Community sport is now more relevant than ever but how can we build back better?

Author: Graham Spacey   Post Dated: 7th August 2020

The GLA’s ‘Sport Unites’ investment fund originally focused on utilising sport and physical activity to tackle the key issues of inactivity; mental health; isolation; social mixing; serious youth violence; and those not in education, employment or training (NEET).  Alongside this, funds were being granted for activities that helped build the capacity for the community sport sector workforce to better address these issues.  Emerging from the crisis it has become clear that these issues are now more acute for those already at-risk and a reality for many more people.  For some organisations this represents a new challenge as their activities and expertise to date has been focused on tackling specific issues.

  • Londoners have been less active, have had less opportunities to be active as gyms and pools have closed and access to sport and leisure facilities and public parks has been curtailed. Many are nervous of the risks of returning to old ways of participation until a vaccine is in place.
  • Maintaining positive wellbeing is now a real concern for many as they have been isolated indoors prohibited from conducting their normal schedules and relationships – and many alone, away from families and friends. Sported’s research discovered that community sport leaders reported more than twice the anxiety levels of the previous year at the start of the pandemic at the end of March (Community Pulse, 2020, p2) and that 59% were initially concerned about participants maintaining their wellbeing. Managing mental health for those with certain conditions was already difficult and the curtailment of services and support have meant many struggling to maintain the practices and routines that worked for them.
  • London residents have been caught up inside, unable to mix with those outside their household. Many have been cooped up in small flats without outdoor space. Some had ventured into public parks to discover that they were busy and with no facilities open, including toilets.
  • Some organisations have reported that young people were being approached by gangs as they exercised and played with those in their ‘bubbles’ and domestic violence has become more apparent in homes across the capital.
  • Parents and guardians have found themselves being the English, Maths and PE teacher as education moved to being done remotely. With many families without or having to share a computer, tablet or smart phone between parents and children for work / study, the crisis highlighted the limitations in access to modern communication structures.
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Photo credit: Graham Spacey - inFocus
Sadiq Khan
Photo credit: Caroline Teo - GLA
covid article
Photo credit: Graham Spacey - inFocus

The community sport sector responded to government restrictions but for many this meant going into ‘survival’ mode.  Office buildings and facilities were locked up and many worked from home attempting to engage with participants ‘from a distance’ – online or via the telephone.  Staff were furloughed and some organisations had no choice but to suspend all activity with the hope that they could return to work soon.  Sported’s research in April 2020 found that 1 in 4 organisations were not sure that they would still exist in 6 months’ time (Sported 2020, p11) and that 45% were still focused on maintaining immediate financial commitments six weeks in (Sported 2020, p12) .  Unfortunately, some have already taken the decision to lay off staff and one or two have ceased operating for good, unable to sustain themselves.

Despite these structural difficulties, many organisations have been quick to adapt their activities and to remain in contact with participants to engage and support them through the crisis.  Some have focused their attention onto monitoring and evaluation knowing that evidencing their impact will be vital in securing future funding.  The crisis demonstrated the sector’s over reliance on old school, traditional methods such as paper-based surveys which relied on the data collector being present at the same time as the participant.  Being forced to think differently and adapt how impact is managed and measured has led to many designing new and creative approaches and the utilisation of social media and digital technology.  Some organisations have invested in established systems such as Upshot, others in training and some in utilising social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram), messaging services (WhatsApp, messenger) or remote communication platforms (Zoom, Teams, Skype) to garner feedback, run polls and run focus groups.

Badu screen shot
Photo credit: Ernest Simon - Visual Creative Solutions

The wider structural difficulties and the ever-present threat of the virus, 35% of community groups do not feel equipped to support participants when they come back (Sported, 2020, p6).  How then can the community sport sector help people with their mental health after months of loneliness and isolation?  How can it create safe spaces to bring people together whilst remaining physically apart?  How can sport support young people avoid crime and serious violence and create opportunities for training and employment? 

To use the terms of the international development sector, the crisis poses an opportunity for the community sport sector to ‘build back better’.  Whilst we begin to enter the ‘new normal’ as workplaces open and community sport begins to make a return, we pose the following question– ‘What does the sector need to do to build back better?’

Sported (2020) Community Pulse: UK Summary.  Available at:

Join the discussion in our dedicated Sport Unites Learning Community which brings together ‘like-minded’ community sport’s organisations from across London to exchange knowledge and experiences, share methods and results and map out both commonalities and differences in approaches to social integration through sport. 

In partnership with the Mayor of London