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24 Mar 2022 | 14:14

The Sport for Development Coalition has committed to supporting the diversity, capacity and capability of the sport for development workforce following its recent Town Hall session, with the core team and Coalition partners to explore the best approach to meeting the challenges faced.

Representatives from more than 20 organisations gathered at Empire Fighting Chance’s gym in Bristol, with 40 people viewing online, to discuss and analyse what is required to create a more effective and efficient delivery workforce for the sector. Feedback highlighted the need for further investigation, and there will be a dedicated task for attendees of the next Town Hall to actively contribute to the refinement of the scope. 

Town Halls are designed to provide informal opportunities for a selection of the 200-plus organisations and networks who make up the Coalition to engage on important issues in the sector and drive the Coalition’s collective response to them.


Throughout 2022, the Coalition will take the popular sessions to towns and communities around the UK, and be hosted by its member organisations. Next up is Manchester on April 29th when the Coalition will examine the role of sport and physical activity in criminal justice. 

Empire Fighting Chance CEO Martin Bisp set the scene for the Town Hall in Bristol, by reflecting on how the make-up of the charity’s workforce enables it to become as impactful as possible. “Our results are so good because our staff are so great,” he said. 

However when looking further afield across the sector, Ben Hilton, CEO of Dame Kelly Holmes Trust and Coalition Board member, pointed out: “We don’t understand the size and the scale, and the value and the needs, of the workforce (in sport for development).” 

More context and understanding is needed of the different skillsets required, said Ben, adding: “In sport for development, there is that split between youth and sport… (we need to) look at it from two different angles, but with a common purpose.”


Steve Mitchell, from Sporting People, and Sarah Mortiboys, from UK Coaching, provided further context for the discussion. Sarah described how it has become essential for national partners to learn “by meeting people where they’re at through genuine collaborative partnership working” with particular attention paid to “tackling inequalities across the workforce”. 

“The change that we want to create,” she added, “is for the role of the sport for development coach, leader and mentor on a local, regional and national platform to be recognised as a catalyst to enable positive social impact, thus informing future policy.” 

Steve described how the contribution of the sport for development workforce to lives and communities across the UK was still hugely under-valued. “People who work in the Coalition space are more than coaches,” he added. “They’re not just delivering a session and going home.” 

Town Hall 2

Proof of this was provided by the powerful testimony of Kassia Passmore, a coach at Empire Fighting Chance, and Courtney Young, Head Coach Supervisor at the charity, when they featured on a ‘lived experience’ panel which also featured Steve Nelson, Chief Executive of Wesport (the West of England Sport Trust, one of 43 Active Partnerships which play a key role in the Sport for Development Coalition). 

Kassia was referred to the gym whilst at school after attending therapy and CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) which, she said, “wasn’t really for me”. She had always wanted to try boxing and, after some initial reluctance, she “got comfortable, and realised this was the place that I wanted to be”. 

“When I first came down here, I didn’t have any confidence and couldn’t speak to anyone,” she said. “As I went through the programme, my confidence grew and I came out of that dark place. Eventually it came to the time when I was trying to find a job. I had refused to hide the fact that I was autistic and I found that every job I went for and mentioned it, I never got the job. Eventually I was speaking to Courtney about wanting to start the apprenticeship. They sorted it out for me and it turned out that this was where I needed to be after all.” 


Looking back over her pathway into the workforce, Kassia reflected: “I’ve never felt like I’m here so they can ‘fix me’ and make me ‘better’…. it’s always been about helping me to manage so I can be in the best place that I can be.” Kassia was adamant that it was this ‘lived experience’ and strong empathy for young people in situations similar to what she had faced, which helped her coaching journey. 

Courtney grew up “10 minutes down the road” from the gym and said when he was younger, the youth workers at the charity were always “positive male role models in my life” who subsequently inspired him to get involved when the opportunity arose. He was also the first non-boxing coach to join, having come from a youth work background. 

These recurring themes throughout the Town Hall – such as greater inclusivity, the importance of challenging exclusionary practice, a place-based approach and how more accountability is required for increasing diversity – will help to inform the Coalition’s collective action on supporting and enabling the sport for development workforce.

Town Hall 3

Steve added: “If the Coalition membership, as part of a broader sector ambition to understand this, had more insight about the people who make sport and physical activity happen and their motivations, we can have more confidence that our workforce is safe and fit for purpose. Knowing more about who works and volunteers in the sport for development landscape can help to deliver on a number of agendas around recognition and professionalisation - but also demonstrate to young people how to get in, how to move through, and how to drive change from leadership roles with Coalition members.” 

Steve also conducted a series of live polls, including around the biggest challenges for attendees of the Town Hall with regards to recruitment. The most popular answer was ‘applications lacking the prerequisite skills and experience (35%); second was ‘lack of applications for any vacancies’ (21%) and third was ‘balancing ambitions of applicants versus reality of working in the sport for development environment’ (13%). 

Respondents in the room, and online, included Tracey McCillen, CEO of UK Sports Association for People with Learning Disability, from who called for the coaching of disabled people, including those with intellectual impairment, to “become the norm” within workforce development.


Other polls examined retention of staff, and duty of care reflecting on the biggest challenges being faced around nurturing and caring for staff. If you missed the Town Hall, you can watch a replay here.

The next Town Hall will examine the role of sport and physical activity in criminal justice, and take place in Manchester on April 29th. To register to attend online or in person please click here.

Watch previous Town Halls: