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Volunteering in sport – the essential but diminishing ingredient.

“Get out” said my mother at her wits end. “Don’t come back till teatime and, you wait till your dad gets in.” Not the most auspicious start to 50 years in volunteering in a sector that has been an integral part of my life ever since. My 17-year-old self had been summarily red carded by The Chief on a Saturday afternoon in August for teasing (tormenting might be a better word) my younger sister and I’d drifted up to Fleetwood rugby club where I’d just played a first season as a colt (U18s). I’d seen a notice in the weekly paper asking for volunteers to help prepare the clubhouse for the new season and at a loose end I drifted up there.

Volunteering in rugby was the common thread for the years I played. Regularly a captain (based on a big mouth, rather than exceptional ability I’d say) and that got me involved in committees – the lifeblood or the bane of sports administration. But, when I got fed up ‘walking’ around bruised and battered every Sunday in ‘post-game recovery’ I took up triathlon – I was as average at that as I was rugby and a cold call with the then CEO, Norman Brook MBE, in 2004 opened the door for me as a volunteer into a blend of voluntary and paid roles in sport. Norman said to me ‘everything is worth the price of a cup of coffee’ and he’s right. If that coffee hadn’t been drunk in the Café Ritazza at Victoria station London I wouldn’t have had the highs, lows, rewards (definitely so much more than the money – this is sport right?), friends and life lessons I’ve had.

For me this isn’t a binary thing; you don’t have a job on the one hand, and you volunteer on the other, for me it became a blended, unique journey. I wouldn’t have filled some roles in my career if I hadn’t built up a pan sport network through volunteering. I worked in financial services for 20 years whilst I worked out what I wanted to be when ‘I grew up’ and insuring the athletes’ ‘union’ the British Athletes Commission (now BEAA) was my passport into high performance sport.

The world though has changed completely since I set out on this journey. In more recent times several aspects have created a perfect storm that have put the sector at risk because with less ability to recruit and retain volunteers in the sport and physical activity sector, I wonder how sustainable it is undermining the contribution it makes to the health and wellbeing of communities and indeed society.

In no particular order of priority some of the key factors affecting this are

  • Lower and diminishing participation numbers in sport and physical activity (often the key recruiting pool for volunteers.)
  • Cost of Living Crisis
  • COVID pandemic and post COVID recovery causing people, especially young people, to reassess how they spend their free / leisure time. Socialising online rather than in person is a real Gen Z characteristic
  • Administrative demands of safeguarding on volunteers. Checks are absolutely necessary – no argument there – but is there the ‘right touch’ regulation in place?
  • The rise and rise of trolls on social media not just targeting ‘celebrities’ but often the Sunday morning referee or the coach of a children’s football team. Volunteering is supposed to help wellbeing by ‘giving back’ not causing increased stress and anxiety
  • Etc. etc.

Although I offer no inspirational answers other than a need for greater collaboration at government, regional and local levels there are perhaps some lessons to be learnt in the attached podcast hosted by Chris Martin and Imo Greatbatch.

And here’s the track that played the day I started my volunteering journey in sport (‘Goodbye to love’ by The Carpenters)



I first met Imo at a UK Sports Institute conference c 2015 on Hinkley Island – living the dream- as the delegates gathered for a pre-conference lunch. We sat at the same table and following the initial introductions it was quickly established that whilst I’d attended Manchester University back in the day, Imo was working in the Athletic Union there at that moment. As a result of this conversation I became the Chair of a multi-faceted panel that put a sustainable structure in place to award sports scholarships to students at undergraduate and post graduate levels. As a volunteer. Serendipitous? By chance? I like to think we sat together for a reason. I was able to give back to my alma mater and realise how proud I was and am of being a student there.

Here is the link to the TeamTalk podcast. Please listen!