Sport: a powerful tool for improving wellbeing

In this blog post, Dr Rachel Hughes, Head of Insight at Sport Wales, tells us how and why sport is such an important tool for improving wellbeing….

What if I told you there is a highly effective tool for engaging and empowering individuals, communities, and even countries to take action to improve their wellbeing. Would you be interested?

This tool has the universal power to attract, motivate and inspire. It mobilises volunteers and promotes active community involvement, helping to build social capital and strengthen the social fabric. It can have a positive impact on people’s behaviour, their self-esteem, their level of confidence, and their ability to demonstrate positive social behaviours. It is associated with improved academic performance and higher levels of attainment.

Not only that, it can considerably reduce the risk of a number of society’s most prevalent non-communicable diseases, provide psychological and social benefits, and can help ensure individuals maintain quality of life and functional capacity at all ages.

Well, that tool is sport.

Now, you may be thinking sport in a traditional sense: competitive football, netball, rugby. Perhaps your experience of ‘sport’ was not a positive one: cold, wet days running around a playing field. That it is for the few not the many.

Let me tackle a few assumptions. According to the United Nations, sport is ‘all forms of physical activity that contribute to physical fitness, mental wellbeing, and social interaction. These include play, recreation, organised or competitive sport, and indigenous sports and games’. Through the work that we are doing with our partners, we have been encouraging a vast array of ever-evolving sports formats presenting a diverse palette of opportunity for activity. A smorgasbord, if you will, from which all individuals can find an appropriate, attractive and enjoyable offer, regardless of social characteristics or existing levels of fitness.

As the distributor of National Lottery funds into grassroots sport in Wales, we have been able to support people, communities, and organisations in providing a range of sporting opportunities that improve people’s wellbeing. We firmly believe that this funding should go to whoever is best placed to deliver.

A great example of this is our Calls4Action grant scheme. Last year, as part of the community legacy of the Commonwealth Games, we launched a Calls4Action, which was aimed at tackling inequalities in sport participation in Wales. Backed by our own striking research that explored those people who are not currently taking part in sport, the call went out for bold, new approaches that could help bridge the gaps in participation that have plagued previous generations. Ten organisations were successful in securing £2.35m towards £3.6m worth of projects. Some of these might not immediately spring to mind to deliver sporting opportunities; for example, Girl Guiding Cymru, Brecon Beacons National Park, RCT Homes, Time to Change.

In addition to large funding streams like Calls4Action, we routinely invest in community sport through our Community Chest and Development Grants.

Community Chest is a brilliant example of devolved decision-making. Decisions on what to fund locally are decided by a panel that is made up from the local community. The panels can award grants up to £1,500. There is a Community Chest panel in each of the 22 local authorities.

Development Grants, which are probably the most pertinent to Public Service Boards, are up to £25,000 and available to support, for example, new enterprises, coach education, to purchase equipment, or to develop training facilities.

What we have increasingly seen through our community sport investment is how sport can engage with people and transform people’s lives.

Getting out and taking part in street football is proving it can help get people off the street too. Sport Wales gave just over £9,000 to Street Football Wales, a social inclusion project partnership between Gwalia and other statutory and voluntary sector partners, to develop a core group of coaches to bring additional playing opportunities for homeless and socially excluded people.

“By being involved in community services in this way, the coaches have had a positive impact on service users’ physical well-being and ability to make healthier lifestyle choices. Participants have also developed exit routes for some players to enter mainstream sport and have a positive impact in communities as coaches, sports leaders and first aiders. It has also helped build their CVs, improve their skills, experience, qualifications and provide potential future employers with a checkable history and reference, and move them closer to employability and social inclusion.” Keri Harris, Project Leader. Amazingly, 76% of the homeless people who took part in the project said that their housing situation had improved.

Street Football Wales 2 (content)

Street Football Wales 

With an ever-increasing female following, Diva Sport is proving that there really is a winning formula when it comes to tackling lower levels of female participation in sport. Sport Wales provided a start-up grant to two single mums determined to get fit around all of life’s other responsibilities. Diva Sport, their female-focused, family-friendly fitness venture, is now seeing hundreds of women coming through the doors to join fitness classes every month.

“We wanted to offer something for all shapes, sizes and ages, for women who regularly take part in sports and for those who haven’t done a thing since leaving school.” Business partner Claire Williams, who herself has lost almost 5 stone in weight and come off anti-depressant drugs through regularly participating in leisure activities, adds: “We understood all of the anxieties that women could feel around joining fitness classes, we felt them too. So we listened to what women wanted and we have let that shape everything that we do since our launch.” Diva Sport have partnered with many different organisations to find joint approaches of reaching different groups of females. The pair has one focus when it comes to the operation of their business – keeping things fun. And their source for this winning formula – simply listening to and understanding their customer.

