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Blog: How to learn from setbacks when working with offenders 

Failures, mistakes, setbacks, challenges, frustrations… whatever you call them, they are unavoidable. For those working in Sport for Development, it is how you respond and adapt that counts. 

The Alliance of Sport attended an event called ‘The F Word’ back in October, which looked at how third-sector organisations can work together to learn from their failures and develop best-practice strategies for dealing with them. 

The Leeds Rhinos Foundation, whilst experiencing no more setbacks than any other organisation working in Sport for Development, is a charity that is prepared to admit and embrace them, and adapt their methods accordingly. 

The Foundation’s Onside project (which featured as a case study of best practice in our landmark Review of Sport in Criminal Justice last August) blends sport-based, team-building activities with classroom personal development to prepare offenders for reintegration into society and reduce their likelihood of reoffending. 

Set up in 2016, the pilot ran in HMP Leeds, HMP Wealstun and HMP Hatfield in Yorkshire, and has now been adapted for young people at HMP/YOI Wetherby. A ROTL (Release on Temporary Licence) element has now been added and a further project called Tackle It now works with perpetrators and victims of domestic violence.

Young offenders engage in outdoor activities while on ROTL

Janet Sylvester (pictured above), who leads the projects for the Foundation, outlines the setbacks the project has faced along the way – and how they were overcome: 

Building relationships 

“When we first went into the prisons, staff in the PE departments were initially sceptical about yet another outside agency coming in and potentially delivering what would be their role. This was something we had not considered as our intentions were to work collaboratively to provide a high-quality project. 

“Over time, however, we’ve built a good reputation, relationships and trust with them. PE staff are now a key part of our evaluations at the end of each 10-week block. We’ve looked at what outcomes we’re both looking for. It’s like any partnership – it takes work and reassurance. It’s been a key part of getting our recipe right and has been vital in progressing things on to the ROTLs.” 

Adapting to the environment 

“The dynamics are very different in each prison we’ve worked in. We’ve had most challenges in HMP Leeds, as it’s a remand prison. We wanted to work with lads who were at the latter end of their sentences, but some at Leeds hadn’t actually been sentenced yet. We began to wonder how effective the project was for them. Others were being moved before they had completed the course, which was frustrating. 

“On the positive side, if lads were moved from Leeds to HMP Wealstun, we could actually pick them up again. It’s having that flexible approach and finding solutions as you go along, because you’re never really sure what you’ll be faced with. 

“We also lost a lot of time waiting for some participants to be fetched and returned to the classroom or gym. We didn’t realise what a lengthy process that would be in comparison to Category C or D jails, such as HMP Hatfield, where lads have got more freedom to be where they want to be and can arrive promptly.” 


“Prisons are unpredictable places. Sometimes we’ve turned up with all the kit and they might be on lockdown, or having a training day, so we’ve been turfed away. In the grander scheme of things, we’re not as important, but proper planning and processes are necessary, so people undertake the responsibility of letting other people know these things are taking place. 


“On our ‘Tackle It’ domestic abuse project, we had to adapt the service to cater for severe mental health issues, with issues ranging from schizophrenia to cognitive maturity conditions. It made the dynamics of the group quite chaotic. With help from the West Yorkshire Police Integrated Offender Management Sixth Prison Hub around criteria for recruitment, we adapted our initial delivery model to better target the thoughts and feelings behind domestic abuse. It worked better. I think it’s like with anything – it’s trial and error. 

“It worked to our advantage that our course isn’t accredited, so we can adapt the content according to the needs of individuals and the group. Sometimes, when it’s an accredited qualification, you’ve got your textbook and you’re forced to stick by it. I would say we’ve had more success because we don’t have to do that. You’ve got to have that flexibility with your audience, so that everyone can access it in different ways. 

“Comparing their attitudes when we began with how they were a few weeks later – when some of them were in tears, experiencing emotions they had probably never experienced before, apart from anger – that is seeing the growth and learning in people. 

Latest figures show that only one of 14 men imprisoned for domestic abuse who undertook the course at HMP Wealstun between October 2018 and March 2019 has so far reoffended. 

“It’s a very intense topic and it’s about them learning skills that are transferable – from the sports field to the classroom and back – into their lives in society. We had no idea if it was going to work, but with some adaptations and lessons learned along the way, we now feel we have the recipe right.” 

  • Read more on the Leeds Rhinos Foundation’s domestic abuse project ‘Tackle It’ here.
  • What’s it like coaching inside a prison? Read Leeds Rhinos Foundation coach Matt Airey’s views here.
  • Read more on Leeds Rhinos Foundation’s Onside project here.

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