Martin Eglington, Active Communities Officer for Freedom Leisure, has always looked for opportunities to involve himself in sporting activity. Born and bred in Hastings, he aimed at becoming a professional footballer. At age 19, he turned out for Dover Athletic FC in the Conference South, and then for AFC Stamford in the Unibond League while studying for a degree in sports development at Lincoln University. But, he says he began to learn from his studies that sport could be more than just a vehicle for personal or team glory-hunting; he also admits that he started feeling the limitations of having to train three times a week all season with never a Friday night out with his mates. He discovered kickboxing, badminton, running, even Ultimate frisbee, as alternative physical activities that gave him just as much pleasure even if he wasn’t performing at a highly competitive level.

Martin Eglington at Summerfields
PICTURE: Freedom Leisure/Martin Eglington

He became a community football coach for Multi-Sport Pro in Lincoln before being engaged in September 2014 by Active Hastings, a sports and physical activity initiative promoted by Hastings Borough Council (HBC) along with other local authorities and backed by a three-year funding guarantee from Sport England. The focus was inclusivity, with the tag Sport For All. Martin found himself assisting the Grace Eyre Project, an organisation that had been founded in 1898 and formalised in 1913 as the Guardianship Society (later taking its name from its founder) to rescue children with learning disabilities from London slums and place them with families in Sussex, to co-ordinate 14 different activity programmes within the county. At Horntye he developed the sport of boccia, a Paralympic variant of bowls and pétanque, in which contestants can propel a leather ball with hands, feet, or, if disability is severe, with an assistive device such as a ramp. One of his most satisfying sporting experiences was when a team from Hastings whom he had helped coach won a silver medal at the Special Olympics held in Sheffield in August 2017 for contestants with learning disabilities.

The three-year funding for Sport For All expired the following month, but HBC found capacity in their budget to keep Martin engaged in a reduced Active Hastings team for an extra year. And now he is continuing in a similar role, still based at Summerfields Leisure Centre but under a different employer. The recent renewal of Freedom Leisure’s contract to manage both Summerfields and the Falaise gym, just across Bohemia Road, for another five years included terms expressly requiring them to support the Active Hastings programme that “focuses on engaging the least active population to achieve the greatest reduction in health inequalities” (quoted from HBC’s Equalities Impact Assessment). And, now on their payroll,  Martin’s remit is outreach, getting people of all ages and backgrounds, but particularly seniors, ethnic minorities and the learning disabled, to increase participation in local sport and other physical activities – ‘improving lives through leisure’.

The scope is as wide as it could be, with a series of overlapping programmes for different target groups. Under the heading of Active Sport, Martin features badminton, swimming, trampolining, athletics and cycling; assisting the 1066 Cycling Festival of Active Hastings; a Swimathon and Aspire Channel Swim. Active Young People provides free swimming for under 8s and discounts for students; family aerobics; rookie lifeguard coaching; special activity sessions for teenagers and girls only. Active Ageing targets older people with dedicated gym and badminton sessions, walking football and walking netball; Freedom Leisure offers a discounted over 65s membership.

Just as there is more to sport than competition, Martin also sees there is more to physical activity than just physiological stimulation and exercise. Mental health issues and social isolation can be addressed, and the unsocialised (though that’s not a word he would use) brought into social engagement. There are opportunities to develop leadership skills or just employability.

Like any executive in the not-for-profit sector, Martin has to spend a lot of his time chasing sources of funding: one-off grants or longer term programmes put forward by Sports England, by county sports partnerships, by national governing bodies, by NHS clinical commissioning groups, by local authorities, by commercial sponsors. Austerity notwithstanding, there is plenty out there. And he has further ideas, particularly for minority sports – anything that gets people physically active and involved. “I am open-minded”, he says. “Not everything works. But I keep moving.”

Walking Football takes place on Thursdays 10.00am-11.30am at Summerfields Leisure Centre: session cost is £3, but the first is free. For further details, call in at Summerfields or contact Martin Eglington on 07523 514878.

Over 50s gym sessions are held at Summerfields between 12.00pm and 2.00pm on Tuesdays (lunch club) or at Falaise between 10.00am and 12.00pm on Fridays (breakfast club). Cost is £4 per session (£3 with an FL leisure pass). First time attendees should phone Falaise in advance on 01424 457692 or call in to either centre.

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