Monday, February 22, 2021

Considering How We Look at Sports Club Experiences


The ‘negative impact upon children and young people’ has been noted by sports clubs among the top five challenges resulting from Covid-19 and the associated restrictions, with ‘how to engage and re-engage children and young people’ seventh on the list of knowledge and skill support required in the sports club environment (Sport NI Covid-19 Survey).  I have no doubt that creating the best possible experiences of club sport for young people, and for all members, is an enduring intention for all of us who are involved in coaching or volunteering within sports clubs.  But perhaps the current media prominence of the issue of young people’s experiences, alongside survey findings such as those referred to above, offers us a prompt for reflection on how we can turn ‘okay’ experiences into good experiences, good to great, and great to even greater!

Smith and Smoll (2007) suggest that the actions of a coach have an impact on how people, particularly children and young people, perceive and react to their sport experiences.  But that as coaches, we aren’t always as aware as we might be of our actions, how they are perceived by the participant, and the impact they have.  I don’t think it’s a huge leap to consider that this may well be the case for the wider club environment/experience.  So how do we find out more about these perceptions and experiences?  Well… in a club of 200 members, you may well have 200 different individual perceptions of experience.  Or when coaching a group of 20 young people – again each individual may well perceive their experience in a slightly different way, based on various factors. 

To change anything for the better, often we first need to shine a light on our own thinking and disrupt our perspectives, biases and assumptions – the ‘unfreeze’ stage of change (Lewin, 1947).  In the context of coaching and sports club experiences we might consider the immediate participant experience and the wider eco-system that surrounds the club and its people.

A useful tool to consider the factors that influence immediate participant experience is The Personal Assets Framework for Sport (Côté, Turnnidge & Evans, 2014; Vierimaa, Turnnidge, Burner & Côté, 2017).  This framework highlights three dynamic elements of Personal Engagement in Activities, Quality Social Dynamics, and Appropriate Settings.  Personal Engagement refers to the activities, games and practices that we as coaches create and lead to engage participants.  Quality Social Dynamics addresses the crucial aspect of coach-participant relationships and interactions between peers within the session, while Appropriate Settings refers to the suitability of the physical environment. 

(Adapted from Côté, 2014; Vierimaa et al, 2017)

When these ‘golden cogs’ work in harmony, the immediate participant experience can play a significant role, through the development of personal assets (confidence, competence, connection and character), in the realisation of the longer-term outcomes of sustained participation, personal development and performance.  As coaches, we might navigate consideration of our own influence on the experiences of participants through reflection on:

·         Our intentions or objectives
·         How we structure the activities we use
·         The coaching behaviours we adopt during the session
·         How we engage with the participants, how the participants engage with each other,         and how they engage with the activity

(Muir, 2018)

(Adapted from Muir, 2018)

Are there differences between our intentions and both our experiences and those of our participants? Have we become aware of perspectives that we weren’t previously? And what might we do now in how we design and deliver future sessions?

As well as immediate in-session experiences, there are a range of wider influences on participant experiences, as well as the experiences of club coaches, parents and volunteers – whose experiences are also important to consider, not least because they are significant enables and influencers of participant experience.  Some of these considerations and influences are summarised in the image below.

At the risk of winning today’s ‘stating the obvious’ competition, a straight forward way of gaining an insight into the experiences of participants and key influencers/enablers is to simply ask!  Four useful questions for this might be:

  • What could we, as a club, start doing to make experiences better?
  • What could we, as a club, stop doing to make experiences better?
  • What do we, as a club, do well already and should continue?
  • What do we do a little bit, that we could do more to make experiences better?

This could be done through a club online survey, or even better though individual or group conversations where you can follow-up to find out even more.  Remember the club experiences of coaches, volunteers and parents are important too!

Great experiences are more likely in a positive club environment.  So what does a good children’s sports environment look like?  Well… every context is slightly different and every individual is slightly different, but a good starting point would be to consider how your club’s practice compares to the iCoachKids pledge:

  4. Make it FUN and SAFE
  5. Prioritise the LOVE for sport above LEARNING sport
  6. Focus on FOUNDATIONAL skills
  7. Engage PARENTS positively
  8. Plan PROGRESSIVE programmes
  9. Use different methods to ENHANCE LEARNING
  10. Use COMPETITION in a developmental way

Why not set aside a little time in the coming weeks to find out some more about the various perspectives and experiences, in-session and/or more broadly, of those involved in your club?

In response to need identified within its Covid-19 survey to support clubs, coaches and volunteers to consider ‘how to engage and re-engage children and young people’,  as part of its ‘Supporting Sport to Build Back Better’ programme, Sport NI is rolling-out a people development project entitled ‘The Club Experience’.  This will include support to explore sports club experiences and a new suite of learning modules for clubs, coaches and volunteers.  Watch out for further information on Sport NI social media channels. 

By Simon Toole, Coaching Consultant, Sport Northern Ireland

@CoachingTooleS @SportNINet #SportNILearning

Further information on some of the content and concepts shared above can be found through the following resources:


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