• Ian Sandbrook

Empower your clubs, don't homogenise them

It’s been an interesting few months working directly with sports clubs in both Australia and New Zealand to help empower them to create more meaningful environments and experiences for their club.

After spending some time reflecting on the interactions, a key concept has been reinforced in my mind.

We must ensure we are actually empowering clubs to forge their own path in creating a unique, meaningful club experience.

That is the future for creating a network of healthy, successful clubs in your sport. And by its very nature, creating something unique and meaningful, has to be club driven and emotionally aware. We can help facilitate it, but we can’t do it for them, and we mostly certainly can’t achieve it by forcing a strict model or framework on them. It has to be hatched from within by the people involved, not spoon-fed or found on an accreditation scheme.

Put simply, homogenising our clubs is not the answer.

Unfortunately, I see too much ‘homogenisation’ through club frameworks, volunteer strategies, and accreditation schemes that espouse their club-centric virtues, but in reality shoehorn clubs into a predetermined model of what ‘good’ looks like. Whatever a ‘good club’ actually is!

Therefore, are we still largely employing, inflexible, top-down club development approaches that suit the desires of NSOs and RSOs, and not the clubs themselves?

Instead, I strongly believe we have to make room for supporting clubs to understand and draw out what will make their club meaningful to their members, customers, and their community. I call it human-centred, empathy driven club development. We should have flexibility in our strategies to be able to delve deeply into this with clubs, as this is where significant gains can be made.

When reflecting on this train of thought and in working with hundreds of clubs, I’m drawn to a fun but accurate saying that I think encapsulates what most clubs actually want:

“I don’t want an algorithm; I want to march to my own rhythm”

They want genuine, caring support to help them create the future club they want, not paint by numbers club development.

Therefore, a human-centred, empathy driven club development approach is unashamedly about feelings and emotions to empower positive change for clubs. If we are placing feelings and emotions at the centre of the discussions then you create ‘connection’, and that is the fundamental building block for any successful sports club.

Take the simple example of volunteers at clubs. It is always in the top 3 main concerns for clubs i.e. we don’t have enough of them. However, most of the plans I see to help clubs address this problem completely miss the core issue - the emotional culture of your volunteer environment.

We tinker around the edges trying to improve things for volunteers – awards, role descriptions, free clothing, petrol vouchers, celebrating national volunteer weeks etc – these are all great and help, but to steal a concept from Simon Sinek’s ‘Start with Why’, we are focusing constantly on the ‘what’, when we should be focusing on the ‘why’.

What attracts and keeps people involved in volunteering at your club is the emotional culture you create with them. Do you understand how they want to feel and don’t want to feel during their volunteer experience? Do you then try to help them achieve that? And do you create regular rituals that reinforce the culture and behaviours that support them?

You can only understand this and start to create that environment by having meaningful conversations with your volunteers and potential volunteers, and start to build that together.

A saying I often use with clubs is ‘you need to care about people, before they will care about your club’. The same rings true for national and regional sports organisations. You need to really care about your clubs for them to truly care about you.

The simple fact is that working with clubs is a bit chaotic. The environment they operate in is constantly changing, they all have vastly different circumstances, challenges, needs, barriers, dreams, so we can’t lump everything into convenient categories.

I recommend you start truly empowering clubs by dedicating resource to help them have those real, face-to-face conversations that focus on the underlying motivations and feelings they want to create across the spectrum of club interactions – volunteers, customers, members/players/users, coaches, committees. Commit to that and you start to empower clubs to improve and carve out the future they want.

If any of these concepts resonate or you're looking for support in the club and community sport space, then please don't hesitate to get in contact with me -

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