ally”, since it requires efficient solutions, and “obstacles build teams”, since sharing a difficult experience creates bonds between individuals. Farrah encouraged us to ask “why” to ensure that any failure is “smart failure”. This sentiment was supported by Jez Rose, the author of Flip the Switch: Achieve Extraordinary Things with Simple Changes to How You Think, whose key message was that every leader should ask two questions: (i) why do we do it this way? and (ii) how do we make it better? All the speakers agreed that there is a need for robust processes in implementing change; Matt Birkett of England Athletics said that “hope is not a strategy” and revealed that his organisation has a “Product Development Process” which it follows in introducing new projects. Similarly, Sharon Wilson of Stephenson presented her own model for change (the “change story”), which features five key stages of change: (i) what are the drivers of the change? (ii) why are we making the change? (iii) how will we go about making the decisions to effect the change? (iv) what are the outputs of the change? (v) what is our new character?

Finally, Tim Hollingsworth spoke about the direction in which the sector is travelling. He said that the sector is creating a “sport 2.0”, which is fit for the modern world. There is the need for radical cultural and behavioural change in the sporting world, which needs to adapt to realise its potential in changing society. Tim emphasised the importance of a holistic approach, recognising the impact that sport and physical activity can have on health and education and the need for everyone to have “physical literacy”. The political preoccupation with Brexit has seen sport fall down politicians’ priorities, but Sport England is determined to achieve its ambitions: “sport has a higher purpose and we are here to achieve it”.

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All content on this page is correct as of January 24, 2019.