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How Sport Relief Really Can Help Disadvantaged Youths Around the World

Posted: 14/03/2012 23:00

Sport Relief was set up in 2002 to use the power and passion of sport to do good. It was founded on the premise that sportsmen and women have the power to drive awareness and engagement; and that the convening power of sport itself offered a genuine opportunity to drive change.

We found in the first couple of years that great claims were made for the impact that sport can have on disadvantaged individuals and communities but there was little hard evidence to back them up. We also found there were many excellent sport coaches and as many first rate community development leaders, but there were few who combined both sets of skills.

Our Sport for Change programme was launched to fund the best models for using sport to make a real difference and to help fill the void of practitioners who could deliver this ambition.

As far as professional sportspeople and clubs were concerned it wasn't uncommon (and still isn't) for the idea of sportsmen and women giving back to be confined to a public appearance, a visit to the ward of a local hospital and an opportunity for positive PR. Those things are of merit of course, but they don't really drive sustainable change or make a lasting difference. Happily, alongside the PR moment there seems to be a growing commitment from governing bodies and clubs alike to have a greater impact in this area.

To do this there are a number of requirements that are essential to success. The first is good leadership from people who can combine both sport and social development skills. The second is a client group with defined needs and a clear sense of what success looks like when working with them. The third is measurement and bench-marking. It's crucial for any successful project to know where it is starting from and where it hopes to get to, and to have the tools to track progress against this.

Through the Sport for Change projects we work with we've seen dramatic developments in all three of these areas, both internationally and in the UK. I've been lucky enough to travel and see the impact of international projects that are passionate about using sport to make a difference. In Nairobi, MYSA is a long standing organisation that has been using football to drive dramatic change for young people in the Mathari slum.

The reason for their success is that they are using a 'Sport Plus' model. Football is what attracts the young people to the project. They are all living in abject poverty often with a family income of less than a dollar a day and their main hope of having a better life than their parents is through learning. The football is not enough to change their lives on its own but alongside every opportunity to play the game they also have to attend sessions devoted to their social development; they learn how to become collaborative, how to make decisions, how to take up leadership positions and a range of lessons around health and personal wellbeing. MYSA is a mighty example of the difference that football can make. It has turned around the lives of countless young people.

In the UK I've seen sport deliver change to those who are hardest to reach. In the best projects, it is always part of a broader programme targeting social problems such as bullying, drug-abuse, crime and unemployment. Bringing disadvantaged young people together to do sport increases their sense of belonging and participation, reduces isolation, improves physical and emotional wellbeing and creates stronger, more unified communities.

Only two weeks ago, a young man called Rowan spoke to 25 chief executives of major companies here at our offices in London. He outlined how, at the age of 14, he got in with the wrong crowd and entered into a downward spiral that led to him going to prison. When he came out he went to a project called Street League because it offered him the chance to play football. He came across adults who, for the first time, treated him as an individual and nurtured his interests. He discovered he was good with people, achieved a Community Sports Leadership Award and is now an apprentice coach at Street League. 75% of the participants with a past record of offending were no longer involved in crime after signing up for the project. Proof indeed of the dramatic impact that sport can have.

I've seen progress of this kind using boxing, cricket, and track and field. It's not the sport that matters in the final analysis; it's what goes with it. Sport is merely the catalyst to get young people involved. The real progress comes with the wraparound of people and activities that inspire and motivate them to change their own lives.

Dame Kelly Holmes, who has her own foundation, the Dame Kelly Holmes Legacy Trust, said: "Sport can contribute to human development and in particular empower and educate young people to tackle the problems they face and build social skills. I firmly believe that sport does have the power to change lives." There is increasingly powerful evidence that proves just that.

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