The Journeyman of Leisure

By Gary Denton – Managing Director – ICON

The not-so-unfamiliar story of a leisure employee

As we all know from numerous features in industry magazines, online posts, opinion pieces and articles, we are in the throes of what will be the biggest educational reform of a generation. I believe, and I’m not alone in this, that what we really need is an educational revolution rather than just a reform. To quote Sir Ken Robinson from his TED talk in 2010:

“Reform is not enough; this is simply improving a broken thing. What we need is a revolution where education is transformed into something else. Revolution means innovations which are fundamentally hard and it means forgetting what is obvious and what we take for granted. It means challenging common sense, things that people think can’t be done any other way because it is the way that we have always done it.”

I’m not going to suggest that I have all the answers on how to create or even begin this revolution, but hopefully by sharing my story and experience of working in leisure from a very young age it will highlight how now is not the time to be stuck on repeat, and to continue doing what we’ve always done. The times have changed and more is needed to ensure our sector not only has a future but a secure and aspirational one.

The beginning

I was always told by my parents, friends, teachers and so-called careers advisors that sport wasn’t a career and that I needed to get a ‘real vocation’ that led to a ‘real job’. So I went to university.

My choice of university, to be honest, was driven more by the quality of its rugby team than the degree itself. I chose to study economics, as it was something I was good at, but frankly, it was just the part I had to get through to enable me to go to the gym or rugby training.

The balance of study and sport was fundamentally wrong so I decided it was better to leave than to carry on, which was disappointing for my parents to accept, as I was their first son who had made it to university.

So I started working in the health and fitness industry, not quite as I had aspired to but working behind the café bar of the local health club – a story perhaps similar to many who enter the leisure sector.

I worked hard and was offered the opportunity to join an Apprenticeship programme as a Gym Instructor. Things started to come together as I studied, volunteered and gained a qualification swiftly followed by a full-time role, and a second Apprenticeship as a Personal Trainer.

Now depending on your point of view, this is where it went wrong, or right, and should demonstrate the change required to innovate the way we educate in leisure.

Due to my ability to speak to people, work hard and build a successful client base, I gained some respect and was asked to take on the role of Duty Manager in the Club. This you could say was a great step forward. That is except for the fact that as a 20-year-old young man I completely lacked the life skills to be able to understand leadership or to deal with conflict or how to make considered well-balanced decisions. So I began to doubt myself and my career choice and started looking for a new beginning elsewhere, doing something different.


The leadership challenge

My story is all too common and fundamentally where leisure fails time and time again. From my position now as an educator I can see that I work in an industry that is set up to deliver high volumes of training at level 2 and 3 qualifications for those on the frontline. What continually happens is these enthusiastic and talented individuals are set up to fail by the system, due to the inexperience of many managers like the young man I once was, being given the role and responsibilities of a Duty Manager when they are ill-equipped.

Current management training (if it’s offered at all) is limited to vocational courses that aren’t delivered well and are generally supported by senior management teams who have been through the same system and expect that this is just the norm for leisure.  It’s almost like a rite of passage for a young manager to have to learn on the hoof and survive rather than be set up to succeed. Those that stick it out are generally those that end up in senior management positions in leisure and the cycle is complete and repeated time and time again.

Quality training for senior management is crucial also, as they progress and gather further responsibility. Senior managers of leisure and sports facilities can often be at the helm of medium-sized organisations where they are required to manage staff with wide-ranging skill levels, be responsible for large and complex budgets and administrative procedures, and to be able to respond successfully with a wide range of stakeholder groups. Equipping senior managers with the right skills at the right time is vital and yet many are left to their own devices in the current environment.

A revolution in education must be about breaking this cycle and encouraging a greater level of support and education at not just at lower management level but at senior management level as well.

Support and standards

Now, this is where the story comes back to a positive. The next chain of events led to me landing a job as an Exercise Therapist. The role was providing exercise rehabilitation and support to those that had been involved in car accidents and came to the organisation through Insurance claims.

This is a sector that requires professional training, professional membership of industry bodies and the requirement to constantly review and update working practices. This industry is driven by decisive decision-making, that can be life-altering, with potential litigation at every turn.

In order to find your way in this industry, all levels of management are trained to support those on the frontline and they are provided with constant coaching and mentoring to ensure that individuals know how to operate and keep people making the best decisions possible when faced with difficult situations.

I’m not proposing that leisure has the same level of scrutiny placed upon it but we as an industry need to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard. To do this we need to take a greater look at how we support and train those that make the decisions in senior management to filter a culture down to those at frontline management.

The government is looking for our sector to step up to support public health, physical activity and sporting futures policies. All of which are targeted at tackling what has become our biggest killer in the UK, health-related diseases, which in America kills 12 people every hour.


New perspective

After eventually coming back to the sector, as an educator this time, I perhaps naively took on the mission to support anyone similar to me or my experience and to help them prepare for a positive future and take advantage of opportunities to thrive.

Once again reality hit that this isn’t yet the way the industry is set up to educate staff. And it certainly didn’t want to be told its managers are for the most part ill-prepared to enable innovation and inspire talent, by someone who left the industry as a manager to come back as a trainer.

I was however, lucky enough at this point to find a home at an education provider that wanted to make a difference, and I now have the platform to hopefully inspire that revolution and tackle the blind spot the sector faces. People have put faith in me, and I certainly don’t want to disappoint.

I believe we need to change the model for education and place greater emphasis on mentoring schemes and the use of on-going coaching. A structure that can be supported internally company-to- company or sector to sector, why limit it to our own views? This is something a lot of companies say they do well but the migration of talent to other industries is something that happens frequently and may suggest otherwise.

To truly inspire change the sector needs support from everyone within.  Our sector is full of truly amazing people committed and passionate about sport and making people’s lives healthier and happier. We have to find better ways to capture and amplify that spirit and encourage and support people who want to stay and be part of an activity led revolution!