22 01 2012

Regular readers of this blog will know that in the past I have been particularly critical of the lack of good strategy coming from politicians in general and the lack of strategy for sport coming from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) in particular. 

Last week, DCMS announced ‘Creating a sporting habit for life – a new youth sport strategy’ – a positive step which I applaud. But, as strategies go, is it any good?

The new strategy is not the much-needed, long-awaited national strategy for the development of sport nor does it pretend to be. The purpose of this strategy is to target young people, in its own words, ‘creating a sporting habit for life.’ Whether it will succeed or fail will be difficult to judge because from the outset, a vital component of strategy has not been defined.

While flawed and poorly researched, the previous government were clear and concise about what success looked like; one million more people taking part in sport. The success of any strategies (or the initiatives employed in strategy’s place) could be judged. When the current government removed this target without installing a new one, they deleted that clear picture of success. And while the talk is still of more people taking part in sport, judging success is impossible. Ten more people playing sport is ‘more people’ but is it success? Of course not, but what is the measure? 1000? 10,000? 100,000? We don’t know. Thus from the outset any new ‘strategy’ faces an uphill struggle in that what it sets out to achieve has not been clearly defined. It is a basic Strategy 101 lesson, the more specifically you can describe success, the more specifically you can plan for its achievement.

‘Creating a sporting habit for life’ is in reality a crafty rebadging of the previous methodology employed by this and the previous government, a policy of initiativeitis. What this document does is pull a few initiatives together in a document with the word strategy on its cover.

Is it really strategy? Yes, it is. In its purest definition strategy means ‘a plan or design for achieving one’s aims.’ The government has set out its aim, woolly though it is, and this document forms a part of their design for achieving it. However, the difference between strategy and good strategy is important and this document falls short on a number of counts.

Strategists will know the term ‘Insanity Planning.’ It refers to the practice of doing the same thing today and tomorrow that you did yesterday and expecting different results. Insanity planning plays a role in the new DCMS strategy.

Not only is the policy of initiativeitis continued (albeit thinly disguised), the strategy relies on the same experts who have informed previous government initiatives and, according to the DCMS own statistics, failed to deliver. The strategy talks of working with a range of groups, “the people who know sport and young people best”, the very same groups and people within those groups who have been employed/funded by government to deliver the development of sport previously.

While within those groups there are many who do know sport and young people well, the assumption that all do is naïve. Indeed, there should be no place for assumption in good strategy. A further assumption being that knowledge of sport and young people brings with it knowledge of sports development and of strategy.

Insanity planning; using the same processes, the same people and initiatives designed by the same people who designed what went before (some of which look remarkably similar despite the new names).

Developing sport properly requires an understanding of the sports development continuum, a continuum which takes the participant on a journey from foundation to participation and, assuming talent, interest and support onto performance and excellence. Laying the right foundations is of vital importance to what will come later and this area has largely been ignored by the new ‘strategy’ – it jumps straight in at participation without considering some basics:

  1. People are more likely to pursue a lifetime of involvement in sport if they enjoy it.
  2. They are more likely to enjoy it if they have been given the basic skills that facilitate enjoyment.

Thus largely overlooking primary schools (although they are mentioned in afterthought in a couple of places) is to undermine that pathway at the outset. Consider a child entering secondary school who has not learned to catch – what is the likelihood of that child enjoying any sport in which catching is a requirement? It matters not how many opportunities the child has to try those sports, the foundations were never laid to facilitate the enjoyment.

Yet, if the teaching of Physical Literacy was made a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum in the same way PE is (and will remain) in secondary schools, no child should move on to secondary school unable to catch (Physical Literacy is best taught between the ages of 8 and 11). Physical Literacy covers a range of movement skills (of which catching is just one) vital to the future enjoyment of and success in sport and yet our past, present and now future systems continue to overlook them. (For more on Physical Literacy see: How Government Policy Past and Present Undermines Ours Children’s Future).

Would it be a difficult new policy to introduce? No, it could be easily added to the woefully small amount of time primary teaching degrees give to PE with workshops for those already in teaching. Would this be expensive? No, certainly nowhere near as expensive as spending £millions on initiatives which assume skills not taught, which assume the laying of a foundation not planned for anywhere else. Given the focus of the new ‘strategy’ is on providing young people with a habit for life, it is surprising this effective and economical way of laying a sound foundation has been overlooked.

And yet, this ‘strategy’ is a step in the right direction. It acknowledges the need for strategy even if only by putting the word strategy on its cover. It tries hard to pull together various initiatives to create a strategy of sorts. But it is not, nor is it a part of, a functional, well designed national strategy for the development of sport and it is this that is required, it is this that would offer the best chance of our delivering on promises of increased participation made in Singapore seven years ago (and of sustaining that increase).

What we have instead is a continuation of the silo mentality I had hoped the proposed merger between UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust would consign to history. There is certainly little sign of the vertical integration so key to properly effective, efficient, economical strategy.

The new ‘strategy’ is divided into five sections, the aspiration of each section is laudable but I am looking at this from a quality analysis perspective, not one of how warm the documents’ wish-list makes me feel.

The first aspiration is to build a lasting legacy of competitive sport in schools, something I am a supporter of. The focus, indeed the only offering is of the School Games. The document suggests that all children will be offered competitive opportunities through the School Games but I wonder, what of those with poorly developed physical literacy and how many life-long (or at least long-term) participants such an initiative will bring?

