In a Tapiola sports hall, the sound of metal-on-metal, and the beep of electronic score boards immediately tells you there’s a fencing class in progress even before you see the participants dressed in their distinctive white padded suits and otherworldly face masks.
The class is part of a youth sports programme that involves hundreds of young people every Wednesday in Espoo, to encourage more teenagers to get into sports by offering a wide range of activities in partnership with area sports clubs.
“Every training session we have one and a half hours, including a warm-up, repetition of the basics, and then they’re fencing” says Kimmo Puranen from Espoo Fencers.
“At first the kids were a little bit nervous and noisy but now there’s a big change for them, they’re listening and trying to do as best they can. They’re really concentrating now and wanting to learn” explains Puranen, an Olympian who competed at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.
Espoo Fencers are one of more than 20 local sports clubs taking part in the initiative, which includes swimming, football, basketball, rugby, diving, floorball, water polo and many more.
And the young participants seem to enjoy learning new skills.
“It’s very fun and it’s exciting, and I know that I’m not going to win but it’s fun” says 12-year old Iiris.
Thirteen year old Renar has been fencing for a few years but also joins the new Wednesday afternoon class.
“You should try it! It’s free this Wednesday group and you can try it. It’s solo play. Others don’t say what you have to do” he says
Second year of the sport initiative
This term marks the second semester of the initiative, coordinated by Espoo’s Sport and Exercise Services, and it’s grown in terms of the number of sports on offer, the number of participating clubs and the number of children taking part.
The city finds the venues for clubs if they need indoor or outdoor space, pays the coaches, and works to spread the word about the initiative to schools to attract more participants.
“Of course all of us are a little bit concerned about youngsters’ physical shape, and licenses for hobbies can get pretty expensive at exactly that age between 12 and 14. We have sports that already cost three hundred, four hundred euros per month and we wanted to take care of that side of things” explains Camilo Miettinen Youth Sports Coordinator at the City of Espoo.
“When you are active you can focus better to studies, and that is also true, and we wanted to find something in Espoo to ensure that from two years old, to 18-years old a path that everybody has a chance to try some sports, and we offer it free of charge” he says.
Miettinen started by approaching clubs to get them involved, and partnered with organisations that might already have their own youth teams, but who were also keen to introduce their sport to more teenagers.
For many of the sports in the programme, there’s not a high barrier to entry with equipment costs – something that is important to Miettinen as a former professional ice hockey player who knows how quickly teens outgrow their equipment, and how expensive it is to replace.
“Sports overall is getting more expensive than when I was younger, because now it’s soccer, floorball, they are happening all year round” says Miettinen.
“Ice hockey is very expensive, at that age it’s very very expensive already. And there might be three kids in the family, two boys playing ice hockey and a girl doing gymnastics and that could be €400 per month” he adds.
Learning new skills beyond sport
Although the primary objective of the Wednesday hobby sports initiative is to get young people moving, there’s other benefits too as they learn other skills apart from burning calories.
“At rugby the children learn about team work, hand and eye coordination, communication, fair play and have fun doing it” says Oskari Hiipakka, Espoo Rugby Club Chairman.
“They run around and use a lot of energy, they can be noisy and this is definitely something new for these young people. And it’s good for Espoo Rugby to give back to the community and participate in this programme as well” Hiipakka adds.
The programme has been such a success across all the sports, there’s hopes to continue it also in the future during the school year.
Camilo Miettinen wants to involve more sports and more clubs, and more local schools as well.
“We wanted to make two things sure: that we can offer kids from 13 to 16 free sports that they can try. You can go this week to rugby, next week to skating. Normally if you want to try something you have to commit, and this is the easiest possible way to go and try sports.”