The International Day of Sport for Development and Peace is a United Nations Observance, it takes place every year on April 6th and presents an opportunity to recognise the positive role sport and physical activity play in communities and in people’s lives across the globe. This year the UN’s theme for the day is ‘Securing a Sustainable and Peaceful Future for All: The Contribution of Sport’.

At Dame Kelly Holmes Trust, we have been reflecting on how can sport help to build a fairer, more equitable and sustainable society, and looking at some of the ways we support this goal as an organisation.

Since being launched by Col. Dame Kelly Holmes on the eve of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, over the last 14 years the Trust has harnessed the unique skills of world class athletes to support thousands of young people, who are facing disadvantage, to improve their physical health and mental wellbeing. Delivered by existing or former elite athletes, the Trust’s transformational programmes are designed to improve wellbeing, help build healthy relationships and unlock the confidence, self-esteem and resilience needed to achieve in education, work and life.  

No stranger to adversity herself, Dame Kelly grew up in a council estate in Kent with her single mum. She struggled at school, and felt like she wasn’t any good at anything. It was her PE teacher who spotted her talent for running, and encouraged her to focus, work hard and believe in herself. She says that this was the turning point for her. She historically became the first British woman to win both 800m and 1500m at the Athens Olympic Games in 2004. As she came to the end of her competitive career, she recognised a powerful and motivational skill set that she, and fellow athletes had developed during their time competing at the highest levels of sport.

Drawing on her own experiences, she wanted to create a legacy from her athletics career that would benefit young people, believing every child needs a hero – someone to look up to and be inspired by; as well as a legacy for athletes who have a unique set of skills that can be used to have positive impact on the lives of people around them. The Trust trains up existing and former athletes, from all sports, to use their unique experience from the world of elite sport to give young people a starting block in life that they may not otherwise have.

Adam Whitehead, former Commonwealth gold medal winning swimmer and Olympian, who leads the athlete mentor team at the Trust commented:

We believe athletes are inspirational role models and mentors. It is widely recognised that sport requires a high degree of discipline, responsibility, and perseverance. Athletes have proven leadership qualities, positive mind-set, communications skills, achievement of goals and resilience when dealing with the highs and lows of competitive sport and life. We’ve all got a story to tell. We take that and apply it to challenges young people might be facing in their own lives - the skills are transferable, and once they’ve made that connection, the uplift in their own self-belief is incredible.

 As a member of the Sport for Development Coalition, the Trust will be supporting the #OpenGoal campaign which has been created to showcase how sport and physical activity can contribute to building a fairer, more equitable and sustainable future, and launches on International Day of Sport for Development and Peace. With Levelling Up high on the national agenda, our programmes, using sport and physical activity as a base for engagement, are delivering a positive impact in communities throughout the UK – and proving that intervention through sport can address a variety of different social issues. Examples of our work include:

SPORT ENGLAND: The impact of our programmes on physical and mental wellbeing; community engagement and confidence

Over the last three years the Trust has worked closely with Sport England to deliver our Get on Track for Wellbeing programme to more than 700 young people in coastal communities across England, in recognition that these locations have some of the worst economic and social deprivation in the country and to combat identified inequalities in physical and mental wellbeing.

Despite being delivered during one of the most challenging times in modern history, and against a backdrop of national lock downs and restrictions on access to sport and physical activity provision, over three years the programme was able to deliver the following results:

  • An increase in those achieving 30 mins or more activity from 54% at the start, to 73% at the end of the programme through the offering of a safe space in which to try new activities, a programme focus on forming positive habits, introduction to local provision, and increasing awareness of the link between positive physical and mental wellbeing. Amongst females the increase was even greater, from 48% to 72%
  • Average wellbeing scores (according to the Short Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale) amongst participants increasing from 20.6 to 22.3 out of 35, an improvement of 8%, with increase amongst female participants at 11%. Astonishing during a moment in history when mental wellbeing amongst young people has declined – The Prince’s Trust Youth Index 2022 indicating that almost half of young people felt their mental health has worsened since the pandemic, and nearly a quarter believing they will never recover from the emotional impact it has had.
  • An increase in young people’s feeling of connection to the local community from 37% to 42%; and an increase in knowledge of local sports provision from 32% to 65%
  • An increase in confidence to move into education, employment or training from 58% at the start, to 70% at the end of the programme

 Athlete Mentor, former Paralympic Gold Medal winning swimmer, Liz Johnson said:

When you look at wellbeing you need to create a space where you’re not holding back, and you don’t feel like you’re going to be judged. That’s why it’s vital that people are given that opportunity.

