• Ian Sandbrook

What my kids are teaching me about life and helping clubs

“While we try to teach our children all about life. Our children teach us what life is all about” – Angela Schwindt

I’m sure I’m not the first person to have the revelation that their children are teaching them so much about themselves and life in general.

Life has this fantastic, whimsical way of uncovering our most important insights when we aren’t looking for them, and instead just living in the moment.

What I wanted to do with this article came to me when I was reflecting one evening after an action-packed day. It was that working with sports clubs and helping them to grow and develop has some amazing parallels with bringing up my children!

Below is what my kids have taught me about parenting and helping clubs.

1.      They like the cardboard box

I know this is a bit of a cliché when it comes to kids, but it’s so true. You can spend a ridiculous amount of money on the fancy, colourful, singing, dancing, talking toy and they play with it once and never again. However, they will love the cardboard box and use it over and over in all manner of creative play. You realise that this imaginative, free play facilitated by a simple box, is doing more for them than the plastic toy.

When working with clubs, we sometimes use the shiny new tool or programme as a crux to solving all their problems. Here is our great new accreditation scheme, our new online assessment tool, our club development guide, and we leave them to play with it and think our job is done. In my experience, they often have the same impact as the toy described above. The eyes light up and clubs play with them once and then put them away in the cupboard, never to be seen again.

However, provide them with the cardboard box – the basic support, motivation, inspiration – and then let them loose to create their own ideas and you will uncover a whole new level of ideas and buy-in from clubs. And just as you do with your kids, you get involved with them and help them create the fort/house/car/plane/castle that they want to make with the box. You have a far greater chance of engaging clubs and people long-term with this approach because you aren’t setting the boundaries and it is fundamentally about them.

2.      Get down to their level

Have you ever imagined life from the perspective of your small children? How things look and feel from down there? I’m sure adults can seem quite intimidating looking down on them all the time.

As much as I can, I try to get down to their level and talk to them. It may seem a small gesture, but it takes away some of that power balance and I can properly look them in the eye and give them my attention. It’s amazing how they respond to that interaction. I don’t manage to do this all the time, but I make a conscious effort to do it as much as possible, even with my sore knees!

For clubs, a national or regional body can seem aloof, intimidating and disconnected from what happens on the ground at club level. While in most cases this couldn’t be further from the truth, as most people I know working in these roles deeply care about clubs, we often don’t portray that. By simply being seen, ‘mucking in’, taking the time to talk to clubs in their language about what’s important to them, and genuinely listening, you will build a far deeper connection and bond with the people you’re trying to influence.

3.      Listen to the little things they have to say, so they will tell me the big things

Kids talk a lot, and often much of it is brilliantly inane ramblings which is fun. They have the tendency to not realise you might be busy or talking to someone else, and while they need to learn to wait and have manners, I also fundamentally believe in hearing them out whenever possible. If that means I stop what I’m doing to give them my attention to listen and respond, then I will. While this isn’t an exact science by any means, I work on the theory that the trust this builds means they will hopefully be more likely to share the big issues with me as they grow up. It’s arrogant to believe they will share those things just because I’m their Dad. It happens because you’ve heard them out consistently over a long time and that builds trust.

This can apply to clubs in the same way. From a club perspective, they often don’t feel listened to or in many cases, simply talked at or told how to do things. We can sometimes be blasé about the little complaints, issues, ideas they have which erodes confidence and trust. If you have this approach, then good luck trying to get them to have buy-in to anything you want them to do.

4.      Never underestimate emotional contagion

One of the things I’m guilty of a times as a parent is impatience, and I’m not proud of it. I’m sure your kids are programmed to push your buttons and it takes a huge amount of self-control sometimes not to get impatient with them. I have also learnt that if I’m impatient or angry or moody, then it’s amazing how this rubs off on my kids and they pick up the same behaviours.

How do you present yourself and interact with your members as a club leader? And likewise, for those working in sport and dealing with clubs, how are you presenting yourself and interacting with them?

If you are positive, enthusiastic, open-minded, celebrate success and improvement, are constantly looking for ways to get better, show empathy………this will start to rub off on the people around you. You won’t necessarily get everyone dancing to your tune, but I guarantee your attitude will rub off on many and help create a better environment to initiate the change you want.

5.      Trial and Error is the reality

As a parent, you are constantly trying to shape behaviours and often just get through the day! While these challenges are faced by all parents, the fact that all kids are different adds an extra layer of complexity which often means that what worked with one child or the previous day, doesn’t work with the other child or the next day. The reality is that you spend quite a lot of time trying different things to find what works. It can involve a lot of failure and frustration, but you stick at it until you find what works.

