Three lessons for sport from teenage pregnancy

sport-1201014_1920You wouldn’t think that sport had much in common with teenage pregnancy. And that’s part of the problem.

This week, Amelia Hill writes in the Guardian that teenage pregnancy rates have halved in the past two decades. They are now at their lowest levels since records began. Needless to say, this success has not attracted nearly as much attention as the historic failures. Back in the 90s, teenage pregnancy represented a serious public health crisis, costing opportunities, costing wellbeing and costing the economy. It became a political, as well as social, problem.

But it’s a public health crisis that has been successfully dealt with. What can sport now learn from it to deal with the physical inactivity crisis which poses a much bigger, costlier problem for the country. I think that there are three policy and communications lessons we can take from the experience of stopping teenagers from getting pregnant to get more people playing sport.

The first thing to observe is that the plan to tackle teenage pregnancy was no short-term sticking plaster. It has taken a generation to address. Public health interventions take time to work because they involve influencing decision-making and that requires shaping or creating a culture. You can’t do that overnight.

When it comes to getting people into sport, we need to overcome perhaps two generations worth of declining activity. Any strategy which works will need long-term sponsors and commitment at a political level – not just an executive one. It will also need patience. But on its own that is not enough.

The second lesson is about setting clear goals. When it came to tackling teenage pregnancy, the objective was distinct and brave – to halve pregnancy amongst under-18s in ten years. Those ambitions weren’t lowered over time. And when areas looked like they were struggling to maintain progress, ministers would pick up the phone and ask regional leaders why.

There is no such unanimity across the sport landscape. Recommendations for physical activity and targets for achieving the same rarely line up. Practitioners and policy-makers need to reach an agreement on what is good to measure. And those setting the targets need to make sure there is clear accountability for failure. Setting stretchy targets is a good thing but progress along the way also needs to be recognised. Failure also needs to be met with searching questions and a renewed reminder of why it’s not an option – again at the highest level.

The third lesson is about complexity. Interventions around teenage pregnancy wrap-around teenagers. Covering issues as varied as consent and contraception, care has been taken to make sure that support is available in 360 degrees. So from schools, through charities like Brook, to the home, the doctor’s and the pharmacy, emphasis has been placed on making sure that the right information and education is available wherever a young person might turn. Sports membership bodies, take note.

Complexity isn’t a bad thing in policy-making or, necessarily, in communications. Sure, it’s easier to keep things simple. And it’s good practice to have a few key messages. But the means of delivering those messages and the number of channels you use to promote them may require complexity. Communications, PR and policy practitioners shouldn’t shy away from that, even when the simple answer to clients or stakeholders is the more tempting route.

So congratulations to those policy and comms people involved in the campaign. It’s now time for sport to conceive similar success.

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