Profile Interview - Tim Hollingsworth
13th March, 2019
I’ve been working in sports administration nationally for fifteen years, having first moved to UK Sport in 2004 as Director of Policy and Communications. Previously I had worked for the CBI and Granada in communications roles. I had no previous background in sport and no ability to any degree! But I’ve been a fan of the sporting landscape for many years.
You’ve had some exciting roles that have taken you to some exciting places… tell us about that.
I was hugely fortunate to start at UK Sport just 3 months before we won the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic bid. That meant the organisation I joined became central to growth in performance sport and sport generally. I had years at UK Sport, where I was working across Olympic and Paralympic sports, in communications. Then I became Chief Operating Officer for UK Sport. The organisation distributes lottery funds – it invests in medal successes and supports sport at the elite coaching level.
I moved to become Chief Executive of the British Paralympic Association – responsible for delivery of the British Paralympic team and the wider organisation’s aims, transforming attitudes to disability in wider society and challenging perceptions of what is possible.
I took the BPA through four Games – London 2012, Rio 2016 and the Winter Games of Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018. We drove a lot of change around the perception of Paralympic sports during that time and had our most successful ever games in 2016 and 2018.
What is your role in sport now?
I’m now Chief Executive of Sport England, which is the Government agency responsible for community sport participation in England. The body’s aim is to make the nation more active and our responsibility is to the grass roots of sport – seeking in particular to encourage people who are currently physically inactive to get more involved and change their behavior.
Our focus is not on excellence – that is UK Sport – but on involvement. Our investment is against five clear outcomes – physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing, social cohesion, individual development and confidence, and economic development.
Our focus is very much: how can we use resources and strategic investment to ensure that people who are interested in being active can be? But also: how can we try and drive activity the levels up, for those who do not have particularly active lives at the moment. That means we are particularly aiming at low socio-economic groups, and also at women and girls, because they are disproportionately less active.
So what rowing experiences have you had?
I’ve had exposure to many sports in my job, including of course rowing and know the leadership of British rowing well, but I have never rowed and have no particular skill!
One day I’d like to try it, but for now it is my son’s sport.
My first experience of a regatta was in Beijing as part of the UK Sport delegation, for the summer Olympics in 2008!
My 2nd experience of a rowing regatta was during the 2012 Olympics, at Eton Dorney – for both the Paralympic and Olympic Games.
I’m particularly fond of my 3rd regatta memory, which was the Paralympic regatta at Rio 2016, when in four races ParalympicsGB won three golds and a bronze!
Apart from that, I have experienced the Avon County Head Race on our river and the Ironbridge Regatta… with Minerva Juniors.
But all of those examples have been about high performance!
So, how and why Minerva?
While I work mostly in London, I live in Bath, in Larkhall. My involvement at Minerva is all about my eldest son, Tom, at the moment. Because of being around sports, I knew what rowing was about and how it works… and I always thought that rowing was a sport that might suit him. I brought Tom down for a Learn To Row course for juniors when an opportunity arose. It worked: the LTR course was successful and Tom has been part of the junior sessions run by Sue and Tim ever since – he’s in his 3rd year and raced at Avon County Head on 2nd March. He has competed on a number of occasions for the Club and is the bow man for their coxless quad. They won their section at Ironbridge last year, which was terrific!
The four dads of junior boys in that quad have all got involved as volunteer members. I wanted to help. The whole thing relies on volunteers to support Sue and Tim, who do a phenomenal amount for the Juniors. Without rowing skills, I was pretty useless unless I could do the one thing that they didn’t always have – driving the launch! We need the launch to ensure safety and want to have a coach out on the water, so I took my level 2 powerboat qualification a while ago: it’s my primary role on the water, to drive the coaches alongside rowers at weekends, and I really look forward to it. When Tom is ready to let me, perhaps, I would like to have a go myself. He knows I don’t know what I am talking about, but you start seeing it when you are on the water every weekend. I really enjoy it.
What can rowing clubs – and ours in particular – do to help more people take part in our sport?
The functional purpose of physical activity is health and wellbeing. Sport can be a very effective way of making that available to people.
Minerva needs to continue to grow its awareness that some people will not be attracted to traditional forms of sport and everything associated with them – sharing a shower with a 6’8” bloke, with elitism, or having to put up with banter. A lot of people love that, but some don’t and it shouldn’t preclude them from taking part.
Rowing can look like an elite and expensive sport with all the equipment and kit; it can seem cliquey and white, middle class, dominated by people who know each other; it doesn’t immediately look inclusive. To make a difference, we need to think about how we can offer the huge benefits of Minerva rowing to more, and a wider group of people.
The Women’s Midweek group is a very good example of that, making an opportunity available to people who might not want or be able to always turn up. But also, the junior section is incredibly inclusive. We should not be excluding people in any way… through age, gender or experience and Minerva could extend this further.
When you see the impact of sport on individuals – physically, yes, but it’s actually almost more about a sense of self a) in the team – understanding the dynamic of being in a team; b) with social interaction; c) for mental wellbeing – being in an outdoor environment, a change in circumstances.
The barrier to entry into rowing is in the perception, and that is high.
But a Club has to think about capacity: what level of outreach is possible given the crucial volunteer base of their organisation. It’s a huge task anyway, just running a club, but it is the right thing to do for the community.
To do more, you would need to think about working with the local authority and local groups to advocate for rowing… finding ways to offer Minerva as an option and to make sure, critically, that the experience is the right one.
Think about sense of purpose, a sense of people and sense of place – do individuals know why they might like rowing? Do they know how they can do it? And then is there the right skills teaching and mindset to make it a fun activity? Make people want to come back. Give them a sense of the place and make it accessible. Is there enough space on your site to offer more?
Is there a danger that, in aiming to be more inclusive, rowing clubs lose their success at the main national and international competition end? There are only so many resources…
No! Quite the reverse: at the moment all sports including rowing are in danger of continuing to rely on an ever shrinking talent pool. By making the sport more accessible, inclusive and diverse, you open up opportunities for rowers with a genuine talent for the sport to progress to higher levels.
So how might we get help from Sport England to do this?
Well there is funding available from Sport England if the club wants to promote inclusion and activity for all… Not from me, I’m afraid, as I am conflicted as a volunteer. But the governing body of British Rowing is there to help with the ‘how’. And Club Matters offers web-based resources for clubs (visit the Sport England website).
Ultimately, I guess the one key point is that there might be funding to build a third boatshed – from the community asset fund, which is very much a program geared to better social outcomes for all. If a new boatshed is going to offer facilities that will promote that, then that would be positive.
It is a challenge for a club like Minerva – competing for funding with other areas of the country where needs may seem more obvious.