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The slow death of the sports club volunteer

Two questions about community sport. At what point did we get lost? And why are so many people so consistently grumpy about something that is meant to be fun?

The answer to both questions is the same: this all began when time ran out.

It was at back-to-back soccer club junior prize-givings on Saturday morning that the penny dropped. People are out of time, and participation sport as we know it is buggered.

The message from the soccer club officials was clear. The president is standing down, so too are five of the board. There aren’t enough coaches, and there are sod all volunteers.

The message from the coaches – the brave few who had given up their time to teach kids to kick a ball on a Saturday morning – was a bit more uplifting. Kinda.

Coaching kids was awesome, they all said. And, if they could do it, heck, pretty much anyone could. Because almost none of the coaches who handed out certificates and trophies to their beaming charges had had any previous experience with the game of soccer at all. (One bloke, bless him, who had emigrated from Canada, was an ice hockey player, who confessed to never having encountered the sport in any form prior to picking up a whistle this season).

The people with the sporting knowledge and experience to serve as highly skilled coaches, it seems, have run out of the time and energy. Others spend what little of each they have left moaning about the people who do have a go.

Rome is aflame. And the few remaining hardy souls in the volunteer fire brigade are powerless to halt the blaze.

It’s a sorry state of affairs. And it begs the question – if this is the new norm, where will it lead for Kiwi sport?

Sports bodies are undoubtedly aware of this conundrum. Some sports – here’s looking at you cricket – have moved from imploring coaches to complete at least a basic level of coaching qualification to mandating it.

To coach junior cricket in New Zealand this season, prospective volunteers must complete an online registration process with New Zealand Cricket. By registering, coaches agree to submit themselves to a police check. Few would argue that isn’t a good thing.

But it doesn’t end there. Coaches must then complete a 30-minute vulnerable persons online module; a two-hour online coaching module; and a three-hour club-based practical coaching module. None of that is optional.

For many, this adds to a pre-season volunteer workload that includes recruiting and retaining players, registering players, setting training times, sorting through bags of mouldy gear, and communicating regularly with parents.

All of that is before we can get down to the business of two hours of training sessions and four to five hours of game days a week, followed by 30 minutes of data entry because, thanks to last season’s onerous decree, the full scorecards of all matches must be entered into an online database.

Again, no exceptions.

It seems the best solution cricket has come up with to deal with to a dwindling supply of suitable volunteers is to pile onto the existing few that remain.

Yes, it’s easy to get annoyed with your kids’ sports coaches for not being all that crash-hot. But the reality is that they are just as time-poor, stressed and over-loaded as you are. The only difference between them and you is that they are at least out there having a go. And you’re not.

The solution proposed at the soccer club was to fill the volunteer void with paid positions, which would be funded by increasing fees that are already painfully high compared to rival team ball sports such as rugby and league. That at least gives struggling parents a choice: volunteer time you don’t really have or face being priced out of the sport.

Great.

Let’s not to be too hard on the clubs and the governing bodies here. They’re in a serious bind, and none of their options are appealing.

Whatever flavour the government of the day happens to be, you can guarantee they’ll talk a good game when it comes to the value of sport and recreation. Sadly, precisely nothing has been done about the snowballing collapse of the volunteer system that has underpinned sport in this country from day dot.

Rome is aflame. And the few remaining hardy souls in the volunteer fire brigade are powerless to halt the blaze. Beyond a total restructure of community sport bankrolled by an engaged government, there are no obvious solutions.

Some people will continue to fight the good fight and give up what time they can to help provide sporting opportunities for our kids. Most won’t. Sadly, those who contribute nothing will usually be the ones who are most vocal in their criticism of the way the job is done by others.

Collectively we contribute less these days, but that hasn’t stopped us expecting more.

Yes, it’s easy to get annoyed with your kids’ sports coaches for not being all that crash-hot. But the reality is that they are just as time-poor, stressed and over-loaded as you are. The only difference between them and you is that they are at least out there having a go. And you’re not.

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