“By having the sessions locally it means I am able to participate, enjoy the health benefits, and meet other people.” Ffit Rural Leisure participant. With 60% of its landscape classed as rural and in some cases isolated, Conwy County Borough Council needed to think outside the box when looking to provide easy access to sports opportunities for all. Which is why, alongside modern purpose-built sporting stadiums and gyms, church halls, schoolrooms, and community centres have become essential to the area’s sporting infrastructure.

Supported by Sport Wales, the programme – Ffit Rural Leisure – started with a surgery explaining the importance of keeping active as part of a healthy lifestyle. “Through going out an talking with people in the communities, we found that there were many barriers stopping people from participating in sport and physical activity. From not being able to travel due to age, disability or lack of means, to wanting to participate with other Welsh speakers… We put a plan in action to address them” Tim Ballam, Rural Leisure Officer. Ffit Rural Leisure has reached out to rural residents on more than just location and convenience level, and is for many, at the heart of their community, offering a more active and social lifestyle.

Ffit - main image.jpg

Ffit Rural Leisure 

There are some more great examples of how we’ve helped make a difference to communities across Wales, and they can be found here.

We have a long history of promoting and carrying out research. It’s a core function of our organisation. Our evidence and insight informs what we do and what we fund.

The main body of evidence and insight stems from two large-scale population surveys that we run: Active Adults Survey (recently amalgamated into the new National Survey) and School Sport Survey.

The biennial School Sport Survey provides unrivalled insight and disaggregation into the participation and provision of PE and sport among young people in Wales. In 2015, 116,000 young people gave their views, making the survey the largest of its kind in the world. We’re very proud of this fact, and it demonstrates that Wales is really leading the way! Added to this, 1,094 teachers provided information on the provision of PE and school sport, and their opinions on continual professional development and the importance of physical literacy within their school.

In total, 985 schools in Wales (58% of all primary schools and 86% of all secondary schools. This included 4 special schools) received a bespoke report of their data for them to use and inform their school offer.

We’re pleased that the survey is also recognised by Estyn as providing valuable evidence to help inspectors make judgements about aspects of pupils’ wellbeing and to help with schools’ self-evaluation. The survey provides evidence on: attitudes to keeping healthy and safe; participation and enjoyment in learning; community Involvement and decision-making; and social and life skills.

Importantly, the School Sport Survey is well placed to help schools deliver and monitor the new curriculum. It particularly helps to ensure that all children and young people will be healthy, confident individuals.

Complementing the School Sport Survey, we have been monitoring and analysing patterns of sports participation for over 20 years through our Active Adults Survey. This typically provides us with the behaviours of around 12,000 adults in Wales. Taken together we have unparalleled insight on sports participation across the whole population.

In recognition of the unique offering of sport to society, we’re delighted that data from our surveys forms one of the national indicators used to measure the wellbeing of Wales.

Now it’s not only surveys that we run, we also undertake research to better understand (non)participation in sport, and synthesise evidence on policy areas. Recent pieces of work that we have undertaken include:

  • Understanding participation and non-participation in sport amongst Black and minority ethnic groups in Wales;
  • Sport and Health: evidence paper;
  • Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual (LGB) People in Sport: understanding LGB sports participation in Wales
  • Sports participation amongst 14-21 year olds – how do we encourage young people to stay involved in sport?

These, along with other things we’ve published, can be found here.

And there’s more…! We have also produced a segmentation tool that can be used to better understand your area in terms of people’s (non)sporting behaviours. The segmentation can help drive tactical and strategic decisions, through: catchment area analysis; applying insight to geography; knowing who to target and what to offer; and the tone and message of communication.

So why is all of this important? Well, I’m sure that you, like us, are hugely excited by the opportunities that the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 affords us in Wales. It’s an opportunity to play our part in creating a sustainable nation. A Wales with a shared purpose to achieve a better and lasting quality of life for us all. A Wales where we work differently so we all make better decisions, transform services, tackle root problems, and use scarce public money to maximum effect.

In my very small way, I wanted to share with you the valuable insight we have that can help inform your decisions and your wellbeing plans. I also wanted to share the power of sport in helping to make a difference to the wellbeing of people and communities in Wales, now and in the future.

So what can you do? Here are my three suggestions:

  • Familiarise yourselves with Sport Wales’ evidence and insight
  • Follow Sport Wales on social media for regular updates about our work and that of our partners: Twitter; Facebook; YouTube; Instagram
  • Contact and work with your local authority sports development team who will be able to provide you with advice and ideas for developing wellbeing through sport


Leave a Reply