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Swimmer-Centered Organizations Are Key to Success

Feb 22, 2014  - Suzanne Weckend

The highlight of my swimming career was competing in the 1994 Commonwealth Games and World Aquatic Championships, the same two competitions I competed in for triathlon in 2006 and 2004 respectively. My mixed experiences in sport certainly fueled my passion for becoming involved in sport governance and my engagement in this arena has been similar to my sporting career in many respects.

In 2007 I decided to put my name forward to be considered for the position of Athlete Representative (AR) for Triathlon Canada. I had retired from the triathlon in 2006 and was keen to stay involved and learn about the “behind the scenes” of decision making that had ultimately affected me when I still competed. By acclimation I was chosen to take this position on the board, which meant that no one else, not any recently retired or current national team athlete, was interested in filling a role I viewed as exciting and meaningful. I was a bit disappointed about the lack of competition since I’ve always been highly motivated by it.

Effecting real change at Triathlon Canada

From 2007-2009 I was part of Triathlon Canada Board decision making on selection criteria, carding criteria, high performance training funding, strategic planning and budgets. I learned a lot but was not eligible to continue in the role past 2009. Previously following the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, I had decided to run for the Commonwealth Games Canada position of Athlete Representative (AR), in an election involving three people. I lost to someone who one year later identified that she did not have the time in her schedule to meet the expectations that she placed on herself in the role and therefore decided to step down. Having received the second most votes in the 2006 election I was contacted by the then CEO and asked if I would be interested in joining the board to fulfill the final three years of the term. I welcomed the opportunity and dove right in. I had the multisport organization (MSO) world to begin learning about.

Moving up to Commonwealth Games Canada

In 2007, Commonwealth Games Canada was working on a new strategic plan and quickly went on to set strategic priorities for itself. Being part of this board introduced me to many National Sport Organization (NSO) issues and made me realize very quickly that each sport and the role of AR was quite varied. Some NSOs didn’t have the position of AR but rather had an Athletes Council (AC). A chair of the AC was invited to present reports to the Board and had no voting power on the Board. The fact that a requirement for all NSOs to have a voting AR on their board was not mandated by Sport Canada surprised me.

AthletesCAN, a Sport Canada funded MSO has for years advocated for athlete representation and the benefits of athletes on boards. I quickly realized that the structure within the Triathlon Canada Board was quite progressive and in many ways ahead of its time. I had been a member of the board, the governance committee and the high performance committee and therefore had the opportunity to effect real change.

Is your National Sport Organization Athlete-Centered?

A question any swimmer can ask of her or himself in order to determine if their sport organization is athlete centered is; how much input, either directly and/or indirectly, do I have or do other athletes have into the decisions that affect me? Are there ways for my voice to be heard when things are decided?

The key components for becoming an effective Athlete Representative are:

  • Willingness to learn
  • Willingness to solicit ideas
  • Willingness to listen
  • Strategic thinker
  • Selected by the athletes he/she represents

There are pros and cons of an AR being active or retired and in either case the person’s effectiveness in their role really comes down to the person’s passion for representation and change initiation. Learning the ropes on a board takes time but knowing the issues in your sport and being an effective communicator and strategic thinker is most integral to the role.

Athlete input essential

Between 2008 and 2010 I had the opportunity to be involved in the lead up to the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and discovered what a multi-sport organization (MSO) needs to consider when a games are not being well planned and security alerts are high in the host country. Concern for athlete wellness, comfort and safety was in question leading up to the 2010 Commonwealth Games and it was during that time that I realized how everything really should include athlete input.

Many organizations could benefit from having athletes involved in decision-making and give them a full voting position on their boards. It is my belief that sport organizations that have never engaged athletes in this way fear the impact the athlete might have because of their limited knowledge on the entire system at play. My position is that everyone needs to contribute to the conversation. It is essential that sports organizations create opportunities for dialogue on decision making with an athlete, technical official, coach, para-athlete, men, women, people with business and communications experience, and make sure they’re all passionate about their roles and fully prepared to contribute.

Organizations that I have worked with, who require input from everyone who should be at the table, seem to have the most widely understood and celebrated strategic plans and priorities. Organizations or boards with low levels of accountability, based on my experience, get “behind in the times.” Even more detrimental to future success is a group of decision makers who are misinformed, not prepared for meetings, and don’t have any meaningful ideas for creating positive change.

Stepping onto the international stage

In 2011, Commonwealth Games Canada put me forward to be considered for nomination to the Commonwealth Games Federation Executive Board. I was honored and realized that this role would be one that I could both contribute to and also gain valuable leadership skills. The Commonwealth Games Federation Executive Board (CGF EB) seeks out nominees from the Commonwealth Games Associations and vote on who they want. Athletes do not get a chance to select their AR, which is something that I am working towards changing. Electing your AR is an act of engagement and therefore by athletes selecting their own AR they are providing input. My experience as the CGF AR has been very robust and rewarding. I have learned the culture of the EB, the members from each country and the few ARs that did exist when I started in the role.

Positively, there has been an increase in the number of AR around the Commonwealth over the past two years and now the challenge remains as to how to engage regularly and effectively, especially since we never meet face to face. In leading this group and representing Commonwealth Games Athletes I appreciate that my success in my role is dependent on their success. How do I enable them to be more effective in their roles and how do I ensure their voice is asked for at their respective board meetings? Creating an online community of support, collaboration and sharing is currently high on my list of priorities for the CGF. Managing email lists and all the feedback that I get from ARs when I solicit them for input can, at times, be onerous.

Personal benefits from my experience

Being an athletes representative in both national and international sporting organizations has reinforced to me the importance of systems thinking, i.e. the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. Using systems concepts to interpret my experience of system dynamics and effects in order to guide strategy and practice has been extremely helpful.

Another challenge I face around communication plans with athletes who are spread all over Canada or the Commonwealth is coming to realize how limited email and online resource sharing can be, especially considering that not all have as easy access as I do. I have learned that creating a culture that builds community trust, fosters team development and enables productivity is best done face to face with events such as athlete representation forums or athlete commission meetings.

Find out if your NSO is athlete-centered and whether your voice can be heard. For many swimmers, leadership starts at the local level, so get engaged in your club or university program and take it from there.