Changing young lives through sport – the vital role of community youth clubs

This was the title of an excellent round table event in Westminster which I attended on the 20th March, looking at community sport and the role of youth clubs in delivering this, so I thought it would make sense to put together a few notes on the discussions.

The event was organised by UK Youth and London Youth, hosted by Lord Pendry and chaired by the BBC Sport correspondent Dan Roan. The event was attended by senior representatives of key players in terms of delivery, funding and impact of youth and community sport including:

  • Sport England
  • Football Foundation
  • Youth Sports Trust
  • Active Communities Network
  • County Sports Partnership Network
  • Sport and Recreation Alliance
  • Sported
  • Laureus
  • Greater London Authority
  • London Funders
  • Mayor’s Fund for London
  • Sport Business Network
  • Beyond Sport
  • Young Foundation

There were two major elements which came out of the excellent discussions for me. Firstly, the community sport/sport for social change arena needs significantly work in terms of its vision and strategy. Secondly, and very much linked, there needs to be a better focus on the outcomes of community sports programmes.

In terms of the former, the totality of the sports forms a continuum from elite performance at one end to sport for social change at the other, with the participation/talent development forming the majority of the space in the middle. At the elite end, the goals are clear: to win more medals, World/European Cups or Championships, Wimbledon titles etc. In the middle, the focus has become entirely on increasing participation (of which more to come here next week). This leaves sport for social change and, it was suggested by many in attendance, that it is far from clear what the aims of this end of the sector are, or indeed should be.

This is where the second area outlined above comes in. I think most involved with the delivery of community sport programmes are aiming to use sport to improve the lives of participants and tackle social issues. The fact that many of those in attendance were not clear on this means that the sector is not doing a good job either in measuring or communicating these positive outcomes. It was interesting to hear that one delegate, often led with the intended outcomes of programmes and left sport to the end, despite the fact that it was a sports-specific project.

The current work of Sported on the impact of sport for social change programmes is very important in this regard. Not only does it allow the sector to start being much more targeted in terms of the intended outcomes of particular programmes, but also then allows the measurement of any positive changes and the social impact of these to be demonstrated to funders and others.

Once the objectives of the community sport sector have been described in terms of delivering social change through sport, then the link to youth clubs becomes very obvious. The aim of youth clubs has always been to support young people in their personal development, as well as being at the heart of communities where there is a real need for social improvement. Sport is therefore a tool which can be powerfully used by youth clubs to contribute to their overall objectives. Youth clubs do, however, have two significant advantages over others in the community sports sector. Firstly they already have an infrastructure in place – including facilities and staff – meaning that it is possible to deliver sport for social change programmes in a very cost effective manner. Secondly, these clubs are already working closely with young people on the ground – with UK Youth working with 790,000 young people annually – meaning that they have an excellent knowledge of areas in which such programme would be effective and, most likely, the individual young people who would most benefit from them.

More thoughts to come in terms of the community-elite continuum in sport, as well as details of a project I am working on to start to provide some more joined up thinking in the sport for development and voluntary youth sectors. In the meantime, if you would like to talk more about any of the issues please get in touch: or see my bio page for other ways to contact me!


About Luke McCarthy

I have a background in sport and particularly its use for personal and social development. I also have extensive knowledge of the use measurement and evaluation approaches and requirements, particularly in relation to demonstrating impact of the work of the youth sector. Outside of work I do a lot of sports including cycling, running and adventure racing. I also struggle to find the time to keep my allotment under control.
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