Alison Johnstone, Scottish Green MSP for the Lothians and the party’s spokesperson on sport. A former competitive athlete, Alison is also a qualified athletics coach
A year from now the world’s eyes will be on Scotland thanks to the Commonwealth Games. And right now, long before the first starting pistol is fired, I believe we need to up our game in Scotland if we are serious about making sport a normal part of our young people’s lives. Glasgow 2014 is a golden opportunity to make competitive sport and active lifestyles affordable and accessible. Inspirational role models and medals will encourage young people to get involved. A meaningful legacy means that we’ll have the coaches and facilities in place to make this a reality.
I believe it is important that we give children every opportunity to try out a wide variety of sports, whether that is free running, BMX or badminton. It might be a recognised Olympic sport or it might be something away from the mainstream. I want the Scottish Government to ask young people what they would like to see in its youth sport strategy and what the barriers and incentives are. The cost to families is certainly amongst these barriers.
Accessing an athletics track and buying some running spikes can seem beyond many people’s incomes so let’s look at reducing that cost. My local club has a second-hand policy where people hand in kit they’ve grown out of and it’s sold at a reduced price.
I also worry that we are still relying almost entirely on volunteers to help our young people into sport. Recently Edinburgh hosted its traditional annual inter-scholastics, but not every school in the city had a team. Could this be because schools are relying on one person who is unavailable on that day? Local schools, local authorities and governing bodies can strengthen club-schools links and work towards ensuring that all schools have an opportunity to compete. Employer support and an expenses scheme for those who need financial assistance in order to volunteer could have a particularly beneficial impact. Gaining coaching qualifications takes time and cash and we must look positively at supporting those who wish to help our young people.
High school is the point at which PE traditionally loses young people, particularly young women. I would like there to be a focus on having much more time than the current target of two hours a week, or two periods in high school and a specific approach to engaging young women.
Of course there are well documented health benefits to spending on sport. As highlighted recently childhood obesity is a growing problem, yet we see falling rates of youth participation in sport. Investing in youth sport could help us address this crisis. To boost participation rates we must help young people find the sport that is right for them. If they’re passionate about it, it is more likely that they will exercise.
Involvement in sport also encourages social interaction. Young people spend time developing relationships with team mates. They might meet people from different schools, different workplaces and different areas – people they might not come across otherwise. Young people learn to work together.
Sport also helps young people to de-stress. They can forget about school and the pressure of exams and they become mindful of what they are doing in the moment. If someone is learning the high jump, for example, they cannot be thinking about their homework or the other pressures in their life. That is healthy for our young people. Their self-esteem develops, too, through encouragement of and praise for their efforts. Whether they are experts or not, they learn that, if they strive, they can improve. That empowers them and develops a positive, healthy attitude.
Swimming, a sport in which Scotland excels, is a life skill yet fewer than half of 8-15 year olds swim on a regular basis. We rely on volunteers to teach our young people how to cycle safely on our roads. The Curriculum for Excellence seems tailor made to embed these important habits and skills. Investment in both of these areas would pay dividends economically, socially and in health terms.
Scotland is famed as a nation of sports fans but often it is armchair enthusiasm. It’s time to make the move from spectating to participating.