Sports Buddy Sports Buddy is a new initiative in West Yorkshire that aims to help people with learning and physical disabilities to become more active with the short-term help of a non-disabled sports buddy. Julie Penfold reports.

For a group of adults with disabilities – learning and physical – an event held at Meltham Sports and Community Centre in West Yorkshire on July 3 was a memorable day. Not only did they get to meet local Paralympic hero Hannah Cockroft, who won two gold medals at the London 2012 Paralympics, but they also got to sample a new initiative that could help them to get more involved in sport themselves.

The event launched the Sports Buddy initiative, which aims to pair up a person with a learning or physical disability over the age of 18 who would like to take part in sports activities but wants help and support to do this, with a non-disabled volunteer who will become their sports buddy. Once paired, they take part in sporting activities together.

Originally a pilot project designed by Kirklees Council’s sports and physical activity team, the scheme was put out for tender last year for a local charity or organisation to take over the running.

Two local charities, the Communities United Project and the Meltham Sports and Community Group, won the tender and are working together to deliver the project. The Sports Buddy scheme is funded by Kirklees Council’s community partnerships department and is available Kirklees-wide, covering areas including Batley, Dewsbury, Huddersfield and Holmfirth.

“The community partnerships team are very supportive of the project’s development as we believe it offers some real benefits to local people with learning and physical disabilities,” says Linda Wilkinson, head of market development and innovation at Kirklees Council, with responsibility for community partnerships. “We have invested funds in two local organisations, Communities United Project and Meltham Sports and Community Group, to help them with the future sustainability of the project. This means that more people with disabilities will be supported to take part in sports activities whilst building their confidence. It will also help them to engage and grow friendships while improving their health and mental wellbeing.”

Heading up the Sports Buddy scheme are the two project coordinators, Lesley Steel and Chris Brammall. Steel is a co‑founder of the Communities United Project, which has been running for more than 14 years. The charity provides volunteering opportunities for adults and positive activities for young people.

Steel and Brammall know one another from working together in the past; Brammall previously worked at the Communities United Project. Meltham Sports and Community Group is based at the Meltham Sports and Community Centre. Brammall’s role involves increasing the use of the centre’s sports facilities, encouraging the local community to be more active and developing the sports clubs that are based at the centre by applying for grants and funding to provide more activities.

How it works

Once the person with a learning or physical disability has been matched with their sports buddy, they then go along to their chosen activity over a 12-week or 12-session period. Volunteer buddies are able to claim back any expenses they accrue by taking part in Sports Buddy activities.

“The aim of the Sports Buddy scheme is to break down those barriers to participation for disabled individuals by buddying them up with a volunteer to help them become more active,” says Brammall. “It’s easier and more fun doing exercise with someone else and the sports buddy will support the individual to take part in a sport or activity of their choice. Our main aim for the scheme is that individuals with disabilities will develop the confidence to continue staying active and perhaps access sports independently in the long-term. If we can help them to have a lifelong participation in sport and physical activity that would be a key outcome for the scheme.”

Though individuals with disabilities can only be partnered with a buddy through the scheme for 12 weeks or 12 activity sessions, Steel and Brammall envisage that some buddy pairings will develop friendships and carry on going along to activities together in their own time.

“The initial bond the buddies have in common is the activity that they choose to do together and quite often people do form a friendship around that,” says Steel. “After 12 weeks, we’re no longer able to offer that benefit of the sports buddy but I do feel that the very nature of the scheme will encourage buddy pairings to continue with their activities after the supported sessions have finished.”

Which activities pairs participate in is decided by the buddy with a disability. Examples of sports they can choose from include bowling, swimming, exercise classes, sports centre or gym activities, badminton, squash, table tennis, walking, running, football and netball.

For the disabled participant, the Sports Buddy scheme is very flexible, allowing the 12 sessions to take place at the pace they would like to go: this could be two to three sessions per week, once a week or once a month. This flexibility also means if disabled participants are unable to attend a scheduled activity session at any time because of ill health, it can be rescheduled for when they feel better. Each disabled participant will always receive 12 supported Sports Buddy sessions, even if this takes several months.

As the scheme is still in its early days, there are no up-and-running buddy pairings that have been organised by the new project co-ordinators. But one Sports Buddy pairing that started out as part of the pilot project is still on-going. The pair play table tennis every week and have been doing so for a while, which they arrange themselves. The pair are coming to the end of the allocated Sports Buddy sessions but Steel feels they will continue with the sessions in their own time as they both really enjoy it.

Community links

As both charities already have a strong presence in the local community, promoting the scheme when they’re out and about will come naturally. They will also distribute information leaflets and marketing materials around the Kirklees area. The scheme’s website will also allow interested parties to find out more and apply online, whether they are seeking a buddy or are interested in becoming one. 

The council’s Gateway to Care adult social care services department can refer people to the scheme and interested individuals can also self-refer. The scheme will also be promoted through West Yorkshire Sports disability sports development team and by the Federation of Disability Sports Organisations. Steel also feels the scheme will help to improve disability inclusion with community sports groups, as they become more aware that they can easily adapt to working with people that have learning and physical disabilities.

Buddy benefits

The project’s strong community links will also help with recruiting buddies. Local students at the University of Huddersfield will be a big recruitment pool for the scheme, particularly those studying sport, science and health-related degrees, according to Brammall.

“Students are often looking for placements, work experience and projects they can become involved with that are relevant to their areas of study, and they would be a great fit for this project,” says Brammall. “Anyone becoming a buddy can take a sense of pride and achievement from participating in the scheme in helping to improve the health, fitness and lifestyle of the individual they buddy up with, whilst at the same time gaining experience, training and qualifications.”

Volunteer buddies will receive safeguarding adults training and collect online certification for completing this. They will also attend an induction workshop, which outlines the project, what is expected from volunteers and what support they will receive from the scheme. The induction workshop also looks at confidentiality and discusses how arrangements for activities will be made via the project co-ordinators in the initial stages, though volunteer buddies can decide to provide personal contact details to their buddy. Volunteers will also go through a Disclosure & Barring Service (formerly Criminal Records Bureau) check before they are able to be linked into the scheme.

Funding is also available via the scheme for a qualification on how to coach disabled people in sport. Volunteers can also work towards a community volunteering qualification.

For more information on the Sports Buddy scheme, visit www.sports-buddy.org 

About the author

Julie Penfold is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the September/October 2013 issue of Learning Disability Today. For more information about how to subscribe, click here.