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Tim Hollingsworth: thinking differently the key to getting all parts of society active

Sport England CEO Tim Hollingsworth has called for the sport and physical activity sector to rethink the way it addresses the challenge to get people from all backgrounds more physically active.

Speaking at the Elevate 2019 Conference at the ExCel Centre in London, Hollingsworth highlighted the need to tackle the "stubborn inequalities" that result in parts of society – including people from south Asian, black or other ethnic origins – being less active.

The Active Lives Survey, published last month, showed that a quarter of the population (25.1 per cent) – around 11.3 million people – remain physically inactive. The report revealed that women from lower socio-economic groups and black and South Asian communities were among the least active.

Focusing on the point, Hollingsworth described an encounter he had during a recent site visit.

"One afternoon back in March, visiting a place called Glodwick in Oldham, I had one of the defining moments of my career at Sport England so far," he said.

"I was visiting the Ghazali Trust, a voluntary organisation which has taken over Clemency House, previously home to a rather unloved and very underused swimming pool – a typical example of a facility not serving the needs of the community.

"Majid Hussain is one of the local leaders and a driving force behind the trust and on my visit he said two things that really made an impression on me.

"While explaining Sport England’s approach to connecting with and inspiring people at a local level, Majid caught me out after I referred to the community as ‘hard to reach.’ “Hang on a minute. We are not hard to reach. We have been here for 20 years. You’ve just never tried”, he said.

"As advice goes, that’s pretty direct stuff. And behind it is a profound thought for anyone in the sport and physical activity sector who is working to better the health of the nation and especially the 16.8 million people who aren’t regularly active.

"These groups of people and communities are not hard to reach – we have just not effectively engaged them and made sport and physical activity a practical and enjoyable option.

"As I left I asked Majid for one further bit of advice he could give me. He said: “Don’t try and make us more like you".

"He’s right again. If we want to inspire people to get active, we have to put ourselves in their shoes and give them what they want, not what we think they need. The customer experience has to come first when we’re delivering sport and physical activity. We must make activity attractive and easy to fit into people’s lives – whatever their faith, current financial situation, or age.

"If we keep offering things in the same way to the same people we will get the same results. That’s why Sport England is prioritising making sport and physical activity attractive and easy to fit into people’s everyday lives."

Issuing a call to arms, Hollingsworth added that the entire sports sector must re-evaluate some of its approaches, in order to reach the most inactive sections of society.

"Today, I am calling on the sports and physical activity sector to think about how we can address Majid’s challenge," he said.

"As we continue to develop the way we work we need to focus on how we can put those groups who struggle to be active, at the heart of our work. How we can, in essence, become more like them."

Taking place today and tomorrow (8-9 May), Elevate is one of the largest gatherings for the UK's physical activity sector. The event includes a programme of seminars featuring more than 300 speakers and a show floor housing more than 350 exhibitors.

• To read an interview with Tim Hollingsworth, click here for the latest issue of Sports Management magazine.

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