• Ian Sandbrook

The most important skill for your sports development staff

‘Knowledge does not change behaviour’

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my 15+ years’ experience in sport development, it is the above statement. And oh, how I wish I understood this at the start of my career – hindsight is a wonderful thing!

We have a bias that knowledge will enable us to change the way people operate and create the growth and improvements we want to see in our sport. We present flawless information and insight and then expect that change will naturally flow from this, only to be disappointed and bewildered when people unthinkably, don’t. Change is much more complex than that.

What we often fail to realise in sports development, and I was guilty of this, is that great insights and strategies only become useful, relevant, and deliver the impact we want, if they are accompanied by a well thought through change process. And in a community sport context, that means implementing something relevant to the key target group of people – predominantly volunteers at clubs, schools and community groups.

That seems blindingly obvious, but I believe it’s the number one cause of a community sport strategy not quite hitting the mark. In almost all cases the strategies are well researched, supported, logical and well intentioned, but they end up failing to deliver because they haven’t managed to get enough people ‘on-board’. Essentially, they haven’t thought about how infuriatingly complex humans are when asked to move out of our comfort zones! This is accentuated further when we are dealing mostly with people’s discretionary time and money, as we are in community sport. In many cases, plans and programs are just dumped on the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ and we hope they stick.

To start to manage this more effectively from a National or Regional Sports Organisation perspective, consider who is tasked with driving the change at the coalface of your sport?

In most cases, it’s your regional and local sports development staff.

They are the ones that ultimately have the relationships and do the grunt work to get an overarching strategy over the line. Which brings me to my key point:

In my opinion, the number one skill for your modern sports development workforce, is how well they manage and influence change.

Does your workforce currently have those skills?

I bet that if you investigated the performance of your development/community sport staff, those that are most effective are those that knowingly, or unknowingly, manage the change process well. To steal the excellent model provided by Dan and Chip Heath in their book ‘Switch’; they would provide clear direction appropriate to the level they are operating, they would motivate the people they’re trying to influence in a meaningful way that creates an emotional response, and they would shape the environment relevant to the target audience that makes embracing the new behaviours easier and the old ones harder. Also, they would undoubtedly act more like ‘coaches’ than ‘scorekeepers’ – another key lesson I’ve learnt over time!

Ultimately, they would be able to apply this thinking over the top of any new programs or behaviour they are planning, and that would enable the greatest chance of success.

What I’ve noticed is that very few sports identify and develop this skill within their staffing structures. There’s a gap between expectation and execution. We assume our staff are equipped to make change happen for us, when in reality many of them aren’t. This isn’t a critique of the staff, rather, of what we have traditionally valued and developed in these roles that has created this skill gap.

Consider the stereotypical regional or local sports development officer; they are probably good at coordinating and developing sports programs, administering competitions and events, understand coaching and pathways, and the local sports landscape etc. We have built up experiences and training opportunities aligned to these skills (often sport specific) and very much ‘knowledge-based’. This is great and very important, but knowledge is the easy bit. This is fine if you are delivering the ‘status quo’ but almost all community sport strategies I see are attempting to deliver a significant change agenda because the status quo across so many markers and operating models is no longer fit for purpose.

What we are really seeking is a change in behaviour.

Therefore, the fundamental essence of the modern sports development practitioner’s role is to deliver behaviour change aligned to strategy at a local level, and there’s a real art to that which you must develop within your workforce.

I strongly believe that if you want to have the greatest impact in delivering your outcomes, then prioritise the framework, training and support for your frontline workforce to become champion ‘change agents’.

If you want to find out more about how I can help develop your sports development workforce, don’t hesitate to get in touch –

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