For clubs, they have to keep evolving and changing to keep up with the demands of modern society. Every club and its circumstances are so different, that ‘trial and error’ is the method to finding a way forward for your club. What works for one club doesn’t necessarily work for others, and just like my kids, you have to persevere and learn as you go. Unfortunately, many clubs try something different once and it doesn’t quite work, so they give up.

I say embrace the ‘trial and error’ approach, adjust expectations and fail fast.

6.      Growth isn’t linear

All parents know that growth often comes in bursts. One minute they’re in size 1 clothes, and then what seems like the next day, they’re bursting out of them like the incredible hulk. Their child might have started crawling late but then starts walking almost straight after, or speech might not have developed as quickly and then all of a sudden, they start talking in sentences. Growth and development are a rollercoaster and never a straight-line graph.

I try and avoid ‘competitive parent syndrome’ and I like to think I’m relaxed about all this and realise that they will reach those milestones when they’re ready. My role is to just keep supporting and stimulating them throughout that journey.

In the club environment, we must recognise again that each club is different in its make-up, circumstances, environment, needs, wants, challenges, and that how they progress will be unique to them. We must stick with clubs through that journey and continue to support and stimulate them, even when we’re not getting much back in return, just like we do with our kids. We also need to educate people up the chain about this reality. Many CEOs and Boards want a quick fix and to see results straight away and that simply isn’t realistic.

7.      Tantrums are unavoidable

Ah tantrums…….a daily highlight that I’ve learned to embrace (and sometimes have a quiet chuckle about!). As tiring as they can be, it’s all part of them growing up. They are still learning to handle big emotions and it’s a rollercoaster. It’s a cliché but you have to try and stay calm and pursue the right course of action i.e. if they are distraught a hug might be best, if they are trying to exert control then leaving them to it for a while is sometimes best until they calm down and realise that it’s not working. I’m by no means great at all this and have had some spectacular failures, but I’m trying to get better at it all the time.

In club sport, passion can often run high. People care, and in many cases their club is closely aligned to whom they are as a person. Therefore, challenge and change can unleash some decent ‘tantrums’ in my experience. The key is to view this as part of the process. Acknowledge that people care but make sure you tailor your response correctly so you can constructively move forward and not get bogged down in a slinging match.

8.      Money isn’t everything

Yes, kids can be expensive. There are some eye-watering figures out there showing what it costs on average to bring a child up until they’re 18, I prefer not to look at these! It also isn’t the point.

However, perhaps paradoxically, you don’t need lots of money in my opinion. We live a pretty simple life: we borrow things, embrace hand-me-downs, grow some of our own food etc. We try and be creative and have fun with what we have. We spend plenty of time outside with our animals, down at the playground, and at the great local library. But perhaps the biggest thing is not worrying about what we don’t have.

Today, we are bombarded with how great everyone’s life is and to constantly want the next thing. This isn’t to say I’m not ambitious and don’t have desires to improve what we have; I just don’t measure myself against others and don’t obsess over it. Basically, the kids adjust to what’s in front of them. Having more money and more things won’t make them better people.

The same logic is applicable to clubs in my opinion. The answer to many club’s struggles isn’t money. Yes, I’m not naïve enough to say it doesn’t matter, it can help, but it won’t make your club more relevant to its community. Some of the best clubs I’ve worked with have had no money and the worst facilities imaginable. Whilst on the other hand, some of the worst clubs I’ve seen have all the money and facilities in the world.

I guess what I’m saying is that clubs should learn to grow by getting the most out of what they already have first. Having a mentality grounded in appreciation, creativity and hard work will then ensure that any extras you do get (investment for new facilities or towards new programmes etc) will then be used wisely and built upon. A hollow club with a new clubhouse, is still a hollow club.

9.      Communicate

I’ve left this one until last because it’s a bit obvious, but communication is so crucial. The greatest thing I’ve learned about communication with my kids, is to slow down, communicate clearly and don’t assume they understand. You must take the time to make sure they know what you’re talking about so they will follow your instructions.

It goes without saying that communication with clubs by RSOs and NSOs, and within clubs themselves, is fundamental. It is almost always the first thing identified when you ask for how things can be improved.

For me, good communication boils down to taking the time to do it properly. It shows you are sure in what you’re asking/doing, and people then have the confidence to go away and do it.

I hope some of this has resonated with you whether you’re involved with a club, work in sport in some capacity, or a sleep-deprived parent!

I’m incredibly passionate about helping create more human-centred and empathetic sporting environments and believe we must find new ways of engaging, motivating and inspiring our networks to make positive change.

If you want to discuss any of the concepts or find out more about my services, please don’t hesitate to get in touch –

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