After watching Heather Watson narrowly miss out on defeating world no.1 Serena Williams at Wimbledon, and Lancashire earn an emphatic double over rivals Yorkshire in the Natwest T20 Blast, I interviewed my friend, Calum Johnson, over Skype to discuss participation in sport. Here’s what we had to say:
Chow: Hi Calum, tell us a bit about yourself and how you get involved in sport regularly.
Johnson: I swim, and have been swimming since I was about 4 years old. I’ve swum for two clubs over the last eight years, and I also voluntarily teach children aged 7-10, recently qualifying as an instructor. I live next to a canal, so my parents thought it’d be a good idea for me to learn to swim in case I ever fell in!
Chow: What has kept you involved in swimming for so long?
Johnson: I’m not entirely sure, but deciding to change to my current club was probably the best decision of my life where I’ve made some of my best friends. I have times for each stroke and distance, and I love the satisfaction of beating personal bests. It’s a complete workout, puts little strain on your body and is great for endurance, stamina and determination. Given that it’s a pretty solitary sport, the mental benefits are great as well – willpower, concentration, fighting boredom – things applicable to life outside sport.
Chow: It’s the most popular sport in the country, but according to a BBC report, Sport England says there has been a drop in swimming participation by 245,000 people in 2014-15. Why do you think this is?
Johnson: Swimming is the “most popular” sport because it is compulsory to a certain level of competency, so participation is naturally high. Unfortunately the cost of pools to councils and schools is extremely high, incurring a greater cost to participants. A Telegraph report in June says that swimming has shown the worst decline of any sport – it’s lost around 729,000 participants in ten years. This can only be explained through pool closures, which are in the 100s every year. It’s easier to find a football pitch, tennis court or gym than a pool because they’re uncommon, incurring greater travel time and costs.
Chow: Do you think there is anything you can do personally to increase participation in swimming? And what can people do at other levels of the sport to do likewise?
Johnson: It’s difficult for me to recruit people to swimming. Although I feel it’s my responsibility as a coach to enthuse younger swimmers and encourage them to continue swimming beyond the basic level, at the end of the day enjoyment precedes continuation. Maybe the sport can instil more fun-based pool activities at younger ages to simply increase enjoyment whilst teaching the most basic skills. The sport in general also needs more advertising. Swimming is seen by a lot of people as a necessary life skill that has to be learnt, which removes the idea that it can be a form of relaxation.
Chow: I started swimming from an early age but dropped it in favour of football and cricket. Do you think kids find other sports more attractive for one reason or another?
Johnson: Absolutely. I think part of it’s the social aspect – when you go to swimming lessons, you’re just swimming and you don’t get the chance to interact with others. It’s very solitary, whereas cricket, football and rugby instil a team mentality. Again, swimming is almost compulsory, making it less enjoyable for people to have to turn out regularly without the desire to do so. Even swimming with friends isn’t the same as you’re still immersed in the water with little time to speak. It’s very self-driven – you’re competing against yourself. Maybe they can incorporate more of a team atmosphere into it by doing more relays and purposeful team activities.
Chow: There has been a decline of 200,000 participants in all sports for the past two years. Do you think technology is changing the way young people interact with each other?
Johnson: I think it’s a broader issue with technology because you don’t have to go out somewhere to play a sport in order to talk to friends. You can do all that on your phone, whereas in the past, sport has been a way into social activity. Nowadays we simply see it as “keeping fit”, which isn’t nearly as fun as social interaction.
Chow: Do you think that in the modern day there is a much bigger focus on academia, and that schools ought to encourage greater sport participation to provide a better work-life balance, given that sports have a positive effect on mental health and can develop skills that can’t be developed in the classroom?
Johnson: The work-life balance that may be beneficial in later life has no tangible effect on academic achievement. I think schools are less inclined to focus on sport linked to academic success over teaching hours for core subjects. The only thing is that the effect of sport isn’t measurable. I can’t overstate the importance of sport in relaxation, stress relief and the mental attributes that it builds which are all applicable to revision, exams and focusing on a target. In sport you’re gaining a wider range of experiences that are more applicable after school.
Chow: Do you think the success of the national teams in sports affects how many people go on to take up a particular sport?
Johnson: A lot is said about the ‘legacy’ of the 2012 London Olympics, however in some of the sports that Britain excelled in, funding was cut after that, impacting involvement at entry level. In swimming, the number of pools is declining, so people may be interested in getting involved with swimming, but don’t have a nearby facility for them to go to. For cricket, football and rugby the equipment required to play casually are very low-cost. With more specialist sports, the government has to provide the funding or bursaries to support people into taking the sport more seriously (and hopefully to work towards national success).