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The coaches changing troubled young lives in south-east Wales

Sport is one of the most effective ways to engage with the most challenging and complex individuals caught up in a cycle of crime and imprisonment. During Coaching Week (June 4-10), the Alliance of Sport is showcasing #greatcoaching by those working in and around the criminal justice system.


Positive Futures Gwent has been using sport to impact on crime and young people’s behaviour in under-privileged parts of south-east Wales for 15 years. When you’re a coach on their programme, two sessions are rarely the same.

At-risk young people are referred to Positive Futures following multi-agency meetings that involve schools, social services and youth offending teams. Each young person’s needs are assessed and an effective package of support is built around them.

Young people referred are at varying stages on the spectrum of offending – some are deemed at-risk due to their backgrounds or initial incidents of anti-social behaviour, whereas others are deeper into criminal activity. Either way, coaches need specialist skills with this type of audience.

“Not everyone has the tools or personality to work with disaffected and challenging young people whose home lives are manic,” says Lucy Donovan, Senior Development Officer at Positive Futures.

“Relating to the young people is the most important skill. It’s a mixture of coaching and youth work; it needs people who can dig in and not be put off by kids not necessarily listening or following instructions the first time. I have brought in external ‘club’ type coaches in the past and it sometimes ends in carnage.

“Flexibility is important, too. I know myself that if you go in with your bag of balls, cones and bibs and set up your pitch and expect that they’re all going to listen and be lovely, it can easily all go out the window quite quickly.”

Positive Futures’ programmes (funded by Gwent Police and Crime Commissioner and Sport Wales) give at-risk young people vital one-to-one support, offering them personal development opportunities, the chance to earn qualifications and learn life skills. Alongside ‘classroom’ work is an array of sports from football and rugby to dance, boxing, climbing, mountain biking and skateboarding.

Young people are also encouraged to take up volunteering opportunities, and it’s those that have made that journey from service user to volunteer and coach that, Donovan says, tend to possess ideal delivery skills.

“The behaviour change has got to come from within these estates and communities,” states Lucy. “Young people who have joined the programme, volunteered, got their qualifications, and progressed to be delivery staff are very often the ones who make the most impact.

“Once we’d started training up local people, the difference was amazing. The kids were in awe of them. If that coach lives down their street, the engagement levels are totally different. There’s a feeling of, ‘If he can do it, I can do it!'”

Life experience is a good trait for coaches working in this sector. That ‘seen-it, done-it’ gravitas, together with a laid-back approach, is ideal for offering the sort of one-to-one support that many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may never have had.

“Building a consistent relationship is massive,” Lucy says. “If you say you’re going to be there at a certain time on Friday night, then be there. Many of them have no male role model in their lives or cannot cope in a group scenario. They are used to being let down, so consistency is hugely important for them.

“I don’t care if someone puts on four sessions per week as opposed to ten. Focus on impact, not just quantity. As long as they are four good sessions with the right staff, real commitment and a support package that includes sport, volunteering opportunities, qualifications and trained local individuals – that’s what will lead to change in behaviour.

“Sport is the carrot to get these young people in, but it’s the holistic approach we provide that tends to get results. We want to make sure the young people are getting the best service we can offer.”

Positive Futures were included as an example of best practice in the Alliance of Sport for the Desistance of Crime’s recent Review of Sport in Criminal Justice.

Justin Coleman, the Alliance of Sport’s Co-Founder and Secretariat, said: “The impact of Positive Futures shows the immense value that its delivery team offers the local community. Their coaches offer far, far more than sport alone. Rather, sport is at the core of a holistic package of support that takes dedication, compassion and skill to deliver with such success.”

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