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BLOG: Rebuilding college communities through sport

22 October 2020

As part of Colleges Week and the theme of colleges supporting their communities, AoC's Director of Sport and Student Experience, Dean Hardman, talks about how sport and physical activity can have a vital role in enhancing the college and the wider community it sits in. The Everton football manager, Carlo Ancelotti, said, in the context of the current global pandemic, that “football is the most important of the less important things in the world.” The phrase was almost a reimagining of his Merseyside predecessor Bill Shankly’s famous misquote, when, with a twinkle in his eye, it is claimed that he said “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Shankly was never seriously suggesting that professional football is more important than health, education or family, despite how his quote has been used over the years. Yet, to go too far the other way and dismiss the importance of sport would be a mistake and to suggest that it is trivial would be wrong. I would argue that even Ancelotti’s view is not quite right in the context of participation in football or other sports or in being physically active by oneself or with others.

Importance of sport

Sport and physical activity may not be the most important things right now, but, for a whole host of reasons, to dismiss them as unimportant or to deprioritise them would be a huge mistake. As restrictions on our daily lives return, it’s a relief that there is an acknowledgment from government that sport and physical activity, along with education, should not be among the first activities to be reduced. In the context of Further Education, it is clear that college leaders continue to have a lot on their proverbial plates this term. Previously unscheduled exams, new approaches to blended learning, new COVID restrictions, unforeseen timetabling issues and travel-related logistical nightmares are just some of the challenges being faced. The temptation may be to see sport as a “nice to have” and physical activity provision as something that should be ignored until a sense of normality resumes. Yet it is precisely because of the challenges being faced that sport and physical activity becomes more and more vital. Probably more important than ever before. While the prospect of sporting competition against other colleges may present additional challenges, we owe it to this year’s students to try our best to provide it. Likewise, encouraging sport and physical activity amongst staff and students, whether that be on campus or at home, in socially distanced groups or alone, can help considerably to mitigate the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rebuilding a community

The positive effect of exercise on mental and physical health are, of course, widely known. Playing sport or exercising with others can, for staff and students who have potentially spent much of the past few months alone or with a limited social network, provide much needed contact with others. We know that for FE students, involvement in Sport and PA reduces loneliness and social isolation. For many students, the world will feel like a very different place post-coronavirus and the ability to exercise and connect with others will provide a much needed sense of “normality”. Perhaps most importantly, participating in sport together, face-to-face or virtually, provides a unique opportunity for staff and students to rebuild their colleges’ sense of community. With disrupted timetables and time away from campus, rebuilding colleges as a community will likely prove difficult. The shared sense of purpose and communal experiences that sport and physical activity bring can be key to retaining and enhancing a sense of college identity.

New opportunities

Finally, with countless people, young and old, having to reassess their plans for their immediate futures, sport also offers the possibility of new skills and qualifications, as well as volunteering opportunities within communities that can make a real difference as we all face the “new normal”. There has never been a better time to train to be an official or a leader in sport and colleges are very well placed to signpost and deliver these opportunities. So, sport may not be more important than life and death, but neither should it be on the list of things that matter least. And we at AoC will be there to support colleges in identifying the right opportunities for their staff, students and local communities.