The support traditional sports clubs really need
Einstein supposedly said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.
Apart from a bit of window dressing, you could argue this is a very accurate assessment of what many sports clubs and sports governing bodies have been doing for years when it comes to club development. We have all seen the concerning stats that demonstrate the fall in traditional club membership, particularly for many high profile sports - rugby, cricket, tennis etc. We see falling numbers of teams, clubs folding, a dying breed of volunteer, under-used facilities........the negative news stories around the struggles clubs are facing far outweigh the positive ones. Talk to many key club people and simply trying to keep their heads above water and getting out enough players each week is becoming harder every year.
While clubs ultimately need to take control of their own destiny, and there's often too much finger pointing at the national body, have we really supported them in the way they need it most. Clubs only know what they know, so have we failed our clubs and now reaping what we sow? Harsh you might say but ultimately the stats don't lie, and if membership in your clubs is static or continuing to drop then you aren't helping them in the right way.
I talk to many sports development people that work for local, regional and national bodies and I often ask them, what's your club development approach? It amazes me how few can answer that question at all or with any kind of clarity. And yet, they all say that clubs are the foundation of our sport, the lifeblood. So much attention has been focused on the elite level at the top and mass kids participation at the bottom, that we've neglected the huge bit in the middle. There's a disconnect and our clubs are bearing the brunt of it. It's a castle built on sand.
What I get when I dig a bit deeper is often the standard sound bites about competitions (not club development), accreditation schemes (I've switched off, they don't work), elite level success driving long-term club growth (myth), mass participation programmes for kids (great but only if it's part of a whole participant journey and experience otherwise we lose them later on), governance (important but will only bear fruit if you bridge the gap from strategy/policy to tangible action on the ground - most don't).
What few identify is that the biggest issue for most clubs is that they haven't remained relevant in a changing society. Many clubs have simply lost their community and social connection, and that is a slippery slope once you're on it. Society has changed immensely in the last 10-15 years. The way people engage with sport has changed considerably. And yet, if we reflect honestly, how many of our clubs have truly kept pace with that change? There are some but simply not enough.
Unfortunately, no amount of international success, shiny strategies, tick box policies will change that trend for clubs unless cultural change happens first. We should be focusing on how we want people to 'feel' about our clubs. They need to rediscover how they can become meaningful in people's lives - create connection, make it fun, make it exciting, encourage diversity, listen to people, care about people, fit into people's lives - and start to take action, one small step at a time, that actually leads to something different happening.
The catch is, it's not an easy fix and it takes hard work! It also focuses on the 'softer skills' and that's always a harder sell to decision makers. There will be hundreds of excuses made about why it can't happen. That's natural, change is scary and a bit uncomfortable. I've also heard them all before and my comeback is always very straightforward - what will happen if you don't change?
So, what support do most clubs really need? Tangible, hands-on support to make cultural change happen. Culture eats strategy for breakfast, particularly in volunteer driven clubs.
How are you really helping your clubs achieve the right culture to remain relevant?