• Ian Sandbrook

Time to move past our fears in community sport

"Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold" - Helen Keller

For those that have become familiar with some of my articles, you know I like a good quote! I love this one from Helen Keller because it speaks to me on many levels, but it resonates when I think about the things that are holding back many of our sports clubs, and is what I term as 'fearful conservatism'. Not in the political sense, but in the commitment to traditional ways and ideas with opposition to change or innovation.

Now you could say Helen Keller was the complete opposite of this. A suffragette, a birth control supporter, a socialist, a pacifist, and all at a time when this was highly radical. She was also a true inspiration for people with disabilities as she was blind and deaf, but she clearly didn't let that hold her back. Here was a woman that had every excuse to be fearful and conservative in her approach but refused to let life happen to her like that.

Unfortunately, I see the opposite of Helen Keller all too often when dealing with clubs, and in some instances, regional and national sporting organisations. Too many are sleep-walking into an irreversible trend because of the fear of changing their ways, the fear of the new, the fear of having to try a little bit. They are hanging on doing the same thing, in largely the same way, in the hope that somehow society will turn back the clock and normal service will be resumed. As Helen said, "the fearful are caught as often as the bold", and I would even argue in our industry, the fearful are caught far more than the bold.

Therefore, what I thought I would compile was a brief list of things we should stop being fearful of in grassroots sport in 2019, so we can become the bold. Some of them could be a little controversial, but hey, I wouldn't be walking the talk if I didn't speak up for what I believe needs to happen.

1. Fear of challenging the status quo

An oldie but a goodie. Not all great insight has to be groundbreaking and new. The best ones are often well known and stare us right in the face, we just have to actually do something about them. The fact is, many sports and clubs are still slow to change despite the writing on the wall. Whether it's a total belief that the current way is the best way; or a mixture of apathy, stubbornness, holding on to the past, and reluctance all rolled in together; what we're seeing is too much stagnation.

Exacerbating the issue is that many NSOs fail to bridge the gap between national policy/strategy and its implementation at the very bottom of the pyramid where it's most needed. So even when some good stuff comes out from the national body, we often see little change at the coalface. Therefore, we must find innovative ways of encouraging this attitude and approach at the coalface of your sport, and subsequently, empowering those operating at that level to act upon it.

2. Fear of going 'outside the system'

Very little innovation would ever happen if we always worked 'within the system'. I hear loads about 'creating the sporting system' from within the industry and understand it's importance. However, it isn't the be-all and end-all. Those pulling the strings are kidding themselves if they think every advance will be because of them and the system. It is far more organic than they want to admit, and like almost every other industry, the true break-throughs often happen outside the system. So embrace the system and work with it, but please don't be afraid to latch onto things that are innovative, push the boundaries, and even make you a little bit scared. You will almost certainly see more impact from something like that.

3. Fear of a bit of effort

This is something that we tip-toe around constantly, and essentially it boils down to the fact that we don't want to offend the volunteer. Again, I completely understand that and have huge respect for the time, effort and sacrifice people make. However, we have to be honest to move forward. If your sport and/or clubs are struggling, then something has to change and that will take effort. I understand that we are all time poor, have lives outside our club, work, families etc, they are all real barriers. However, the simple truth is that there's no way around it. If I want to get in shape, I have to put the effort in. If I want to grow my vegetable garden so I don't have to buy them from the shop, I have to put the effort in. There is no magic pill that clubs can take that will make them better with no effort at all. Let's stop being fearful of telling clubs this but at the same time give them all the support we can to address how to spread the load and work smarter.

4. Fear of speaking up for your slice of the pie

Community sport is under-funded. I do believe (or want to believe) that this is slowly changing in some sports, but not fast enough on the whole. Within individual sports and government sports agencies, we need to keep pushing for a more equitable allocation of resource. This isn't about taking away from high performance sport in a tit-for-tat, jealous squabble. This is about recognising the real need at community sport level that unless we invest properly in it, we risk some serious consequences further down the line. The last time I checked, most NSO's constitutions state that their primary role is as the guardians of the sport in their country (or words to that effect). They do not exist to firstly service the elite few, and everyone else after that. Boards and key decision makers have a choice in how they serve for the greater good of the sport. Let's remind them of that.

5. Fear of talking about 'customers'

If you have people paying money for a good or a service, then you have customers. So clubs, you have customers no matter how much you want to deny it.

I have a theory about this aversion to talking about 'customers'. Basically, subconsciously we call them 'members' and say we're just a 'sports club' not a business, and that then gives us a 'get out of jail free card' to treat them poorly and have a convenient excuse when they leave. However, if we start thinking of them as 'customers', all of sudden we have to provide value and be accountable.

It's time to call this out. People have too many options for their discretionary time and money now, and are far more discerning, that clubs simply can’t continue thinking this way.

However, when I talk about 'customers' in the context of a volunteer run sports club, it's about encouraging them to embrace ways to positively impact the experience in ways they can manage and that will have the biggest impact for their club. I'm not expecting clubs or small national sports organisations to be like Amazon. We just need to put ourselves in our customer’s shoes more often, think about how they want to feel when engaging with our club or sport, and take small steps to making this happen.

6. Fear of talking about 'emotions'

This fear isn't just confined to community sport, it's across all areas of our society. We have largely been taught to suppress the very thing that makes us human so let’s smash down the barriers and myths around ‘feelings’, and harness those discussions for good in sport.

It isn’t fluffy, airy-fairy, tree-hugging talk. It's what drives us as human beings, and in an emotionally driven industry like sport, it holds the key to creating an environment where your club and sport can thrive. I'm convinced that focusing on the core emotional experiences first is the way forward for creating meaningful, connected clubs and communities in your sport. We are emotional beings after all - 87% of our daily decisions are made by emotion.

What I hope to encourage is that in our planning we start with conversations about how we want people to feel in that interaction:

How do we want our volunteers to feel?

How do we want our customers to feel when they first join our club?

How do we want the parents of children in the junior section to feel?

How do people feel when they use our website?

If you start with how people feel you are automatically tapping into what really matters to us. You are empathizing first and it’s amazing how those conversations can simply give you a better understanding of the people next to you which can only be healthy. Understanding those drivers across your environment will give you clarity about what you should and shouldn’t be doing as a club or sport.

So there it is, my brief list of fears I want us to overcome in 2019. I’m sure you have already ticked off some of them and maybe still working on others, but I hope I have at least stimulated some thinking and discussion within your networks as we all strive for a stronger community sport sector.

To discuss any of the content or how I can help your club or sport, please don’t hesitate to get in touch –

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