Aspiration number two is on improving links between schools and community sports clubs something that sounds like a rehash of New Labour’s ‘School-Club Links’ initiative only with fewer resources (same experts, same solutions – insanity planning). Credit where it is due though, at least this section lays out some clear targets by which to measure success. For example Football has pledged that 2000 of their clubs will be linked to schools by 2017. Whether that includes those already linked is not made clear however while 2000 sounds a large number if you break it down it is 8 clubs linking to schools per county per year. The ‘all-sport’ target is 6000, the equivalent of 24 clubs from all sports linking to schools per county per year. This is not what I call ambitious, representing only around half a club linking per county per year from each of the 46 sports Sport England currently fund.

Working with those sports governing bodies is aspiration number three. What is described in this section is not even an initiative; it is an outline structure which will require strategy from the individual sports to enable delivery of government policy via Whole Sport Plans. Whole Sport Plans is a grand sounding name for something started under the last government and which, far from being ‘whole sport’ are judged solely on government policy and funding targets. There is no additional requirement for each sport to provide evidence – or even have – any plans for the sport which provide development outside that decreed by government policy. In other words sport’s governing bodies are now positioned so as to be solely answerable to government rather than the sports in their care. Under New Labour many even restructured to ensure this. Government trusts governing bodies to deliver calling them “the experts”. These are the same experts deemed incapable of delivering previous policy, when they were also referred to as “the experts”. I repeat what I said above; being an expert in sport is not the same thing as being an expert in sports development which is not the same thing as being an expert in strategy.

The fourth aspiration is on investing in facilities an aspiration which must be welcomed by all involved in sport. That said, the ‘strategy’ announces nothing new, instead repeating the funding promises made in the ‘Places, People, Play’ initiative announcement. It is worth remembering Seb Coe’s warnings in Singapore in 2005 that no building has ever inspired anyone to take up sport; buildings must be a delivery tool for properly planned development.

Fifth and the final aspiration reported in the ‘strategy’ is that of opening up provision and investing in communities. Again, this is something all involved in sport will welcome however the document gives no clues as to the level of investment or how it will be targeted. The case study provided in this section offers no clarification, describing a badminton club which has “no joining fee, no membership fee and no need for a partner – creating a club that could sustain itself for the long-term.” How is not made clear and, as with all things strategy, ‘how’ is a vital question overlooked at the author’s peril.

So, we have a strategy of sorts which, despite my comments above, is a positive but small step in the right direction. Many of the aspirations are laudable but the absence of any meaningful description of what success looks like, sound sports development philosophy, vertically integrated thinking or, indeed, expertise suggests that while at last the government are trying they must raise their game if they are to improve further.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, January 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

Twitter @cowanglobal



4 responses

28 01 2012
Yvonne P

Great article and analysis Jim although I think you are too kind on DCMS who really must do better.

Given your view on insanity planning and the continuing use of so called experts who have a track record of nothing but failure, I’d be interested to hear your opinion on John Steele’s appointment as the new CEO of the Youth Sport Trust?

It does appear that regardless of failure, the same faces keep reappearing at the head of these organisations and no one asks why or how come? Steele has failed at UK Sport, failed miserably at the RFU and now has another shot at failure with the YST.

It’s not me, is it?

31 01 2012

Hi Yvonne,

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

I won’t comment on John Steele individually, whatever my view or your view this blog is about strategy and commenting on his record adds nothing to the examples of good, bad and indifferent strategy used here and elsewhere. The main thing is (I hope) that people use the examples given to learn from and im[rove their own strategy.

That said, no; it’s not you.

14 05 2012
Liz Taplin

Hello Jim. Thank you for the blog – interesting to read your perspective. I’m very much in favour of improving / increasing the provision for physical education in the primary sector and I see developing physical literacy as the aim of physical education. On this latter point I feel the need to question your use of the term physical literacy, as you indicate that this is something that is ‘taught’ between the ages of 8-11. Margaret Whitehead is clear about PL being a cradle to grave concept – it is just as important for an 80 year old to be concerned about developing and maintaining their physical literacy as an 8 year old. PL is a journey, not always going in one direction and it’s how we deal with the setbacks that defines our journey as a positive one. Yes, the early years are essential in developing our physical literacy, but the other age phases are as important as well. Physical literacy isn’t just about gaining the skills, it’s also about developing confidence and motivation to be active. But I agree more needs to be done in the primary years – everyone needs the positive start you talk about. Liz.

15 05 2012

Hi Liz,

Thank you for taking the time to comment.

The point I make is that Physical Literacy is BEST taught between the ages of 8-11 for it is at this age/stage of development that it is most easily learned and retained. Physical Literacy is indeed a lifelong concept however it will never be as readily retained after the age of 11 and any Physical Literacy activity after that stage might best be described as remedial.

Istvan Balyi and Ann Hamilton discuss the concept of Genetic Potential and Actual (or Current) Potential and explain that if the correct foundations are not put in place, once past the age of 11 Actual Potential starts declining when compared to Genetic Potential. By starting to work on Physical Literacy after that age/stage that decline can be slowed or even arrested but the individual will not return to the (higher) potential they previously had (Genetic).

Therefore, Physical Literacy should be present in all of our lives but it should be introduced to all children in Primary School between the ages of 8 and 11 while its benefits can be maximised. It makes sense from a performance sporting perspective, it makes sense from a sporting participation perspective and it makes from a health perspective. More importantly, it makes sense if, as a nation, we are to do the right thing by our young people.

The strategy examined in this blog was aimed directly at young people. I have frequently stated (and will continue to state) that what we need is a national strategy for the development of sport. Such a strategy would/should consider the lifelong Physical Literacy Pathway, starting in Primary Schools and being maintained throughout life.

I trust that clarifies the point I made.


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