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Sports and Service: Engaging Volunteers for Community Partnerships

18 Jun, 2015

By: Kait Mitchell

Being an international athlete adds up. Calculate the numerous hours spent in the weight room pressing dumbbells. Tally the substantial amount of sprints from baseline to baseline. Subtract excuses. Multiply the intense practices for upcoming tremendous global events. It’s an equation that inspires as well as exhausts.

You’d think that this equation wouldn’t leave any room for one more factor, but it does: giving back to the local community. The members of the U.S. Women’s National Field Hockey Team are constantly on the go to continually improve themselves as individuals as well as a team. And they’ve made the incredible progress in terms of the latter: moving themselves from the rank of 12th in the world to 5th.

That’s an amazing accomplishment – but for us, an equally admirable part of these athletes’ accomplishments is what they’ve managed to do as individuals: find the time to have one more important addition to the equation – supporting their local community. The national team has woven the importance of giving back into their culture by volunteering at events and with organizations in the local Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area. (The organization is headquartered in Colorado Springs, by the way; however, the U.S. Women’s National Training Center for field hockey is in Lancaster County).

Just about every organization – a sports team or a convention and visitors’ bureau or a sports commission – knows the importance of having a strong, committed group of volunteers. Volunteers are the engine that helps make events happen. They add energy, enthusiasm, dedication and a sense of personality to the project. They can serve in a variety of roles and help out in ways organizers sometimes don’t have time to think about.

But as anyone who has worked with volunteers can tell you, getting people to move outside of their daily routines in order to chip in and give time isn’t easy. Time (like money) is always in short supply, and it’s an incredibly valuable commodity.  As a result, people are more concerned about giving up time than they ever were before. Our athletes are no exception. Throughout the year, they are striving for competitive excellence in Olympic, Pan American Games, World Cup and other international competitions. That means they’re training hard and making all kinds of sacrifices along the way.

Everyone who wants to get a good group of volunteers is, in a sense, competing with those individuals’ other commitments. However, certain things can help make it work – and work well. Here is what we, at USA Field Hockey, have learned:

Have the right group with an interest in volunteerism: The members of the Women’s National Team are big ambassadors of being out and being present in our community. It’s something they are really passionate about, and they really have a great ethos about giving back. Even though their schedules are filled, they willingly reach out and give a helping hand. They do a variety of activities (to be discussed in a minute) but the common thread is that they all believe so strongly in the power of giving back. They find joy and reward in it, and people can see that.

Success depends on having the right partner – we are fortunate to have that in our team. If you have a group of people who have the mindset of generosity and a sense of responsibility to the world around them, you are on your way to having a great core group of volunteers. Every community or event has a core group of individuals, whether they are athletes or simply civic-minded community members, who are willing to give back; you just have to find them.

Volunteers can be found throughout the community – in schools, clubs, churches, neighborhood associations, companies, senior centers – in fact, many CVBs and sports commissions have a pre-existing list of volunteers they can call on when assistance is needed putting on events. That may be one service they offer to event owners or rights-holders who are bringing a tournament to their town. Be sure to ask about it.

Volunteers can come in any and all demographics. The U.S. Women’s National Team is in the age range of 19 to 30 years, but willing volunteers of any age can be found. It’s just a matter of having the people who are interested in helping out. (And by the way, the U.S. Women’s National Team isn’t the only group within our organization interested in volunteer activities; our men’s team also has invested in community outreach, and there are people across the Olympic organization who are very generous with their efforts and their energy as well).

Find a leader: One member of our team really took the lead on organizing a lot of the community service activities. She turned out to be our volunteer leader, and the one person whom groups in the community would contact when they had a need. For example, this team member was the point person who got the call when someone from Pediatric Specialty Care in Lancaster said their patients could use a pick-me-up. She immediately set about putting that in motion. Very quickly, she was able to organize volunteers to come in, visit with patients and make smiles and memories happen.

There is usually a person on every team, or in every community, or even within every event, who has the right personality and the right organizational skills, to serve as the team leader. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the team captain or a person with a high rank; it just has to be the person who is approachable, who is volunteer-oriented and who has the can-do attitude. That person will be the right contact for that event.

