The experiences of young leaders during lockdown

This week is UK Coaching Week 2020. As part of Youth Sport Trust's celebration of the week, this blog post turns to the future and reveals the findings of a unique study we conducted with over 45 young leaders, coaches and volunteers.

The research aimed to understand young people’s experiences of leadership during lockdown, the implications of restricted access to leadership and sport, and to empower young people to tell us what they need from opportunities moving forwards. We then explore how this insight has helped shape our leadership, coaching and volunteering offer accordingly to ensure peer leadership remains firmly at the heart of supporting the wellbeing of children and young people.

As the challenging 2019/2020 school year drew to a close, we were keen to hear what young people wanted from their journey as a school and community sports leader in a context where social distancing measures, year group bubbles, restrictions on mass participation events etc all are likely to remain for an indefinite length of time. Throughout the resulting insight report you’ll find reference to the YST Leadership Framework which help us reconnect with the core skills and behaviours young people develop as leaders. The value of using the framework is now more important than ever.   

In the report, young leaders understandably expressed the challenges that lockdown presented:

I have missed the enjoyment on other people’s faces when I am leading the sports activities. We all need it and we can’t do it. I haven’t been out of the house for the whole of lockdown.

(Focus group participant with SEND)

This honesty and passion for leadership is evidence of young people’s desire to demonstrate and develop their leadership skills. Clearly, young people want to be seen as agents of change who can influence their peers’ attitudes and engagement with physical activity. Lockdown meant that:

…sitting behind a screen kind of makes things feel a little bit redundant…I know they’re not…but it can be very difficult…not feeling connected to a bigger purpose 

(Focus group participant)

We have therefore learnt through the research the importance young leaders place on, and are motivated by, seeing the impact they have on their peers. We also learnt that the confidence and routine of leaders had been impacted throughout the pandemic. Nonetheless, young leaders simultaneously empathised with how everyone’s experience of lockdown will have been different, with some finding it harder than others:

My leadership skills on coming out of lockdown will be to encourage people to start getting involved in sport again as I think quite a few people may not have done much sport during lockdown and will need help to get involved again.

(Focus group participant)

Some people may feel bad through lockdown and sports leaders may be able to lift people’s spirit and make people feel good.

(Focus group participant)

To achieve this lifting of spirits and engaging young people back into sport again, young people were keen to see a flexible leadership model. Indeed, some young leaders celebrated the new sporting activities they had accomplished during lockdown (for example, running and setting up online challenges for their friends via social media). Therefore, we have to empower young people to follow new interests and be attuned to the exciting potential behind digital delivery methods that allow young people to harness their creativity as leaders. Furthermore, while a flexible leadership model was preferred, leaders were keen for leadership opportunities to be long-term, and so to have strong connections to other community groups and projects, so that young people can continue to develop their skillset.

This research has highlighted the awareness that young people (of varying age) have of the impacts of sport, physical activity and leadership connected to wellbeing. It became clear that young leaders see themselves as part of the solution to the challenges posed by COVID-19. Building stronger relationships with peers and driving activity in order to support one another out of what has been an exceptionally demanding time was seen as essential. This is a warming, optimistic and hopeful piece of insight which offers great encouragement to us on the importance of physical activity in young people’s lives.

Building on the findings of this insight report, YST is thrilled to launch Bubble Leadership, a toolkit of free resources designed to support you to create a movement of young leaders who are driven to champion school sport. It can be used as a vital mechanism to improve wellbeing across the whole school, even as COVID-19 restrictions continue. The resource encourages flexibility and offers guidance on using digital platforms safely and effectively to continue to develop leaders’ abilities to inspire change outside of the school environment. The resource is accompanied by a whole host of YST programme resources which have been made available to prompt ideas to young people of what they could do.

So as we say thank you this week to coaches up and down the UK who inspire, motivate and support us, we hope this research and resource will go some way to ensuring that the next generation of leaders, coaches and volunteers are well-equipped to champion sport in a way that tackles such unique challenges.

Published on 17 September 2020