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Sport free-for-all takes the Beacon

When Leeds United decided to give something back to the local community with its Sport for Life course, it picked a winning formula. Ngaio Crequer reports.

THEY may have their sights on winning the champions' league but Leeds United also have a pressing domestic agenda.

Not the premiership, but a venture with York College which offers a free "Sport for Life" course. The 90-hour self-teach, distance learning course has won the Beacon Award for Widening Participation, sponsored by The TES and the Association of Colleges.

The course is aimed at those over 16, of whatever (or no )sports ability who want to improve their performance, enhance their personal development and gain a real understanding of the benefits of exercise and fitness.

Mark Brown, then marketing manager of Leeds United, now with Sportsvine, a sports and leisure company, said the club wanted to develop its community links.

"The message was that clubs were not putting enough back into their community.

We wanted to do something with mass market appeal to our fans, but we did not have the right expertise.

"The club also wanted to develop something that was good public relations.

Leeds United needs as much PR as possible to break down some hostility, and to get over some of the recent things that have happened." (Two players have been charged after an incident outside a nightclub ) This is where York College came in. It took an existing course offered by NCFE, the vocational awarding body, and tailored it to the exact specifications of the client - a course leading to a qualification, ideal for an adult audience, covering lifestyle, exercise and fitness. It is not just for football fanatics.

"One of the key considerations was that it would be free from bias, attractive to football fans or non-football fans, to men and women, people of any age or ethnicity," said Tony Outhart, co-author and project manager. "We wanted to help the club break down the barriers out there."

Working within a very tight timescale they made sure that the course would be fully accredited. Their funds came from the Further Education Funding Council.

The challenge in the first instance was to rework the existing course into one suitable for distance learners.

"We took all the jargon out because we knew it would tun the learner off, and then we re-assembled it for the assessment body," said Mr Outhart. "The NCFE was very supportive, so long as we provided the evidence."

Students work through three workbooks, and must complete each before they can proceed to the next. The first covers different types of exercise, key factors affecting fitness, dietary requirements and the effects of exercise on the body.

It is a simple but interesting introduction. It looks, for example, at the difference between speed of movement (running, swimming), and speed of reaction (meeting a tennis player's serve).

Students think about their own lifestyle, which will help them later to design their own training programmes. They have to work out their own basal metabolic rate, that is, the energy you need just to "tick over".

Later there is the safe "warm-up", guidelines for safe stretching (designed by Leeds United staff), cooling down and safety.

By the end of the course students can complete their own fitness profile, taking measures of their height, weight, body mass index, and heart rate. They can test their strength and stamina. All the while the theory accompanies the practice.

So far the course has been a spectacular success. Nearly 17,000 people enrolled in the first five weeks. Marketing was a little different than for most courses.

The fans at Leeds listened to the Tannoy message at half-time. They received leaflets, with encouragement from Leeds manager David O'Leary, with their season tickets. Messages were stitched into match programmes.

On graduation they received their certificates at the club, presented to them by players.

Feedback has been good. "Although I have done quite a bit of exercise in the past, this course provided me with relevant theory and made me think more carefully about what I was actually doing." "I have been trying for years after a string of sports injuries to rebuild my basic level of health and the course has enabled me to do this." "I started my fitness regime at 24 stone and very unfit. The course showed me what to do and I can now play Sunday League football again." "Good luck for the season David!"

Not everything went to plan. The college ran a hotline for students and the most popular enquiry was: "Can you get me a ticket for the game?"

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