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What can youth sports teach us about employee experience?

Updated: Jul 14, 2022

Why is it important to create a sense of community in your organisation and what does it look like? I explore my experience in youth sports to navigate the complex emotions your disengaged employees may be feeling, and explain what creates a successful community, the thing I secretly wish my coaches had done, and how you can apply this to create a better sense of community in your organisation.



Me Freshman vs. Junior year of tennis

When I was in highschool I played a lot of sports, but my main two were field hockey and tennis. I look back at both sports with fondness (yes I know it’s only been five years let me be dramatic), but I can tell you right now there’s a difference in the loyalty I feel to both teams. When I went back home for the first time in years after the pandemic, I made it a point to see my tennis coach. If he texted me asking me to swim across an ocean to do something for Souhegan girl’s tennis my first question would be “how fast?”. In fact, I proactively text him to see if there’s anything he needs help with. In contrast, my field hockey coach was in the same building as me when I went to visit my old highschool. She'd just been promoted to Athletic Director and is an amazing woman, but I didn’t even try to see her. If she asked me to do something for Souhegan field hockey, I would be happy to do it, but I wouldn’t seek out the opportunity to.


At Sympa’s Future in HR event last week I listened to Annette Andrews verbally paint a picture of the potential and current challenges in the workplace. I can tell you what it was like being in that room. It seemed like every few minutes either Annette or someone else in the room would make a comment that made me think wow that was f***ing smart. I wish I could tell you about all of them, but I’m going to focus on what stood out to me the most, which was the idea of creating a successful community in the workplace. Coming back to my experience playing field hockey and tennis, I’m going to explain what created the difference in the loyalty and altruism I feel to the groups they led, why I feel like one gave so much more to me than the other and what can you take away from this to improve your organisation’s community to inspire contribution in the moment, and after people leave.


I’ll start by giving some context on how sports teams work in an American highschool. Highschool has four grades. There are The Freshman (14 years old, Sophomores (15 years old), Juniors (16 years old) and Seniors (17 years old). The way sports worked was that in highschool there were two or three teams for each sport. There was varsity, which had the ‘best’ players and went on to compete for state champions. Varsity typically had mostly juniors and seniors. Then there was the Junior Varsity (JV) team, consisting of a mix of Sophomores, Juniors and Freshman. Finally, there was a Third Team if a sport was large enough. This team had all freshmen, unless you were perceived to be a bad player or new to the sport. The goal of a school team is the same as any team. The goal is to win. The difference in a school sports programme in my small community was that all teams had a primary purpose to develop social bonds and resilience in kids to create better adjusted individuals. The balance of the two shifts as you move to better teams, but JV and the third teams were less competitive by nature and focused on development and social bonds.


Freshman year, I played on the ‘lowest’ team for both sports. It was my first year playing tennis, and my second year playing field hockey. I felt I developed well in both sports my freshman year. I remember thinking it would be nice to be on a better team so I could be friends with the cool older girls, but I was happy enough to be where I was. After all, my actual friends were on the same teams I was. I got a lot of playing time from my coach on the third team in field hockey. I worked a lot on my running over the summer after doing track and field the spring before, and was conditioned well to play entire games. For tennis, my coach let us play as much as we wanted, and invested in us even though we couldn’t hit a tennis ball even if you told us we’d get to kiss Harry Styles. I loved playing and getting better in both sports, and at the end of both seasons, I felt more confident and invested coming out of the other end.


Me and the field hockey girls at Junior prom

Sophomore year is where my commitment to these communities changed. I remember going to all the summer practices for field hockey. I went to almost all the workouts too and I played well in the summer and gained a lot of confidence. At tryouts, I started off the week well, but throughout tryouts I kept getting put into worse and worse ‘mock’ teams. I got in my head. It killed my confidence and I felt like they were looking for reasons to fail me. When I got my letter for field hockey that year- I was devastated to be put on the third team. By the end of the week I was playing badly, but I had put in so much work over the summer and I felt none of it had been recognised, and honestly, It really hurt because I just wanted to make JV so I could be with my friends. The difficult part for me was the explanation I received wasn’t that I was bad, but that since one of my best friends was new to the sport (and also a Sophomore) that they thought we should be on the team together. I got where they were coming from, but I felt so rejected. Which when you’re 15, makes you cry for two days at your cousin’s house face down in pints of Ben and Jerry’s. I swallowed my pride and didn’t quit the sport and was even made captain of the third team, but it felt like it was a pity position. That was a hard season for me even though I made new friends and know I benefited from staying. It may sound silly, but I still tear up to this day when I think about getting that letter.


