With the London 2012 Olympics just around the corner, Tim Lamb, chief executive of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, writes exclusively for IBTimes UK about how facilities are as important for the future of sport in the UK as coaches.
Do you still watch a black and white TV? No, neither do I. I've got a nice flatscreen TV these days. Nothing fancy and nothing big enough to pull the wall down, but it's perfect for watching the football.
And do you mind if I ask about your taste in house decoration? Avocado bathroom suite upstairs and woodchip in the lounge? No, we changed our bathroom 15 years ago too. And I've painted the lounge at least three times since the woodchip went.
And what about the place where you or your kids play sport? Surely that's up to date too, isn't it? Nothing flash but just the job for a game of squash or a quick change before the match and a good shower after it? No, you say? It's badly lit and the paint is peeling? There's no place to lock up your valuables and the boiler is always on the blink? Well sadly, if that's your experience of sports facilities, it is not untypical today.
The fact is that the average sports facility in the UK is now 25 years old. It's likely to be careworn - and so would you be if you'd had people jumping about inside you for a quarter of a century - and not a patch on the swish world of the private gym or the local health club.
It's probably owned by the local authority or a school - they provide nearly three-quarters of all hired sports facilities - and for neither of them will it be their bread and butter. Local authorities aren't even obliged to provide leisure facilities - so you're probably lucky you got one in the first place - and schools are mainly designed as places to teach children in so you're lucky the head teacher allowed you in. In fact, contrary to what most people think, few clubs own their own facilities - only one in five - so these hired school and local authority options underpin the vast majority of community sport in the UK. It may not be glamorous but it is very much a fact of sporting life, like cramp, liniment and the fact that your new shoes haven't made as much difference to your performance as you might have hoped.
And if you're dedicated to your sport, it probably won't matter a jot. I've seen changing rooms where some people would fear to tread and where walls are taped up with warnings of asbestos. But if you are really dedicated (and your coaches are really, really dedicated since they're probably giving up their time to teach you), you'll still turn up and you'll still get coached.
But that's not the full story about facilities. One aspect is that there really are lots of very good facilities, thanks to local authorities, clubs, governing bodies and organisations like Sport England and the Football Foundation. Between them they invest tens of millions of pounds each year in upgrading, maintaining and building new sports facilities.
Another is that many of the schools built recently offer state-of-the-art facilities which are opened up to communities outside of school hours. If you're lucky enough to live near one, you should take advantage because things have really changed since you (or your parents) owned that black and white TV. And there is a clear advantage to this kind of facility - people are more likely to want to be coached in them and coaches are more likely to want to coach in them. If you don't have to worry about putting up signs to the entrance, directing people to the car park, regulating the temperature, dragging the kit out of a far flung storage shed, finding a place to hide your valuables, taping up the broken net posts or dragging benches across the hall to mark out a court, everyone's experience is going to be better.
Getting people into sport is tough enough to begin with. A total of just 111,000 extra participants have been encouraged to take up more sport since we won the right to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games. And that's despite a concerted effort to get a million more to do so. But getting them to stick around for six months, a year or a lifetime when the showers don't work and the sports hall is so cold it could freeze a penguin is always going to be an uphill struggle.
ACTION PLAN FOR THE FUTURE
We at the Sport and Recreation Alliance are advocating a few small changes to improve the state of the UK's facilities. Without coaching there will be no stars of the future. No more Chris Hoys or Jonny Wilkinsons. The ability to look at a player and to know how to improve their mind and their stride is a precious gift and one which makes the difference between a competitor being a winner or an also-ran. But without the right facilities, the right environment, neither the athlete nor the coach can thrive, which is why we must never forget to invest properly in places, as well as people.
1. Close facilities
This first one will surprise a lot of people. Where facilities are old, dilapidated and have become too expensive to maintain - and where there is another facility which is up to spec and can be kept that way - facility owners shouldn't be afraid to rationalise. Closing two poor facilities to open one really good one can, and often does, lead to greater overall use.
2. Open up school facilities to the local communities
Too many don't despite the fact that at the precise times when schools don't use their facilities, clubs want to. Three quarters of our sports halls and artificial pitches are located in schools, so let's free up this precious resource for everyone. Opening up schools is a proposal which the government is now taking seriously, so let's see if we're not all being coached in them soon.
3. Build social spaces into new facilities
People don't always want to put on their tracksuit and head off home immediately. Likewise, parents would welcome somewhere to mix while the kids are doing drills. Our clubs and coaches are likely to be far more successful if facilities are designed around human need rather than pre-fab cut-outs.
4. Protect facilities
Let's offer our existing facilities better protection from the developers, not less. In London alone in the last three years an area the combined size of Green Park and St James's Park has been lost. But once these recreational spaces are gone, they're gone forever, so we must do everything we can to preserve them.
5. Make it easier to erect floodlights
Technology has come a long way since building floodlights meant illuminating next door's downstairs loo too. Yet it is still devilishly difficult to get permission to put up lights which can mean the difference between playing most of the year or bad light stopping play in October.
6. Transfer assets to community groups
This is proposed under the government's Community Asset Transfer plan and is a good thing. If local clubs and collectives of people can have control over the spaces they use, they are more likely to be kept in the condition which users want. But these groups must be given plenty of time to get the funds together to take over assets - and local authorities should bear in mind how hard it is for ordinary people to raise the sums they will need.
Gillette recognises the importance of coaching for the future of sport in the UK. In partnership with 'sports coach UK' they are sponsoring a significant number of coaching qualifications by awarding 'Great Start' grants in 2012. The grants will be available to both existing and new coaches who are starting out, with applications made via www.facebook.com/GilletteUK