Can London 2012 deliver a youth sport participation legacy?

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Professor Kathleen Armour
Recorded: 17/07/2012
Broadcast: 23/07/2012

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Andy: Hello, I’m here with Professor Kathleen Armour who’s Professor of Education and Sport and Head of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, here at the University of Birmingham. Hello Kathleen.

Kathleen: Hello.

Andy: So can you tell me a little bit about what you do?

Kathleen:  Well my research is all focused on finding ways to help young people have a better experience in sport and physical activity, wherever they may find it, and also looking at ways of helping teachers and coaches to meet their needs, and particularly their individual needs. 

Andy: Now by the time this podcast goes out we’ll only be a few days away from the opening ceremony of the Olympics, but we’re here to talk about what happens after the Olympics in terms of the much talked about legacy and in particular whether the Games will inspire young people to take up sport.  So how realistic do you think it is?

Kathleen: Well it’s interesting. I think intuitively everybody hopes and believes that because young people watch great sports people on television that they will be inspired to take up sport and to stay in sport.   The evidence doesn’t support that belief.  The evidence from previous Olympics is that there never has been a participation legacy.  So although London 2012 has probably been the first Olympics to make such a strong play for a participation legacy as a result of the Games, I think looking at the evidence you’d have to be a little bit sceptical. The whole point about getting people involved in sport is that they have to feel there is a realistic chance they can be reasonably competent. So if you really want people to be involved in sport, the important thing is to provide them with the kinds of early experiences which prepare them for a life of physical activity and sport.  So for children and young people they may well watch the Olympics and they may well want to have a go - and that’s good - but if they then turn up into a setting where they meet a teacher or a coach who is unable to help them to develop the skills that they need, then obviously they will soon feel that this really probably isn’t for them and the Olympics in some ways gives a rather difficult message which is that it’s for people who are absolutely fantastic at all activities and that’s obviously not most people.   So that’s one of the problems.  You watch the Olympics; it’s a long way from where you sit as a non-elite sports person and it can be a little bit daunting and the gap between you and them is enormous and you soon find out that for most people they are never going to achieve those heights.  But of course that’s not what participation sport is supposed to be about. 

Andy: So how can things be improved for youngsters? What can current teachers and coaches be doing more of?

Kathleen: If you look at the system we currently have in place, the Government funds all schools to offer children compulsory physical education. So we know that every child in this country will get some form of instruction. However, when they are at school and primary school they often encounter teachers who have to take them for PE who have little or no training, so the chances of teachers being able to meet the individual learning needs of every child of all abilities at each stage of their development are really very low and I think that is a huge problem.   There’s some indication that coaches are beginning to work more in schools and this could be a good thing but again, coaches probably don’t have enough training to allow them to really meet children’s needs.  So for most children the one place where they can access learning about physical activity and sport is at school, it’s open to all children, but what we offer them is really not a great experience for many.    They can certainly be occupied.  They can be happy, but whether they’re actually learning the skills that will take them into adulthood and will allow them to feel competent is really questionable.  So the barriers to participation in sport starts much earlier.  It’s got nothing to do with the Olympics or even elite sport, it’s right down at that early age where we don’t make the best of what we could offer to children at that stage and instead of that we’ve put specialist teaching in secondary schools where the children are already entering adolescence and to be frank, it’s a little late to be starting on basic movement skills. 

Andy: What kind of ages do you need to capture a child at?  Because young children are very absorbent, they can pick up things very quickly. As you get older it becomes slightly more difficult so is there a sort of golden period that we should be giving children training and encouragement and something of a steer?

Kathleen: It’s what we should be giving them at different ages which is important.  So when they’re young, 4, 5 and 6, it’s basic movement skills, it’s coordination and balance and motor skills. They don’t need to be learning football at that stage or any specific game to be honest, they just need to be very active and doing a wide variety of physical activities. As they get older they can move into more recognised forms of games but they should be games adapted for their age group and we shouldn’t be forcing children into early specialisation, and all the evidence says that for most sports, children need to be doing a variety of activities as a base for then how they may proceed as they get older.  But if you think about it, if you could ensure that by the time children reach the age of 11, they are pretty skilled in all the basics, then you’re providing a fantastic platform for them to move forward as they go through adolescence. But if you hit adolescence and you still haven’t mastered basic skills then just at that point where you’re feeling at your most vulnerable physically, you are suddenly expected to do activities which don’t really fit your age group, it’s not really at the right stage for you.  So they’re often feeling behind the curve and that’s not a great platform for encouraging people into sport. And on top of that, the sorts of activities you might want to do out of school, again the research is clear that you’re more likely to be successful if you come from a two parent family where you have a parent who can take you around to sports, where you’ve got money, where you’ve got an additional car, where you can actually engage in training. So we tend to get the youngsters coming through who’ve got the financial and parental support to help them to do that. So the odds are really stacked against a lot of children and young people.  We need to sort out that really.  I would start looking at what we offer children in primary school and then how we train teachers and coaches to make sure that they are focusing their attention not on the sport they’re trying to teach, which of course is important but it’s not the main thing, but on diagnosing the needs of the child they have in front of them and then looking at the ways that they can match their expertise to the sports they might be interested in.  But I think there’s a much more fundamental stage we need to go through before we expect the Olympics, which is a fantastic spectacle which we’re all going to love, but it’s not going to put right all of those prior issues, it just couldn’t. It’s also unrealistic to expect governing bodies to put right all the things that have gone wrong earlier on because they’re dealing with the product of the education system and the youth sports systems. So it’s very difficult for them to hook adults back into sport when we’ve effectively turned them off at an earlier stage.

Andy: So looking forward to the future, what are the positives?

Kathleen: I think sport is incredible. It’s a huge passion for many people and I think we shouldn’t forget that. Even if it’s just to watch it it’s a huge passion.   Obviously the big drive for participation comes from the links with health and the need to increase levels of physical activity in the population and I see really encouraging signs coming out of research which show us just what engagement in physical activity can do. Somebody described it once as the pill not taken. We know that physical activity can offer people, particularly as they’re ageing for example, huge health benefits.  And again, that’s not necessarily ultramarathons and Olympics, it’s not that level of physical activity, it’s participation levels that most people could aspire to.  So what all of that does is we start to see more money coming into research into ways in which we can look across the whole life course and find ways to help people to be more physically active and as part of that we’re beginning to understand that looking at where we lose people from physical activity will be a really good way to go because you know, instead of trying to play catch-up and find them again later in life, it would be rather better not to lose them in the first place and certainly here at Birmingham we’re trying to find some ways in which we can bring together all of that research to help teachers and coaches to practice more effectively. One of the big problems we have is that there’s a lot of research in sport and exercise sciences which practicing teachers and coaches actually never see.  So what we’re trying to do is find a mechanism through what we’re calling pedagogical case studies to pull together the best research around examples of individual young learners so that teachers and coaches can see how they can actually use the research that’s coming out and that’s certainly been a huge gap and something that they’ve talked about as being a problem for a very long time.  So getting that research out to the users, the practitioners, in a useable form is something we’re really trying to work on. 

Andy: Professor Kathleen Armour, thank you very much for joining me today.

Kathleen: Thank you.

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: On the website, you can find out how to e-mail us with comments, questions or suggestions for future topics for the podcast. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Andy Tootell.