Discussion No. 6 - Tim Harper
Normally, I’d write some sort of lengthy introduction here. I would try to fill your heads, psyches & collective consciousnesses with the most powerful language I could muster, to convince you of how wonderful something, or someone, is.
With Tim Harper there is, more or less, no need. His words, and what he and his team at Harper Performance are doing, are so substantial, that they need very little preamble.
If you want the short version, then here it is: Mr. Harper is the founder of Harper Performance, a community interest company, that was created in 2015. They use football as a powerful tool to drive positive social change in developing countries.
The rest of the story is his.
How did Harper Performance come into existence?
HP CIC was a passion project gone mad. It really came to be, or rather, became an official entity about 3 years ago - I had spent the preceding nine-ten years working in high performance sport in the UK, predominantly in professional rugby and was loving it, had no real intentions of leaving that little bubble of a world. But then I got the chance to spend a bit of time with some sports organisations, clubs and with some individual athletes from Southern Africa.
My partner; Robyn, is a Zim-Zambian-South African mongrel, and it was actually on a trip back to the family farm in Zambia when I had the chance to visit the Olympic training centre there in the capital; Lusaka and that visit had a huge impact on me - it wasn’t the makeshift housing on the side of road just outside the gates, I think once you’ve spent a bit of time in the region, you become (perhaps ashamedly) a little numb to the poverty, or the lack of water access and the like.
No, it was actually touring the Olympic training centre and seeing the huge potential, both in the sense of the natural athletic talent in the place, but also, a great deal of top notch facilities, some hugely engaged technical coaches but a complete lack of additional support, in sports science, or nutrition or psychology or medicine. Through discussions with people in the place, and from the various self-congratulatory plaques strewn across shiny bits of kit, it became clear that the traditional sports development projects that we’re busy funding in the “ developed world” are largely misplaced vanity projects that make us feel really good about ourselves, and produce great statistics for impact reports, but are having very little impact in the sense of actually developing capacity and capability in sports.
So, I wanted to do something about that, and for the next 12 months or so, I made a lot of mistakes as I took a load of pro-bono consultancy roles with various organisations in sub-Saharan Africa to try and shift the conversation away from building fancy facilities, away from exclusively mass-participation, sport-for-all projects and towards empowering local stakeholders to take control of their own sporting destiny by blending global best practice with local know-how.
And its fair to say, that for the first 12-18 months it was a cluster, as a fledgling organisation, we took on too much, tried to do too much and lacked a real sense of clarity over our mission or vision for what we were trying to achieve beyond stirring the pot and kicking up a lot of dust.
So, I went back to the drawing board and repurposed HP CIC as a proper organisation, a non-profit social enterprise that had a clearly defined mission to tackle inequality in sport and provide support for sportspeople, organisations and governing bodies that wanted to create transformational change and realise their potential on the world stage without losing their identity or DNA in the process.
I pillaged my black book from all my years in elite sport and pulled together a team of the very best sports scientists, athletic development coaches, sports nutritionists and sports medicine staff that are currently working in global elite sport. We partnered with locally-owned and managed organisations across the African continent and we went about trying to democratise the scientific revolution that sport has been through over the past 20-50 years - we are striving to disseminate the massive leaps forward we have made in the enhancing human performance to the global masses, so that realising your potential in sport isn’t just preserved for a privileged few in affluent countries and regions around the world - it is our belief that whoever you are, wherever you come from and whatever your background, you should be given opportunities worthy of your potential and have real chances to achieve your goals, on an equal footing to anyone else.
And so that’s how we’ve come to be, and I think it’s fair that we’ve kind of grown into ourselves and we’re now having a really positive impact through our work.
How important a role can football play in driving positive social change in developing countries?
Great question and a difficult one to answer. I think the belief system here at HP CIC about sport and football is really based on the notion that it's is supposed to be an equal playing field. Naturally, we’re busying ourselves with the high-performance and elite side of it, and so we don’t think too much about sport as a “vehicle” for social change, but rather that sport itself is, or should be social change.