Tennis was a different story. It’s important for me to mention that my house burned down right before tennis this year (and I mean burned. My mom and I called it the pit). I actually made varsity my Sophomore year along with three other girls in my grade. I remember that year I couldn’t afford my uniform. Someone paid for it. To this day I still don’t know who, but I have my suspicions and to whoever it was- I am so thankful. After feeling the rejection from field hockey, a lot of my confidence came from the opportunities I got playing tennis, and I loved playing with my friends every day. I was shocked by the fire, and I felt insecure every day, but tennis was a place I knew I could get away from it all and have fun. My summers and my winters changed from being times where I improved on field hockey, to seasons where I improved on tennis. I still played some field hockey in summer, and wanted to do well enough to not get cut, but I didn’t have any confidence I was good at field hockey anymore and I didn’t feel like playing more often made me any better.


Senior year field hockey

By senior year I was on Varsity for both sports (everyone made it senior year), but on the field hockey team I was more of a glorified cheerleader than anything else. I don’t even think I played more than five minutes most games (in all fairness, I was a sub in for an amazing player), and I didn’t blame anyone, but I didn’t contribute meaningfully to our games in any way. I understood my role. I didn’t play well. I was out of field hockey shape and had no confidence when I played because I felt like I was expected to not be good. Maybe it was all in my head, but if you take a hail Mary shot and it goes in, you’re a superstar. The same idea works in reverse too. If you’re too afraid to take a shot in the first place, you’ll be someone who never gets any goals. When I played after Sophomore year, I played scared which is the same thing as playing badly. The world doesn’t reward the journey. Reward from the journey comes from small progress only you can feel. The world only rewards results. In field hockey, I gave up, and I didn’t give any good results after Sophomore year.


Tennis was a different story, I was seeded number five and a team captain. I wasn’t the best player on the team, but I had a lot of fun and felt like I was contributing to the team. I was more consistent, more confident and always felt like my coaches believed in me each match. Part of this was probably because they had to if they wanted me to win, but it made a world of difference that they did. I practised more because I loved not only the sport but the team. To this day I will always think of the tennis court as one of the first places that made me believe in myself.


Senior year tennis

So how does this relate to effective communities, specifically the ones within modern organisations?


Successful communities reap the benefits of active members who are engaged, feel like they belong and contribute meaningfully. The basis of this is a shared sense of community which is defined by membership, influence, fulfilment of needs, and emotional connection. Strong communities also have shared purpose, high levels of psychological safety, richness of communication and leaders with high levels of empathy and reciprocity.


All elements that create a sense of community can be thought of as four pillars holding up a roof. If any one of them falls, the roof comes down too. In my case, the pillar that fell in field hockey was my fulfilment of needs, which is defined as a requirement for quality of life and social well-being, when I didn’t progress to the next team with my friends. From there, my goals became misaligned and I no longer cared about winning in field hockey. I was just there to make friends because I felt I couldn’t meaningfully contribute. The tennis team, on the other hand, had all of these things for me. I was a top player by senior year, but I didn’t start out as one. In tennis, I felt a direct correlation between what I gave and what I got. There are a lot of other factors at play here, and I’m sure a girl on the tennis team had a similar experience to what I had on the field hockey team, but the reason I told these two stories is because there’s a lesson here you can take and apply to your organisation’s communities.


Senior year I probably took a spot on the team that a really good underclassman could’ve had instead which would’ve helped the team the next year. I’m sure there are people on your team who are the corporate equivalent to who I was on the field hockey team. Have you ever asked them for feedback? It’s shown to be most effective to change behaviour at early intervention, but I was thinking about what would’ve made a difference to me and what stood out to me was communication. After I was put on the third team, the topic of disappointment and steps to improve were never brought up again, even though I know on both sides we had things to say. One thing my tennis coach has always did was ask me what I thought and how I was doing.


I know there are reasons leaders make decisions they make. People only have so much time or money or whatever else to give to others. I understood the concept then and I still feel compassion towards people who have to make tough choices. At a junior sports level, I probably wasn’t worth the time and investment to coach because I’d given up, but applied to a professional setting, if you’re paying someone to do the minimum you have the chance to make it better. I know most of you reading this will have feedback policies implemented in the workplace, but it's worth you assessing whether the questions cover the areas necessary to paint a picture on a sense of community. I hope knowing what the components are can help you ask questions to find out what pillar your community can build better to keep people engaged and to keep engaged people coming back. Even if the underperforming employees your leaders are talking to have set beliefs, it’s worth knowing some of the missteps your organisation has had in creating a sense of community so you can intervene for the next one.


I can only scratch the surface of what I’ve learned about communities in a blog post, but if you liked reading this, I’d love to talk more about communities in the workplace and learn from your experience.


You can email me now at laura.gainor@blackbridge.co.uk or message me on Linkedin, and stay tuned for next week where I’ll be exploring how you can use memory design to encourage community in hybrid workplaces.



Sources



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