Tommy George: how sport can help young people kick off a future

Positive Destinations participants in training
Positive Destinations participants in training
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As another Scottish summer draws to a close, young people across Scotland turn their attention to the next great adventure in their young lives.

Some will pack their bags for the adventure of freshers’ week and everything that awaits them in the life of a university or college. Others will be knuckling down for the first few weeks of their young working lives, establishing themselves in their first job or apprenticeship, eagerly awaiting that first payslip.

Spare a thought though for young people whose future path is less settled, who don’t have any plans for this month, and have no idea what the next step on the path to adulthood looks like. There are an estimated 21,000 young people in Scotland, who are leaving school with uncertain futures.

Some young people may have found school difficult, struggling academically and unable to achieve the exam results they wanted or required. Other young people may have had to cope with tough challenges in life, and their experiences of poverty, abuse or ill health may have set them back a little.

For these groups of young people, the summer holidays can be filled with fear for the future and confusion and anxiety over what they are going to do next. The Scottish Government class these young people as NEETs, which stands for “not in education, employment or training”. It can be quite harrowing finding yourself in this situation at such a young age. But even more alarming is that it’s extremely difficult to turn your circumstances around and some young people risk being trapped in a long-term cycle of unemployment and poverty.

The Scottish Longitudinal study tracked young people aged between 16-19, classed as NEETS in the 1991 census. In 2011, 18 per cent of this group were still unemployed and faced considerable inequalities: higher risks of poor physical and mental health; higher odds of admission to hospital for a variety of conditions; and significantly more likely to be involved in criminal activity

Having worked with children and young people throughout my career, I’ve seen many young people stuck in this trap. Employment, education and training are the best way to enable young people to turn their life around – however some just aren’t ready to make this step.

For those young people, unable to engage with traditional employment programmes, I’ve found that sport and physical activity is a powerful tool for change, working as a catalyst to help young people reach their potential. Sport and physical activity can motivate where traditional forms of education can’t, offering valuable learning experiences, encouraging the development of leadership, teamwork, planning and communication skills, and building the confidence and resilience that young people need to take the next steps to a positive future.

That’s why Edinburgh Leisure’s Positive Destinations project works with around 150 young people each year to increase their motivation, support personal development and encourage learning to unlock their potential. It’s a 12-week programme that aims to boost their confidence, teach skills for life, helps them attain relevant qualifications and provides practical work experience to get them job ready and one step closer to their positive destination. These young people leave the programme ready to put their skills into practice and eager for new experiences in education, volunteering and employment. Eighty per cent of our participants who graduate from the programme take up employment or continue onto further education in colleges and universities. The young people leaving the programme are able to find jobs within the sport and leisure sector, taking on roles such as lifeguards, sports coaches and play leaders, and playing an important part in encouraging and supporting physical activity and sport in communities throughout Edinburgh.

Why not watch our short film at to see how sport and physical activity has changed the lives of young people who took part in the Positive Destinations project. Please also consider sharing the film – I’m keen to raise awareness of the project, and encourage referrals and partnerships to enable us to reach those young people that need our help the most.

Now that summer has gone, the real work begins – if you know any young people who would benefit from a programme like this, please send them our way.

Tommy George is Community 
Development Manager, Edinburgh Leisure