Welsh youngsters take hint from Olympic Games

Sarah Powell asks how sport can be utilised to achieve a fitter Wales

I spoke recently at the Welsh NHS Confederation conference where I argued that sport for too long had sat on the side lines of the national public health debate. Maybe it has something to do with the perception of sport. Some tell me that sport is only for the sporty. If you want to work with other sectors, such as health, you must not use the term, sport. You must talk about being active or physical activity. When did sport become a dirty word?

Not only is this nonsensical but it is damaging. Damaging to the groups of people we want to engage with and to the relationships that we want to forge to build a healthier Wales.

Let’s be clear, when we’re talking about sport, we are talking about what some would call the more traditional sports such as hockey, netball and five a side football. But we’re also talking about activities such as going out for a bike ride, jogging, and working out in the gym.

The sports sector, and Sport Wales, must evolve. We are reviewing our own direction and organisational structure alongside a new, five-year strategic plan for 2015-20.  We want to do things differently and we want to get things done. And we genuinely want to work in collaboration.

We simply cannot remain on the fringes of a debate that is not going away. There is an urgent need to be building solid partnerships with education and health and that is something that I am committing to in my role as Chief Executive.

So what is it that we can do?

Let’s take a look at the letters that define our health services – NHS. Firstly, the N for National – there are huge variations in life expectancy, quality of life, physical activity and sports participation levels across our country. These are inequalities that we can’t and shouldn’t accept. These issues are a national problem and will require national solutions. As a national body, Sport Wales is absolutely clear that we want to work with the NHS to provide a service to the people of Wales that have at its core a desire to ensure everyone has an equal chance to live a fit and healthy life.

Secondly, the H for Health – we have a National Health Service, not a National Sickness Service. To ensure that all our public services are sustainable and affordable in the future we will all have to redouble our focus on good health, and not concentrate on treating sickness. There will have to be a new compact between the individual and the state that allows for a more equal distribution of responsibility for an individual’s health. For an individual who wants to take up that challenge what better way is there of improving health and maintaining social interaction than participation in a sporting activity?

Thirdly, the S for Service – currently many people in Wales live lifestyles that lead to them suffering a steep decline in their health over time. Sport Wales believes that the whole of public sector in Wales has a duty to provide services that allow people to keep themselves active and healthy alongside those that serve to treat their problems. Are we really serving the people of Wales as well as we can if we operate in silos?

Recently Health Minister Mark Drakeford declared that the NHS in Wales must move towards a culture of “prudent health care”. What this means in essence is ensuring that in the provision of healthcare the health service should, in the future, look to maximise it resources and the benefits to patients by only doing those things that have a proven and cost effective benefit. At Sport Wales we believe that sporting activity as a preventative treatment fits in with the idea of prudent medicine very well indeed.

Our offer to health professionals and organisations is how can we be part of this ‘prudent healthcare’ future. Our challenge to the health service in Wales is what can we jointly come up with that could make a big difference in the future? Is there legislation we can jointly propose? Are there ways in which we can move away from a reliance on prescription drugs towards a more holistic and activity based approach to treatment? How can we work together to improve on the ways we currently do things?

One example of such work is the Be Active scheme in Birmingham. This innovative project shows how collaborative working between health and local leisure services can significantly improve health levels.

At Sport Wales we want to work more closely with the education sector as well as health to improve the health of the people of Wales. We recently undertook the School Sport Survey – the largest of its kind in the world – in which 110,000 children gave us their views. The survey has provided us with some fantastic insights into how the young people of Wales live their sporting lives – what motivates them, their aspirations and their ability levels. Of the young people we surveyed 40 per cent are ‘hooked on sport’, meaning they take part in physical activity three or more times a week. This is a 50 per cent increase on the 2011 results, highlighting the positive impact of London 2012. That’s brilliant news. If they are hooked, we can nurture their interest into adulthood.

But what about the other 60 per cent? Regular participation in sport and physical activity provides a number of lifelong benefits for health, skills and friendship, but these benefits can’t be exclusive, just for some of the population.

We know that these changes aren’t going to happen overnight. The School Sport Survey data underlines the importance we’re placing on physical literacy which will play a key role in making the major set change in culture that’s needed. Physical Literacy is about providing children with the motivation, sense of enjoyment, confidence and capability to understand how to use their body. In the same way as learning basic grammar and reading skills, we teach basic catch, jump and coordination skills to build each child’s confidence and appetite to pursue a sport or physical activity of their choice.

The core recommendation of a report, led by Baroness Tanni-Grey Thompson, would lead to PE having equal status to English, Welsh, Maths and Science. This would mean PE would be formally and regularly assessed, leading to higher quality provision and an improvement in standards.

We live in an increasingly sedentary world, with shocking child obesity rates, and a current expectation that our children’s life expectancy could be less than their parents. But we can turn that around if we teach our children the habit of exercising more from an early age. To ensure all our children are prepared physically for the future, we need to ensure all schools provide high-quality sport and PE.

Now that is telling us!

This year promises to be a fantastic for Welsh sport. We are set to send our largest team to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow 2014. It’s going to be a tough 12 months, especially in terms of funding, but we are determined to squeeze every last drop of inspiration out of the Games. I want 2014 to be a springboard for Wales to lead the way in developing a genuine collaboration between health, education and sport.

Just as our elite athletes will be striving for their personal best, we too must be ambitious and unflinching in how we address some of the nation’s biggest health issues. We want to play our part on the Welsh Public Services team – so 2014 will be all about sport moving off the subs bench.

Sarah Powell has been the recently appointed Chief Executive Officer of Sport Wales; the first woman to hold the position within the organisation www.sportwales.org.uk She is former captain of the national hockey team at all age levels, winning over 70 senior caps and playing at the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games.

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