Find an activity that resonates with your volunteers:  Something that is essential to the success of any volunteer effort is finding the right events. There are a lot of worthy causes, but it is important to find the ones that mean something to volunteers. Our U.S. Women’s National Team is very organized in their picking and choosing when it comes to the events that they support. They really look for organizations that resonate with them.

In May, our group did a project with the Lancaster Girls on the Run Annual 5K event. Girls on the Run is a non-profit group that, among other things, uses running to inspire and motivate girls, as well as to encourage lifelong health and fitness, and to build self-confidence. Obviously, being active is a cause that is really important to our team, and they love the idea of encouraging others, particularly young girls in the community, to be active and healthy as well.

Our team members came up with their own stretching regimen and on race day, they helped lead a warm-up for the girls who were running. In addition, some of our athletes were buddied up with runners, and ran beside them, encouraging and coaching them all the way. Still other team members were positioned in the designated “Happy Zones” throughout the race, cheering on the Girls on the Run participants and everyone else. It was a team effort and everyone had a good time.

Different activities will appeal to different people. It’s important to find out what people want to do. In our case, some women wanted to lead stretching, others wanted to be run coaches and still others wanted to be on the sidelines in the Happy Zone, cheering on the runners. Find the right thing for each person, and you’ll have a satisfied group of volunteers. Satisfied volunteers will come back and give of their time and energy again.

Look for a variety of activities, but remember people have their own priorities as well: Team USA does their homework and likes to come up with a number of activities and then get approval from the coaching staff. Obviously, our team is very focused on their training – they have to leave time and energy for two massive events this summer, and both are Olympic qualifying opportunities. Those five infamous rings are what drive our team, of course, and we have to keep that as their priority at all times.

In every organization across the board, you’ll find people have priorities – home and family, school and work, making volunteerism difficult to fit into their schedules. What you want to do is give people the opportunity to volunteer, not the requirement to do so. We are fortunate to have team members who are willing to reach out and give a helping hand. It’s so easy for anyone – whether or not they are international athletes – to get into their own ‘me’ mode. When you find the people who are willing to give to a greater cause, you want to make sure they stay interested. Avoid burnout by allowing them to choose what they can do, when they can do it.

The first thing to look at is the level of commitment people are willing to make. Some people can be involved in ongoing projects, and some are able to donate a day, or even just an hour or two. We realize that, and so we try to give people opportunities for volunteer work in varying commitments as it suits their abilities. For example, some members of Team USA were able spend a few hours at a time hosting a booth at the annual Lancaster Open Streets Event. That event was a project to bring the community together and create excitement around active lifestyles. It offered a way to support local businesses, provide a space for safe and comfortable exercise and a chance for community members to experience the City of Lancaster in a new and unique way.

Another one-day event for us was attending the annual Lancaster Special Olympics Family Picnic. Our team members were able to demonstrate exhibition play for all attendees – with the added bonus of getting the team involved in something they love to do – plus it is yet another activity that promoted physical fitness.

“We are really enthused to be part of all these great events happening in Lancaster,” said Rachel Dawson, U.S. Women’s National Team member. “There is such joy and purpose in this community. It’s inspiring."

Volunteering is something that people tend to enjoy doing, and tend to find rewarding. The trick is helping to match up the right people with the right volunteer activities, at the activity level that suits them. And when you have the right people, with the right mindset, you have a great start. At USA Field Hockey, we’re privileged to have a group of individuals who are all on the same page. We see such a purpose in what our U.S. Women’s National Team is doing, which is helping others, and helping inspire them. Inspiring others to be active is something we take very seriously. Our hope is that others will see the example our team sets, and find their own way to be active and to give back.

“Our team embraces the opportunity to be a part of it, to engage others in our journey while simultaneously giving back to those who make it possible,” said Dawson. “Who doesn’t love being a part of a process way bigger than themselves? In the end isn’t that what being on a team is all about? It’s fun.”

About the Author

Kait Mitchell

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