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AIR Sports Network: using sport to rescue troubled lives

“Being part of a community sport programme opens up so many mindsets. It helps someone to be part of something, plants seeds of change and opportunity, and gets them thinking outside the box.”

As Managing Director of AIR Sports Network, Colm Whitty speaks from years of experience when he talks of sport’s power to change troubled lives.

Since its launch in 2007, AIR has worked with over 13,000 hard-to-reach and disadvantaged men and women across London, Kent and Essex, helping over 60% of them into employment, training or education. In 2016/17 their 1,047 service users achieved 689 outcomes (education, vocational training or employment).

Working in prison and in the community, they use sport as an engagement tool to forge trusting relationships through mentoring, behavioural and cognitive change, and developing wellbeing. Building on this lift in confidence and resilience, and acquisition of life skills, they work towards each individual living a healthy, fulfilling life, free from substance misuse and crime.

How does a service user’s journey begin?

Due to their long-established reputation, many new recruits join voluntarily. The rest come on board thanks to strong working relationships with local referral partners, including the National Probation Service, social services and the Metropolitan Police. AIR confers with local officers to identify local issues and crime danger zones, and approach targeted at-risk individuals to offer support. AIR also have programmes in prisons.

What happens next?

new picture2Once on board, every effort is made to make each individual feel part of a community. They are invited to football, boxercise, cycling and gym sessions. If they show initial resistance or reluctance, one of AIR’s 15 staff will text and phone them to encourage them along. “We are relentless!” says Whitty.

“The sessions are high quality. They’re fun, challenging, competitive and developmental,” Whitty says. “They’re run by Level 3 personal trainers or coaches who have played football to a high level.

“We like to be very hands-on. We are in constant contact and always available. We know what their issues are, we  find out their passions and ambitions, and constantly motivate them.

“We use those sessions to plant seeds. We ask them what they’re doing in their lives, signposting them to education opportunities. This process can take several weeks, but if their team-mates or friends are going too, they’re generally enthused. Before they know it, they end up building up a portfolio of courses and qualifications.”

AIR organises competitions between service users on their various programmes in different London boroughs. “It brings together groups that are traditionally at each other’s throats,” explains Whitty. “They network and join up on social media. It breaks down that feeling of not being able to get along.”

Other events have included a barbeque with DJs with inmates inside HMP Thameside and an away-day training at St George’s Park alongside the England squad.

What are the different programmes?


IOM programmes

IOM (Integrated Offender Management) programmes operate across several London boroughs. Working closely with the Probation Service, they deal with medium-to-high-risk individuals who have a history of consistent offending, multiple issues and have been socially excluded because of their behaviour.

‘Treatment naïve’

This programme targets individuals who may be in denial about the dangers of their habitual drug use. They may use cannabis or cocaine on a daily basis, but don’t believe it to be a problem. Using sport as an engagement ‘hook’, AIR teaches them long-term dangers, works to change mindsets, signposts them to support agencies such as Turning Point and – through its sport and fitness sessions, wellbeing plans and courses – provides positive, alternative lifestyle choices.

Prison programmes

In HMPs Thameside, Wormwood Scrubs and Feltham, AIR works with offenders who are set for release in the next six months. With each inmate, they forge a structured plan to tackle their issues, such as housing, mental health, substance misuse and criminal activity. AIR can iron out potential trouble spots ahead of release by, for example, sorting paperwork with a housing officer.

“Once they’re out, it’s our responsibility to engage them with whatever we’ve got at our disposal,” explains Whitty. “That’s via our sports programme, mentoring, education and home visits. We then report back to our commissioners on their progress. We are like the glue between prison, release, probation and the community.”

Serving offenders are offered many of the same education opportunities as service users in the community, such as English and maths GCSEs, personal training or construction industry qualifications. “We want to make it so they’re job-ready when they come out of the gate,” says Whitty. “We have the connections to get them voluntary work placements, part-time or full-time jobs. It’s often actually better for them to do 12-week training courses while they’re inside. No-one can miss an appointment in prison!”

What’s the impact?

Service users who have fully engaged in one of AIR Network’s programmes typically emerge with training, education or employment in their chosen area. Some ex-service users are even now employed as AIR coaches and mentors.

So-called ‘soft’ outcomes are equally as valid and important. Some enlist just to get fit or break previous bad lifestyle habits, and are supported in achieving those aims.

Most importantly, no-one ever fully exits the AIR Sports Network community. They may no longer be attending sports or education sessions, but they know the support network will always be available to them.

“It’s great to see a guy who’s been in and out of prison for years who hasn’t reoffended, has completed his supervision order, has had no more trouble and is now working,” says Whitty. “That is a solid and highly satisfying outcome for them and us. That’s the end product. You know then you’ve not only contributed to their lives, but their family’s. You’ve helped make them a good man, but a good son, brother or dad too.”

Case studies

Picture2– ‘AC’ had been a prolific offender who didn’t trust authority. He met AIR Network whilst in custody and engaged well, continuing to attend sessions post-release. He was always on time and was extremely motivated to make positive changes in his life. As a result, he began to engage better with his probation officer. He secured employment as a pizza delivery driver, successfully completed his post-custodial licence and then worked as a volunteer with AIR Network. His AIR Network worker felt that AC engaged with them because they related to him in ways that other agencies hadn’t.

– ‘AD’ was a heroin and crack cocaine addict, had been in and out of jail, and had a history of not complying with drug services or his probation officer. AIR Sports Network began working with him on his release, helping AD rebuild a relationship with his family from whom he had been estranged for 20 years. This reconnection significantly helped AD’s recovery from drug misuse. His life became increasingly stable; he maintained his substitute-prescribing regime without using on top; his compliance and engagement with his probation officer and other services improved; he started looking after himself; and AIR Network helped him secure permanent accommodation. His AIR Network caseworker felt AD saw that someone wanted to really see him change and this encouraged AD’s engagement and the positive changes that he subsequently made in his life and how he felt about himself.

For more information on AIR Sports Network, click here.