There are some phenomenally noble and effective programmes utilising sport to tackle injustices and inequalities in wider society such as education, health, gender equality etc based on the idea that sport is somehow this inherently powerful force for good. However, we think that sport can do more just by being true to what it says it already is - if sport is the level playing field, the great “leveller” that it claims to be - if it’s a place that people can “achieve", whatever their skin colour, socioeconomic status, religion or heritage, then for us, sport has done all it can for social change, because it becomes the embodiment of our aspirations for a truly equitable and meritocratic society.
But the truth is, it’s not. Sport isn’t fair, it isn’t a level playing field, it isn’t meritocratic - it’s monopolised by the rich and the privileged, its corrupted by the unscrupulous, and its falling over itself in 2019 to maintain the status-quo against a backdrop of vested interests and big money players.
If you’re born in London, San Francisco, Sydney, or another big city in the “developed world", like it or not, you are afforded every opportunity to make it in sport compared to your peers born in Kampala, Lagos, Freetown or Nairobi.
That being said, sport can be the shining beacon for the rest of society to follow - just imagine if we could create a global institution (sport) that regardless of your individual circumstances, we had enshrined the Corinthian Spirit, and that you could realistically dream of realising every last drop of your sporting potential. The obstacles that we would have had to overcome to get to that point, the challenges we would have faced and the solutions we will have had to, on a global scale, come up with, would have brought out the very best of humankind and solved some of the biggest social questions of our generation. If we can't achieve true equality through something as "trivial" as sport, then what hope have we got when it comes to wider society.
So that’s the role we think sport has in social change, especially in developing countries, that it can create a path, it can start answering societies biggest questions about how to overcome injustices, but first it needs to admit it has a problem, that it isn’t this Disney version of itself, that sport feeds inequality and injustice just as much as it challenges it and what better way to start, than through the world’s most popular sport and universal language; football.
What impact do you feel you have made so far? How successful have your projects been?
Impact in sports development is usually measured by numbers of participants or numbers of people you’ve had contact with in your target audience - and for some projects that’s great! For us, less so, by design, we try and make ourselves invisible, we are essentially a pro-bono consultancy, working with local stakeholders, adding ‘global best practice’ in our field to a big melting pot of ideas on a local level and then supporting, guiding and delivering those ideas alongside our local colleagues.
Our impact through our projects has been great - our greatest achievements are largely anchored to shifting conversations, or challenging outdated, often imperialistic and neo-colonial ideas about sports development and jettisoning the right people into the right rooms at the right time.
We’re still young as an organisation, and I’m sure, we’ll come to a point where we will shout about “impact” a little more, and we are currently working with universities in East Africa and the UK to develop ways to quantify our impact better, but in the meantime, we’re happy to lead from the shadows, to keep talking about the great people we get to work with - like the Football-For-Good Academy in Kampala, or Project Africa Athletics in Kenya, and sit back and enjoy the successes we have played a part in without too much fanfare. The credit belongs to our partners in sub-Saharan Africa.
It’s a perennial challenge to keep attracting sponsorship and support, whilst not making the story all about us, but it’s a tightrope we think we have a duty to walk, not least, because, in our eyes, that is exactly how organisations like us should operate - in the background - but we’re still learning and trying to improve in this area. We’re very grateful to our incredibly loyal Mkimu Club supporters who are backing our approach and really putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to local empowerment.
All that being said, we are hugely excited about launching our most ambitious initiative to date, to develop a highly-skilled, highly qualified and comprehensively mentored workforce in sports science and medicine through our ‘East Africa Sports Science Internship’ - this initiative really has the potential to have a transformational impact in the field across the region and make organisations like us redundant - which is absolutely the goal!!
Could you tell our readers a little about Project Uganda?
Project Uganda is the first of three projects in sub-Saharan Africa activated under 'The KANJU Projects' umbrella - a group of projects focussed on small-scale, high-impact organisations that are already supporting aspirational sportsmen and women from some of the most deprived regions in the world.
