Are there new ways to imagine community sport?
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks of the government helping to create a bridge from our current socially-isolated world to a new post-COVID-19 world.
What might be on the other side of that bridge when it comes to community sport? Will we be resurrecting the same structures and activities or might we see a bold new world where no sportsperson has gone before?!
We all recognise that community sport has faced challenges for a long time now: How to battle against the ubiquitous pull of screens on everyone’s time and attention? How to get enough volunteers? How to get enough money? How to meet the demands of risk management, equity, privacy, child protection, etc.?
Are there other ways to organise community sport?
I am not suggesting we dismantle the current sporting club structure, but are there other things we can do? For example, there is a half-court basketball facility in a local park near where I live. The local basketball club or council could use an app (similar to Meetup) to coordinate casual pick-up games once a week where an adult coach/referee comes along to ensure it is safe and to give some tips. From the players' perspective, there would be no regular commitment, no uniforms, and no cost. Note that parkrun is an existing exemplar of this philosophy, with its motto of “Free. For everyone. Forever”.
Pick-up games would simply be a chance for a group of local people to get together and enjoy a common interest. Potentially, some players will be encouraged to join club competition but, even if they don’t, you are getting people active, making community connections and building an interest in a sport.
A 2013 CSIRO report on the future of sport suggested that the rise in the number of gym users presented an opportunity for sporting organisations. Could a weightlifting coach run a competition in the local gym incorporating popular lifts such as bench presses, deadlifts and military presses? Could a triathlon club come up with a gym-based competition using an exercise bike, treadmill and rowing ergometer? Could an athletics club have a gym-based pentathlon involving five different activities (for example, box jumping, treadmill sprints, farmer’s walks, push-ups and burpees)? Again, as with the earlier basketball example, some players might join the local club competition with the right encouragement and the prospect of quality coaching.
How about a radical team sport concept where kids and adults compete alongside each other? There are several non-contact sports where, with a little creativity, fun competitions involving teams of a parent/grandparent and their child could be held. Football (soccer), touch and netball spring immediately to mind. Many families already have similar playful contests when they get together for special occasions.
Rules could be designed to accommodate this sort of competition; Golden Oldies Rugby is a great example of a sport that has devised rules so that different age groups can participate alongside each other. Such competitions might even change the ethos of the sport to be more in line with Baron de Coubertin’s initial concept for the Olympics: "The most important thing … is not to win but to take part.”
There has been a surge in electronic-sport or eSports for computer gamers in recent years. So, what lessons can we learn about how to merge the online world with the physical world when it comes to traditional community sport? Is it possible to have more physical sport contests where the competition happens online? Could we have two runners competing against each other by sprinting down different tracks but starting at the same time and running the same distance? Do people necessarily need to be in the same location to compete against each other? The education sector is currently coming to grips with a something similar as it moves from face-to-face to online teaching and is finding that technology can provide some good solutions.
While online contests won’t work for all sports, I could see sports such as rowing, swimming, athletics, diving, cycling and gymnastics developing online competitions. Many sports have embraced the use of apps to engage fans and build communities, so why not use technology to remove the tyranny of distance from competition?
I don’t think any of us know what the world will be like when we get to the other side of the COVID-19 bridge. But I do know that it never hurts to think about how to do things differently. As businessman Max de Pree wrote: “We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are”.
Sport is a notoriously conservative institution, as we have recently seen with the reluctance of many sports to close down during this current crisis. And, while I am not suggesting that we tear down all the sporting traditions, I am suggesting it is time for sport to think about what it wants to become.
Jak Carroll has over 30 years experience in the sport industry. He has worked for leading organisations including the Confederation of Australian Sport, Australian Institute of Sport and the North Coast Academy of Sport. He has also been a university lecturer in sport management for over 20 years and operates his own consultancy service.