• Ian Sandbrook

Is 'sustainable' holding your clubs back

I get it. I know what we're all saying when we talk about sustainability for sports clubs, but I'm going to be a bit controversial here, I'm not sure it should be the 'front man' in our campaign to encourage improvement in clubs.

There's nothing wrong with the principle, you can't argue with it as a noble vision, I just believe it gets hijacked by bureaucrats and leads to 'club development by numbers' which has far more negative consequences than positive.

The fundamental weakness I see is that we are incredibly formulaic about how we expect and encourage clubs to operate. I believe that in our campaign for 'sustainable', we inadvertently create a climate of restriction and control as we place a set of parameters around what a 'good club' looks like. We uphold a model, and then in a very well intentioned way, start to push people towards this. We indirectly discourage anything that doesn't fit our way of thinking, and consequently, we perhaps shut ourselves off to the most innovative and effective ways for a particular club to achieve success.

It is no coincidence that the majority of the fastest growing sport and recreation clubs/groups/movements are those that are the complete antithesis of the traditional model (think Parkrun), or are relatively 'new' sports that have very little traditions, rules, regulations, and expectations around how a club should operate. This allows for freedom and innovation in the way they go about building momentum for their club or activity.

Secondly, 'sustainable' in the context of predominantly volunteer run sports clubs, comes with the connotations of 'just getting by'. It screams mediocre to me. And in this industry, 'sustainable' doesn't motivate big improvements in clubs in my opinion. It doesn't speak the language of clubs and volunteers who are following their passion, and it definitely doesn't inspire the sea change required by many clubs to even get on the path to being the club they want to become.

We should be aiming higher than that. It may be a matter of semantics but I do think it's important that the language and thrust of our approach is inspiring, exciting and resonates with club volunteers. I also believe that the golden thread to club sustainability is inextricably tied to the emotional experiences we foster.

To offer a different perspective from standards, policies, and checklists, how about focusing our energy in two key ways:

1. Go for 'Full-throttle' club support

In the natural ebb and flow existence of a club over time we need to encourage big leaps of action and new ideas that challenge and push clubs, and minimise the periods of stagnation. Support them to select 3 key actions that resonate most with them and will have the biggest impact for their club, and then support them to the hilt in achieving them. Then - learn, leap, repeat. If you get them thinking and acting in this way, you are helping create a proactive, forward thinking club. The key here though is making sure it's about them. About what they want to do and where they see the club going - not our preconceived 'good club' playbook.

2. Developing the emotional culture of the club

This is by far the most important in my book. This is the 'real' DNA of the club, and ultimately, emotions are what drives the direction of the club whether you like it or not because we are people! Create clarity in your emotional culture and put how people feel at the centre of everything you do, and it can be harnessed to improve all areas of your club, from how you recruit and retain volunteers, to how you develop new programmes or products, to your communications strategy. Emotional culture is the trump card that we seem to ignore.

So maybe it's time to loosen the reigns a bit. Ease off on the well-meaning accreditation schemes and formulaic plans. Instead focus on people and what resonates most with them. Spend time on the emotional culture at the club, as ultimately, that will drive and support how the club operates.

If you want to find out more about these concepts and how to develop this approach, simply contact Ian Sandbrook -

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