Soccer Skills:

The Dilemma of Finding Great Soccer Volunteers

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Stressed Out Volunteer

Last night, I was flabbergasted by an article I read in the New York Times. The article was about parents “pushing back” on the volunteer demands for their time. It struck me because youth soccer around the country is generally a community-based volunteer organization (although some organizations are changing over to professional soccer trainers). The issues underlying the article are age-old, but I was intrigued why was it important enough for the New York Times to write a feature. As well, the story obviously touched a nerve because it’s been one of the most popular stories for two days straight. I wanted to examine the issue and discuss a strategy that fundamentally changes the way in which we find (and retain without burning out) great soccer volunteers.

The Story of the “Handraiser”

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a Handraiser yourself. You’re the active parent who – while sometimes knowing nothing about the tasks, responsibilities or talents required to complete a job – raised your hand and volunteered to do (insert volunteer job here). And, from there, you enjoyed it, found value in giving back to the community and a new network of friends who shared those values.

What happens next?

You become a trusted volunteer with a proven track record to succeed and a willingness to help. The soccer club, which is always “under volunteered”, begins to ask more and more of your time. Suddenly, you go from completing a small project to Snack Bar Manager to Vice President of Administration. Over time, you look around and see the same people again and again doing the work. They’re your fellow “Handraisers” in arms. As you get sucked in further and further while other stand on the sidelines, other aspects of your life begin to suffer and it causes stress. A lack of appreciation, burnout and disillusionment sets in and you decide you have enough.

The volunteer is lost. And, it is a vicious cycle that happens all around the country. The onus is on the leadership of soccer clubs to answer the question: How do we avoid taking our awesome soccer volunteers and burning them out?

The Dilemma

There are two common responses to a volunteer request: “I’m too busy” or “I don’t know anything about soccer.” It’s the easy way out – because we, as Soccer Clubs or Coaches – let it be the easy way out. What if we accepted our players telling us they wouldn’t try a move because they “don’t know it?”

There is a saying I strongly believe in, “How you spend your time is a direct reflection of your values.” The reason I volunteered in my soccer club, with no kids in the program, was the notion of a social compact. We all have a responsibility to use our talents – whatever they may be – to give back to the community and make it a better place. The question becomes, “What legacy will you leave?” And, it is hard to leave a legacy standing silently on the sidelines.

One of the nicest and coolest guys I know runs a major media company in New York. He’s in charge of like a $6 billion dollar business and when I speak with him, I’m never quite sure where he is in the world. Like all of us, he’s short on time. And, with his responsibilities, he’s probably a bit shorter than most. But, he makes the time. In addition to being the President of the media company, he has also served as President of his local soccer club. He told me his tongue-in-cheek response to people in the community who are just too busy to help, “Yeah, I hope I get that big job someday and am too busy to help our kids and volunteer.”

We all have time to volunteer and help in some small way. You don’t have to be the President of the club, but find a way to contribute. This brings us to the second objection from the “know nothings.”

For those parents who “don’t know anything about soccer”, the best part of a community based organization is that there are a million non-soccer roles that need to be filled. We have simply allowed this stock answer to suffice as a cop out. For instance, here is a list of things that volunteers do from the AYSO site:

  • They do what is needed to make the program work.
  • They coach teams and stuff envelopes.
  • They referee games and write checks.
  • They line the field and work in the snack bar.
  • They put up goals and take down nets.
  • They take registrations and raise funds.
  • They bandage knees and schedule games.
  • They put up posters and take pictures.
  • They buy equipment and go to meetings.
  • They call meetings and run computer programs.
  • They make decisions and make a difference.

You’ll notice that most of these roles have nothing to do with knowing anything about soccer. By expanding the realistic scope of the actual needs, we now have found a way where everyone can have a role and contribute.

Not “Can you” but rather “Which one”

If we spread out the workload, so everyone felt like everyone was on the same side pulling the same rope there would be less burnout and resentment. The only way to do that is to change the rules of the game.

If we change the question from “Can you help” to “Which one of these jobs will you do”, we fundamentally change the landscape of the conversation. Ask the question in such a way that there is an expectation of participation. Non-participation is simply not an option. As part of community organizations, the responsibility rests on all shoulders to create a great opportunity for our players. Sometimes parents need to be reminded that this is a soccer club and not a cheap babysitting service. Speaking with volunteers through the years, the hardest step is the first one and the reasons for this are obvious; stepping out of your comfort zone is difficult. But, once involved and engaged, the magic begins to happen. Bonds are formed and camaraderie built. Parents are engaged, feel involved and take ownership of the process.

Simple Next Steps

  1. Make volunteering within the soccer club important. Find a Vice President of Volunteering.
  2. The President and Vice Presidents need to layout all the roles they fulfill where they could use volunteers. Make a long list.
  3. Keep a list at sign ups and ask “Which one of these jobs will you do”. If it is an online registration, don’t allow registration without a volunteer commitment.
  4. The ultimate answer for those who are still “too busy” is an opt-out payment. The threshold is tricky here depending on your club fees, community, etc. But, the fee has to be just enough to inflict some pain and make them think it would be easier to volunteer. The goal is not money, but rather engagement and ownership within the club and the combined effort for everyone to create a great experience.
  5. If a family defaults on their commitment, they have to pay the opt-out payment. Someone else had to do their work.
  6. Consider using a program like BasecampHQ.com to manage the “To Do” lists of commitments within your organization. It’s an easy, awesome project management tool.

The needs within a soccer club are varied and vast. By changing the rules of the game, we can avoid burning out our volunteers and increase engagement within the community.

What other ideas do you have or does your club employ to engage your parents and community to stop the madness where 90% of the families contribute only 10% of the work?

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Jerry Macnamara is "The Coach" and founder at Soccer Classroom. For more than thirty years, Coach has been a player, coach, trainer and administrator. He shares your passion for the game and helping players grow through age appropriate soccer skills and drills. Feel free to contact Coach with questions

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