In a previous blog, I wrote about the work triangle from Tim Gallwey's classic The Inner Game of Work. This week's effort has its roots in the same book, but was inspired by some further musings from this year's BAFCA Coaches Convention, which I attended as a delegate and speaker, down at Keele University.
The BAFCA (British American Football Coaches Association) annual convention dates all the way back to 1989, the end of the decade where the sport first gained popularity in the UK. It typically involves three days of speakers, demonstrations, workshops and sharing of knowledge and like most such events, had been moved online for the last two years, due to the pandemic. Moving back to a face to face event, at a time when fuel prices are at their highest point ever and when people are facing a cost of living crisis was always going to be challenging, but as I said to a number of coaches over the weekend, I hadn't realised how much I'd missed the event until I was right there, furiously scribbling notes in presentations, quizzing other coaches on ideas from technique, to scheme, to leadership, and socialising in the bar in the evenings, sharing war stories from our years in the sport.
My presentation, on the Saturday night, was about Leadership in the Head Coach Role, encouraging leaders across the sport not to have a blind spot for some of the less glamorous, but crucially important parts of being a Head Coach which can help make their teams more effective. Right now, our sport is going through an interesting period where we have, for the first time in most peoples experiences, a paid CEO of the national governing body. This represents, in my view, a significant step forward for British American Football, because the sport in my seventeen years, has lived hand-to-mouth and from-year-to-year, focussing only on the operational aspects. Bringing in a CEO with a wealth of experience in sports governance, and with the associated network and understanding of strategic partnerships and how funding bodies work, can help us, over time, make significant positive change in our sport, which will benefit all of us.
That being said, the transition has been far from smooth and, with experienced CEOs coming at a significant cost, there are huge expectations on his shoulders which, in the eyes of many across the sport, are not currently being met. Operational aspects (scheduling, officiating cover, playoff formats) have come under scrutiny this season and much of the strategic work that the CEO has undertaken has not been visible to those in the sport and not yet born fruit, leading them to wonder exactly why we're paying someone a significant chunk of money each year for what appears to be a regression in customer experience (more on this crucial point later!).
As long as I've been around the sport, it's existed in a strange dichotomy where, for most of the year, participants care only for their own immediate experience. They don't care about strategic alliances, partnerships, accessing Sport England funding or gaining wider recognition for the sport. All they care about is having a schedule, games being officiated and having a playoff format and national final for their level and code of the sport. Every now and then, however, these people (generally when one of those aspects has not been provided to their satisfaction) stick their heads up and denigrate the national governing body for its lack of progress. Why isn't our sport on TV? Why aren't we playing in front of packed stadia? Why don't we have a headline sponsor for our national teams, to ease the cost burden of involvement? Why aren't the NFL throwing money at us?
There is typically no recognition that these broader strategic aspirations have not been progressed, in large part, because the people we've chosen to run our sport (all volunteers until this most recent CEO appointment) have been tasked with focussing on the operational aspects and have, largely, had no experience of what's involved with those strategic aspects. The population of the sport want leaders (mostly from inside the sport - the old classic "football people") who focus on the day-to-day and then wonder why there's been little change in the landscape of the sport in decades.
Back to an earlier point, many people in our sport view themselves as customers. We pay to play or to coach and our teams pay to be registered with the league and NGB, therefore we expect to be served. And there's certainly logic to that point. But amateur sport is not like a commercial gym membership. The workforce is the membership, and for it to grow and thrive, the membership need to be engaged in making it so.
This was where my reading started to show parallels!
In the Inner Game, Gallwey speaks about taking personal responsibility for your career and life and the direction that they’re heading. Instead of sitting in the backseat, being chauffeured through life and complaining about the direction, take the wheel. Agency. Ownership. Responsibility. These are the things that not only generate movement, but eliminate that feeling of helplessness or victimhood. In any journey, changes of direction can happen, but it's important to take responsibility for the overall direction that you're moving in.
Many of the aspects of our sport which hold us back right now and throughout my time in it are things that lie in the hands of the membership. Too often, players, coaches and administrators of the teams cut corners. They don't take administration seriously and have unregistered players and coaches taking part, posing a risk to us all. They do nothing to improve the facilities they offer or the experience of their membership and yet they carp when they feel the national governing body does the same. Even when the national governing body has put on free clinics, with experts from external bodies who work across a huge number of sports and understand best practice, to help these administrators improve the way they run teams and the experience of their members, attendance has been so poor that they've stopped running them. The coaches convention - a phenomenal resource that has had immeasurable impact on my growth as a coach - is typically attended by only a fraction of the coaches in the country - more often than not the ones who are doing things right and doing the right things already.
But the complaints and the frustrations of the members are seldom aimed at their local clubs; they're typically pushed right up to the level of the national governing body. People seem unwilling to hold their clubs and themselves accountable for the challenges they experience, preferring to shout at those at the top. People love to complain about the money they spend on being part of the sport (player fees, paid to the NGB are about £60 per year, covering insurance and registration and each team pays around £250 annually to be a part of the league structure) but these same players pay subscriptions to their own clubs, which generally come in at between £200 and £400 per year each! Given that the bulk of your financial outlay is to your club, not the NGB, why is there such a reticence to hold them more accountable for getting the foundations of our sport in place, and find ways to be a part of that. This all begins by viewing yourself as a member, not as a consumer. After all, if you expect those at the top of our sport to turn everything around, you'll be waiting a very long time.
The same principle applies to people who find themselves in jobs they hate. I get that it's a challenge, especially if that job affords you and your family a lifestyle to which you've become accustomed, and you struggle to see other avenues. But griping about the job won't change it. What will change it is either changing your relationship with your job, by reflecting on your own purpose and values in order to find the ways in which the job does fulfil you, this reframing your relationship with it, or changing your job. Making big changes in your career can be tough, as can making changes in the team you play for, but if you're truly dissatisfied, it's time to ask yourself what difference can you make where you are. It's time to take the wheel.