The founder of Greenhouse Sports, the charity partner of the Marylebone Summer Festival and Portman Square Garden Party, on how sports coaching can change the lives of disadvantaged young people

Interview: Ellie Costigan

How did Greenhouse Sports come to be?
I was a financial consultant, but sold my business in 2001. I set up Greenhouse in 2002 and was CEO until a couple of years ago: I am still a trustee, but I am no longer quite as operationally involved as I was. We’ve made a lot of progress since 2002: we now run 50 programmes every day, all over London.

How does it work?
We put sports coaches into secondary schools to work full time—48 weeks a year, 40 hours a week, in term time and in the holidays. It’s one school, one sport. That could be basketball, table tennis, volleyball, tennis, judo. The coach will often start pre-school, so with breakfast clubs, and we often do things after school, too. During school time, some pupils are selected to come out to be coached, and so they miss a particular class—sometimes it’s PE, but different schools have a different philosophy as to which class the young people can miss. They work in a small group with other people and that particular coach.

What is it that you’re seeking to achieve?
We like to think that our coaches are 51 per cent mentor, 49 per cent sports coach. The idea is to make sure that we use sport as a way of engaging with people who would not necessarily have access to the high-quality provisions that we provide. Inevitably, as they spend many hours doing it, they become better at the sport and start competing and entering tournaments. We’ve had many go on to become very good sportspeople: we’ve had them go on basketball scholarships to the States, one has gone on to be English table tennis champion. But our goal is to develop them as people first—not necessarily to produce champions, but to use sport as a way to engage with young people. Everything else is a bit of a bi-product.

What is it about sport that makes it a good medium to do that?
I think sport is something that engages lots of people, but I don’t think sport is the only way to do it—I think art, drama and music are also good, but we happen to do it through sport. Our idea is to provide very intensive, high-quality coaching to young people. We’re trying to prove to them that if you can engage with us and work hard and really commit to the sport and get better at it, then you can do the same for academic subjects and get better at them too. A lot of the people we work with don’t have enough support at home and we’re very keen to make sure that the coach is somebody who provides them with that.

That said, we think good sports provision is good, but bad sports provision is terrible. In other words, it’s not just that sport in itself is good, it’s the quality of the coaching. If you are at school and you are the last to be picked in the playground or have a teacher who is not very good to you, sport will not change things for the better. It only works when you have the kinds of coaches that help you develop the life skills that we think are so important.

Michael di Giorgio (right)

Michael di Giorgio (right)

What makes a good coach? Finding the right people must be very important...
We made lots of mistakes on the way. Many of them have been with us for many years and come from very similar backgrounds. They understand the young people we work with. We only work with schools that have a high percentage of deprivation—we’re not interested in working with private schools, we are only interested in working with schools that otherwise wouldn’t have those opportunities. We need coaches who understand the children, as well as having the technical skills to provide that particular activity.

You also run a community centre in Marylebone. Tell us about that. 
We were recently donated a deconsecrated church in Cosway Street by a very generous benefactor. It is a Grade II listed building so there were lots of planning issues—from the time we bought it to the day we opened, it was probably about four years. But we have transformed this into a community sports centre We’re principally doing table tennis there, but we’re also doing other activities. We’ve now been open a year and we’re very keen to work with the local community. We work with a lot of people from the Lisson Green estate, local schools, both primary and secondary, we’re also working with other local groups who we feel need supporting and getting them to come and use the centre. We’re working with schoolchildren, but we’re also working with adults. There are lots of other local groups doing good things in the area and we would love them to partner with us—they’d be very welcome to come and talk to us. We have this space and we’re very keen for people to use it.

What sorts of projects do you run there?
A lot of young people come and use the centre after three o’ clock. We have slightly older groups—more secondary school age—using the centre after about five. We run a homework club in the crypt on Mondays and Wednesdays—a lot of people don’t have the facilities to do it at home and we have not only the facilities, but people there to help young people with their homework, which is great. In the day we’ve had various faith groups who want to do women-only sessions, such as yoga classes. We’ve done judo, mini-tennis, basketball. I could go on and on. We make sure that we have all the necessary safeguards for everybody to feel safe and welcome.

You’re this year’s charity partner for the Marylebone Summer Festival. Are you looking forward to it?
I personally know how much energy The Howard de Walden Estate puts into developing its community, so we were very lucky to be chosen by them to be their charity. We’re very excited by it. We will have a stall at the Fayre and we’re taking some table tennis tables and various other things. We’re very much looking forward to meeting lots of people, telling them what we’re up to and encouraging them to come to the centre. I was there last year and it was such a good day.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a charity?
The biggest risk is obviously that, because we are a charity, we’re always very dependent on the generosity of others. We’re very keen to find more people to help us, more donors, both individuals and companies. We might be able to have local companies come and have a fun day at the centre and hopefully that will turn into some financial support and volunteering opportunities. We very much want to be part of the community.

What role has sport played in your own life?
I’m originally from Malta, I came to England for secondary school. When you first arrive in an unfamiliar country, you don’t know many people and it’s all alien to you, but playing sport is a way of making a lot of friends. I found it to be a very good way to meet people and integrate into society. As a result, I appreciate the power of having the right mentors—the sorts of people that helped me to settle in and develop the life skills that I have developed. It’s something I’ve always felt I’d like to share with other people, and I’ve been lucky enough to do that.

You were awarded an OBE for your work in 2017—that must’ve been fantastic recognition.
It was, but the best recognition is seeing young kids develop. Actually, many of them are our coaches now. The number of people who come up to me and say: “Do you remember me? I was on that particular programme and I’m now doing this”—you can’t help but feel proud that you’ve helped them a little bit on their way.