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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.