Being a volunteer is not an excuse...

Imagine if you will…you’re stranded in the cold Irish Sea having been swept out from the shore. You’re frightened and it’s getting dark, but thankfully someone saw what happened and called the RNLI. The crew were rallied and launched their boat and they’re on their way to rescue you. Only when they come alongside, one of the crew shouts ‘sorry mate, it’s too cold out here for me, I’m going back to shore, I’m only a volunteer’

That last comment ‘I’m only a volunteer’ seems to be rolled out as some sort of excuse on an ongoing basis. Not from the RNLI, but from sports coaches. And while sport is not generally a life or death situation, why is it considered acceptable as a reason for not doing your job properly?

Now before I climb on my soapbox, a bit about me. I am a volunteer coach. I have been for over 20 years and have only ever received payment for a handful of coaching sessions. I am a UKCC level 4 coach, a qualification that costs thousands of pounds and which I paid for out of my own pocket. I don’t receive out of pocket expenses for any of my coaching and some seasons have cost me in excess of £5k. Some seasons have seen 75% of my annual leave taken for coaching duties. Some weeks, I have coached in excess of 30 hours a week alongside a full time job. But at no time did I ever feel that I was any ‘less’ of a coach than those who have chosen to pursue it as a paid profession. Nor did I feel that it was acceptable to cut corners in my coaching practice because I was not being paid.

Putting yourself forward as a coach means you are assuming a position of responsibility, authority and the power to make a huge impact on the lives of the participants you work with. That impact can be either positive or negative, depending on how much you are willing to invest in your own personal development.

Conversations often refers to ‘professional’ and ‘volunteer’ coaches. My question is, why would any coach not be a professional, irrelevant of whether they receive payment for their work? And if you are not being paid, if you are not willing to maintain professional standards, then why do you think you should be coaching?

There are plenty of professions where you can volunteer. The lifeguards, police, paramedic, firefighter or coastguard (to name just a few) that come to your rescue could well be a volunteer. But you expect them to have some training (beyond watching Holby City), you expect them to maintain professional standards, and you expect them to understand just how important their job is to you. So within coaching, why do some volunteers not see just how important their job is? Just how significant the role is that they are playing in someone’s life? It is doing yourself a disservice to utter the words ‘I’m only a volunteer’. No you’re not. You’re a coach and you’re in the position you are in because you have worked to become appropriately trained to ensure you are the right person to coach the people standing in front of you, relying on you to help them improve.

I’ve had to encourage athletes to critique my coaching. I have been met with comments such as ‘we feel bad saying anything negative because you give up so much time for us’. My argument back is ‘I may be giving up my time but I want to do my job properly and if I’m not doing something right, I want to know about it’.

One behaviour I have sadly observed in a number of sports is the volunteer coach who uses the fact they are a volunteer as a power trip. Creating the impression that you are untouchable because you are a volunteer does not help anyone. If you think nobody is allowed to critique your coaching because you do it for free, just think about all the learning opportunities you are missing out on!

Of course, ‘I’m only a volunteer’ has a place within coaching language. When parents are pushing for more of your time, or when you’ve had a 12 hour shift at work and your participants turn up late. That’s the time to remind the people on the other side of just what you’re sacrificing to help, and that it deserves respect (as it does when you’re paid as well!). But just giving up your time alone isn’t enough. Giving up your time to do your job (and it is a job, irrespective of the fact you’re not being paid) in a professional manner is what the volunteer coaching workforce deserve the utmost respect for.

Some coaches of our international senior teams are still not paid within certain sports. High performance coaches can be volunteers too. At every level of the coach development pathway, coaches need to maintain standards irrelevant of the money they may or may not be receiving. But as a coach, we have the power to change lives in unimaginable ways. If we don’t do it right, it can be destructive. Equally, it can be a hugely rewarding for both participants and coaches alike.

So while it may not a life or death profession (arguably, it can be for some sports!), the impact you have on the lives of those you have duty of care towards can be life changing. You have the power to build someone’s confidence sky high, and you equally have the power to destroy what little confidence someone may have. So next time you want to use ‘I’m only a volunteer’ think about just how important your job is. Think about whether you are prepared to put yourself in such an important position within your sporting environment.

Done right, volunteering is incredibly rewarding to both you as a coach and for your participants. Done wrong, it can have serious consequences so if you’re not prepared to do it right, it may be time to consider if you should be doing it at all.

Volunteer coaches are often the people who have stepped up to help when nobody else would. A brave and bold thing to do. But stepping up comes with responsibility that few people recognise in the early days. Just as you would expect a surgeon to have more training and knowledge than simply watching a load of medical dramas, coaches need the right mentoring and training to ensure they are supported to do their job well (the subject of a future blog I’m sure!). It is a complex role, but it is such an important one too.

Our sporting success as a nation is built on a solid foundation of volunteers. Keep enjoying it and keep challenging yourself to ensure you are being the best coach you can be. Because when that participant looks to you to be ‘rescued’, you need to have the skills, knowledge and experience to make sure they don’t drown on your watch.