It was interesting to read the results of the latest government survey of sport participation in the UK. The numbers aren’t good – in the last six months over 200,000 people have stopped regularly taking part in sport or exercise of some kind.
From a government perspective there’s obviously a bottom-line impact with results like these. A population that is not getting regular exercise is going to be a greater burden on the health service. That is bad news for the budget.
One of the sports that has recorded the greatest decline is swimming – the UK’s most popular sport.
I find these results really surprising as it is almost the complete office of what I’m seeing at a grassroots level.
I play water polo for a team in London. It’s a gay team. We’re called London Orca. We have an active membership of about 75 – active in that they’re training at least once a week. If you’ve ever tried to book pool-time in London you’ll realise the limitations and challenges of trying to find sufficient pool space for 75 people to train at the game of water polo.
The struggle to find sufficient pool time has led to the club placing a hold on accepting any new members for the time being – we now have a waiting list of 90 people wanting to join. We simply don’t have the capacity to meet the demand.
There’s lots of gay sports clubs across the country, covering all sorts of different sports, and most of them are reporting a similar situation – struggling to cope with the number of enthusiastic people who want to join, who want to take part, who want to play sport.
The obvious question is – why are gay sports clubs attracting new members while sports participation across the general population is declining?
It would be easier to explain it away as gay men just looking for ways to meet other gay men. While that certainly is one factor that attracts gay men to gay sports clubs, there’s a lot more going on. What we find is that our new members are wanting to get fit, they’re wanting to feel part of a team, and they’re wanting social interaction.
The reason that they want to do that with other gay men is that they feel that by being part of a gay sports club they can simply be themselves. Almost everyone that joins our club used to play sport at school, or when they were younger, but stopped because for one reason or another they just didn’t feel welcome.
So what are the lessons that the UK government could learn from the country’s gay sports clubs? Simply urging people to take up sport isn’t enough. The reasons that people start (or stop) playing sport can be relatively complex. A focus on grassroots clubs and participation is likely to deliver the best results – people need to feel a connection or have a motivation beyond the simple logic of health and fitness.
Having the right facilities available is also a key determining factor – if the minister for sport could find my water polo club some extra pool time in London we could get another 90 gay men fit, healthy, and happy. That’s a solution that worth investing in.
Written by Gareth Johnson
Follow Gareth on Twitter @GTV_Champion
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