Combining sports and wellbeing: an evaluation of Pacesetter’s Wellbeing Steps Programme (part one)

By Kate Houghton, Wellbeing Director, Pacesetter Sports and Wellbeing Ltd

Pacesetter is based in Northamptonshire, and we work in schools across the county and further afield to combine sports with activities focused on improving the wellbeing and emotional resilience of children and young people.

My brother started Pacesetter as a sports coaching company back in 2010, and the combination of his business mind and love of sport has seen the organisation grow from just two people to forty-five members of staff.

Initially, the sports coaching we delivered was based on going into schools and providing extracurricular clubs and PE lessons for the children. It then expanded to include a variety of services such as training courses for staff , consultancy and sports equipment sales.

I head up the wellbeing side of the business which includes a small team of instructors that deliver PSHE lessons and life skills courses in primary and secondary schools. It’s all about encouraging young people to discover how they can look after themselves both physically and emotionally.

There are lots of coaching companies out there, but most are focused solely on sport. At Pacesetter, we take a holistic approach. We know that the impact of, say, a tennis session on physical health is tangible, but it’s equally significant mentally, and our aim is to provide insight into the benefits this offers from a much earlier age.

We think PHSE underpins so much of what children learn in schools, but teachers understandably have less time to devote to the subject and are of course expected to focus on the core curriculum. That’s where we can come in and can use our experience and passion to fill this vital gap.

The evaluation

Exercise is so important for the brain, but I think a lot of people assume sport is only for certain people (i.e. those who enjoy it!), but exercise is something we all can – and should – do. It can take so many different forms, too; we teach over twenty different sports!

I previously worked for the NHS as a peer support worker in a mental health team and that inspired me to work with children by helping them gain the skills that I simply didn’t get the opportunity to pick up during my time at school.

The world is vastly more complicated these days with social media and the multitude of ways we communicate, which is why the work we do at Pacesetter is so timely. Despite this, we wanted to evaluate how effective it is, hence the reason we engaged with the team at the IPSCJ!

We received funding to run a project for evaluation via the Northamptonshire Community Foundation. It ran from September 2017 to July 2018 and allowed us to approach fifty primary schools in the county with our Wellbeing Steps programme. We decided to target Year 5 due to it being a particularly vulnerable age group that is fast being exposed to new influences and, often, a much earlier onset of adolescence.

Wellbeing Steps is a ten-lesson programme carried out over ten weeks. It’s initially launched by our team but is designed for teachers to be able to pick up the mantle once we leave. It aims to raise awareness about wellbeing and looks at aspects ranging from physical wellbeing to kindness, self-compassion, self-esteem and the importance of being part of your community. Basically, anything that contributes to a person’s wellbeing!

We’ve always handed out evaluation forms at the end of our time with schools, but we have little time to properly review them. Analysing the responses is something that needs to be done properly, and if you analyse your own work, you’re often too close to it to draw unbiased conclusions. This resulted in us having a huge amount of valuable paperwork that was simply being left to gather dust!

I also knew the programme needed some improvements making, and realised that a professional evaluation would help steer us in that regard, too.

The IPSCJ team have been amazing. When they started, they needed as much data as we could offer, and much of it was of course in paper form. This concerned us at first, but they weren’t phased by the limitations of our record keeping (plus they’ve provided plenty of advice on how to improve that side of things!).

I was quite nervous initially about the research, because I quickly realised that the results might not turn out to be what we want them to be! What if they were really negative? Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and with the team at IPSCJ keeping us regularly up-to-speed on progress, we could see how the research was developing over time, and it was clear some very positive results were emerging.

They also dealt directly with schools for us, which was a huge benefit. It’s tricky to get schools to engage with research like this because they’re so busy, but IPSCJ took this in their stride and, following initial contact from us, were very proactive in working with the schools and building a great rapport with them.

The results

We feel a huge amount of responsibility at Pacesetter because we’re getting children to think about their wellbeing at a very early age and it’s important for us that the outcomes of this are positive. The report from the IPSCJ confirmed a few things we suspected – particularly when it came to the improvements that needed making to the programme (teachers and students provided great insight into this) – but it also revealed that the impact we’re having is greater than we expected.

For example, the evaluation highlighted how our work might impact the educational outcomes of students as the result of improved confidence and mindset. In the future, this data could be used to demonstrate how wellbeing directly impacts performance at school. It’s a really exciting prospect.

This research has inspired us to do more evaluations of our work in the future. I want us to build on the findings and continue to improve both the quality and relevance of our programmes, but also highlight just how important they are during those formative years of the next generation.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say a big “thank you” to Jo, Valentina, Sarah and the team at IPSCJ!