Harper Performance CIC are working in collaboration with the Football-For-Good Academy in Kampala and Gulu and the Equator Sports Group, also based in Kampala, to build capacity in sports science and medicine across the region, democratise access to performance-science and combat one of the most pronounced instances of inequality in sport.
Footballing infrastructure and talent pathway development in the region has stalled following years of conflict, political unrest and the instability of emerging local economies. Outside help, whilst noble and motivated primarily by goodwill, is more often than not focussed on misplaced mass participation, 'sport-for-all' projects staffed by under-qualified and inexperienced Western students and high school graduates that do little to support talented footballers in the region, creating a damaging leadership gap on and off the field, endorsing a reliance on never-ending Western intervention and providing little to no mechanism for good players to become 'great players' or for real improvements in local footballing infrastructure to be made a reality.
The Football for Good (FFG) Academy, founded in 2013, unlocks the competitive advantages of frontier regions in East Africa to identify and develop local footballing talent, deliver world-leading training, education and character-building, and provide opportunities to the youth it serves to realise their full potential, both domestically, and if the time and circumstances are right, to pursue real opportunities overseas responsibly.
One of the the key challenges for organisations like the FFG Academy in Uganda, is accessing relevant, sustainable and appropriate levels of performance-science support - services like sports medicine, sports nutrition, sports science and athletic development support; all of which are freely available to the FFG's European counterparts and peers but are all too often out of reach to those in East Africa. Project Uganda is about helping bridge that gap; utilising the HP Projects team of some of the leading practitioners in global elite sport to build capacity at the FFG Academy and across the region so that talented athletes can be better supported at home in East Africa.
What future projects do you have planned?
As part of the Kanju Projects, we have two further projects along similar lines to Project Uganda, one in Kenya in partnership with Project Africa Athletics and another project in football, this time in West Africa, in partnership with the Monrovia Football Academy in Liberia.
Alongside, as I’ve mentioned before, we’re launching the East Africa Sports Science Internship in July 2019, and that project alone has huge potential to become a bit of a flagship for us and grow to be a really big project over the next 3 to 5 years.
How can others get involved and help with the work you are doing?
Easiest way to get involved is to join our supporters club; The Mkimu Club - it costs as little as £1 per month, and you get a whole bunch of benefits for joining, plus we keep you in the loop on what we’re up to and how your support is really changing sport for the better. You can join here: harperperformance.co.uk
Similarly, if you like the sound of some of our projects or mission in general - there are a whole bunch of sponsorship packages available for individuals, organisations and businesses alike - we’re a small non-profit, with big ambitions so we’re able to give our sponsors a personalised and intimate relationship to our work, they really do become part of our movement. Find out more: harperperformance.co.uk/wish-list.html
Otherwise, keep spreading the message!! That sport isn’t fair, it isn’t equitable, and it has a problem - follow us on social media, Twitter is our biggest platform (@HarperPerform) share our posts and help us make some noise!
What has been the most satisfying element of your work so far?
To be able to have a positive impact on global sport beyond our usual day-to-day roles as a group of sports scientists, strength & conditioners, sports nutritionists and sports medicine staff is hugely satisfying - sometimes our little world can become a little insular, take itself a little too seriously and get a bit lost in terms of perspective. I think it’s amazing that a group of some of the leading practitioners in global sport are using their expertise and experience to make sport fairer, for very little money and even less recognition - that for me is just massively satisfying and I really hope the sports science and sports medicine world and the football community at large continue to get behind our movement!
What positive message would you give to young footballers in developing countries?
Keep being you, don’t lose your grit or determination, embrace opportunities in your locality and keep demanding change. We’ve got to get better at listening to the challenges facing these footballers, so we need them to keep telling their stories and keep demanding change.
Football can’t preach its "values" like dogma and then neglect it’s responsibilities to the global masses - equality doesn’t work if it’s only for white people from affluent countries - so footballers in the developing world need to know - your dreams are valid, your aspirations are real and you are well within your rights to demand opportunities to realise them!
We’ll make change happen. Together.
Words by J.S. Leatherbarrow. Photographs used with kind permission of Tim Harper/Harper Performance CIC. Artwork by FATC staff. All rights reserved.