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Athlete Mentor, former Commonwealth Bronze Medal winner in Taekwondo, Henry Cookey said:

It’s all about improving the young people’s quality of life through getting them in to more physical activity. By the end of the programme, if you speak to the participants, they’re more confident, much more positive, it’s amazing how far they come. 

WESTFIELD HEALTH: Delivering greater community impact through a connected hub of programmes

As part of its multi-year partnership with health and wellbeing provider Westfield Health, the Trust recently launched a series of programmes which will reach its largest number of young people ever in a single city. Over 2,000 Sheffield-based young people will benefit this year alone. Working with high school pupils, creating activity for primary schools and supporting local young people to champion improving health and wellbeing in their own communities, the Trust aims to deliver benefits to the local community which are greater than the sum of their parts.

Sixteen students each at ten Sheffield secondary schools, who are facing challenging circumstances in their personal or school life, have been chosen by their schools to benefit from On Track To Achieve mentoring sessions delivered in schools by Trust athlete mentors. They’ll cover wellbeing techniques, team building, the importance of physical activity, problem solving and social action planning. Their resulting social action projects, delivered to pupils in feeder primary schools, will focus on boosting health and wellbeing, benefiting hundreds more children.

The Trust is also running youth leadership programmes, Young Leaders, in Sheffield, in partnership with Sheffield United Community Foundation, for local young people who want to make positive differences in their communities and improve the health and wellbeing of others. These 18-25 year olds are benefitting from sessions delivered by the Trust’s athlete mentors designed to develop their leadership skills and ability to work with groups of young people. They will also learn to develop their own fun and engaging sessions. They will be given opportunities to support schools-based and local community organisations, and raise awareness of challenges faced by young people today.

Athlete Mentor, former GB Olympic and world championship swimmer, James Kirton said

My day job may no longer be as an elite swimmer, but I am now lucky enough to be a coach and a mentor to the next generation, passing on this knowledge and skills to young people who are grappling with so many complexities, all over the country, the Steel City included.

AQA: Ten years of unlocking potential in schools, increasing confidence, improving behaviour and attendance

The last decade has been one of monumental change for young people. A snapshot of the past decade shows the highs and lows that young people have witnessed and been a part of, from the 2011 riots, the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2012, the Black Lives Matters movement, Brexit, enduring the last two years of turmoil caused by the global pandemic, to most recently the terrible situation in Ukraine. Young people also now have access to social media, celebrity culture and influencers 24/7 and with this shift we have seen a surge in declining mental health and wellbeing.

The Children’s Commissioner Report, 2021, found that despite being surrounded by these challenges, young people today are empaths, who want to know how to do more for their community and environment, despite feeling burdened by inherited problems – climate change, covid debt, injustice, inequality, and disadvantage. They like school, want to learn, and they want to see a future of success and potential not just for them but for their peers and future generations.

The Trust recognises the importance of the school setting for development and in a decade partnership with AQA has delivered the AQA Unlocking Potential programme to almost 600 young people in schools across the UK. These young people, who have been identified by their schools as needing the support of a role model to combat personal and social issues, and to reach their full potential, have received over 7,000 hours of mentoring from athlete mentors over 2,025 sessions in the ten years.

With the support of their athlete mentors they have delivered an incredible 225 social action projects across the country. Recent examples including creating sensory gardens, a legacy forest school and creating inclusive sports days for the whole community. Social action creates a double benefit, teaching young people leadership, communication and team building skills, as well as delivering impactful and often challenging projects within their communities. Young people build their awareness of the local community network and of local opportunities available to them.

The opportunity to work with a sportsperson is hugely positive, young people feel special to be selected and to spend time with a world class athlete who became a trusted mentor resonated with them all. The ‘buzz’ it creates having a British or world champion walking the corridors in the schools should not be underestimated and the keenness to spend more time with their mentors is tangible.

Athlete Mentor, former Commonwealth Bronze Medal winner in Taekwondo, Stephanie Allen said

We work with them on their social and emotional skills to build them up in education. It teaches them in life to celebrate all their wins and empowers them to go to the next step.

 A teacher at one of the participating schools commented: 

Although we don’t measure all the soft skills they improve in, we have looked at achievement points, behavioural points and attendance levels for the students who have taken part over the last four years, and we can clearly see increased attendance and achievement and reduced behavioural concerns in almost every student. The programme gives them a reason to come to school and then stay in school.

We truly believe that supporting the Trust – and other members of the coalition – to engage and empower young people in disadvantaged communities, using sport and physical activity as a tool for engagement, is an Open Goal and that’s why we’re proud to be backing the Coalition’s campaign.