Noticeable changes over the past generation have been evident in sport. Professionalism has seen significant investment at the elite level of those few sports with an established market presence. Meanwhile, community team-based sports are struggling with increased bureaucracy, dwindling volunteer numbers, inadequate facilities and limited support from peak sports bodies and all levels of government. On current trends, participation in community sport among adults could drop by 15% by 2036 with a similar decline in sport diversity. We risk becoming a nation of sporting consumers, rather than participants.
Beyond the recognised health benefits of physical activity, community team-based sport offers participants and families an opportunity to interact across demographics and promotes diversity. It can provide positive role models, teach resilience, enhance academic performance, and enable development of a wide range of life skills. The wide range of clubs and competitions in community sport can bring together people like no other sector, and clubs are a rich source of social capital.
While the value of community sport has been well documented, assistance in the sector has largely come from local, state and federal government grants aimed at developing sporting infrastructure, with very little regard being given to the lifeblood of community sport - volunteers. Addressing some of the difficult aspects of community sport administration, making available comprehensive education opportunities, and providing volunteers with recognition of skills could improve the recruitment and retention of volunteers. Some of my ideas to address these follow below.
Develop a comprehensive State or National insurance model providing accident insurance to all community based sports. This would include insurance for all volunteers and participants. Community sport injuries should have its own surgical stream to quickly resolve sports injuries with adequate funding made available to facilitate this, meaning return to sport can be done as quickly as possible.
Insurance models should also include income protection for sport participants with injured participants streamed into established Workcover processes to assist business when a staff member is injured playing sport. Business needs to feel included in the sporting community just as much as participants. Demonstrating the benefits to business of a strong community sport model can assist with sponsorship opportunities and with developing new business opportunities.
Provide a community sport education model for all volunteers with nationally recognised accreditation for various levels of training. Ensure these courses are targeted at outcomes to enable further training in relevant areas such as; community development, social work, youth work, teaching, physiotherapy, sports science, business, marketing, food health and hygiene.
There are many aspects to managing a community based sport and many opportunities for the young, old, unemployed or people in training to get a taste of these areas and to develop skills that can both benefit the volunteer and also the wider community. Government should develop a specific program to assist with the integration of tertiary students into community sport by specifying practical hours required for course work and resourcing this adequately to enable all community groups to participate, regardless of size or existing resources.
The development and application of specific skills from tertiary students can make a real difference to clubs where resources are stretched thin, and also to the educational outcomes of students who are provided with an opportunity to develop creative outcomes for often resource-poor clients. This is particularly true for humanities students such as marketing and business, journalism, and creative arts such as photography.
Incentivise the utilisation of government departments and the non-government service sector to further engage with the wider community. An example of this could be the use of police resources for coaching young people in areas of disadvantage. This both familiarises the local police and the community and enhances empathy for all participants. Quality refereeing and coaching are two key areas that have an impact of the participation of young people in team sport. Simplistically, police officers apply the law in the community. Development of that skill in a sporting context for officers in training should enhance the decision making skills of those people and also enhance their relationship with the community.
Similarly, other public servants could be engaged in community service to put them in touch with their key demographics and allow them to gain a better understanding of the communities in which they work. An example of this could be local government sport and rec officers gaining a grassroots appreciation of infrastructure and service gaps in community sport by serving on club committees.
Governments can also play a role in better recognising the role of volunteers in sport. Similar to Army Reserves or volunteer fire fighters, there are opportunities to provide real incentives for volunteers to shore up an area that is vital to the continued success of community sport. Whether providing taxation incentives for the use of phones or vehicles, providing subsidised educational opportunities that are targeted for specific outcomes, or simply expanding opportunities for public recognition for volunteers – all assistance to support volunteers to support our communities is important.
While government at all levels continues to focus on infrastructure to support community sport, a shift in thinking that supports wider engagement from the community, better access to skill development for volunteers and greater recognition for the economic and social benefits of community sport can ensure the predicted demise of community sport can be avoided.