Re-imagining Sport

I listened to author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek speak unedited to his team recently and he asked a powerful question: “What will we become?” This question immediately shifts energy, creating an upward spiral of positivity and possibility. It is different to some of the current energy that is being played out by those asking, “What will become of us?” or “What will become of me?”. The latter is passive and creates a downward spiral that often generates anxiety. Can you feel the difference? See what happens when you speak these two questions out loud. Notice what happens in your body as a result. “What could we be” invites us to self-determine our future – and to appreciate more fully that we are actually all in this together. It is empowering; demanding us to sit up straight, tap into our courageous hearts and listen intently to what arises when we allow time and space to guide our response.

It is from this space that I write this blog. And I acknowledge that some of you may feel that it is too soon to be thinking about what our future state could look like. I appreciate what many sport leaders are having to hold in this moment … re-scheduling events; laying off employees; paying bills; re-aligning commitments. Please know that I am deeply respectful of the volatility that sport leaders are having to navigate through while holding the space for what can emerge once a new reality sets in.

For a few years now, and in response to a growing number of sport leaders who were frustrated with the challenges of achieving alignment in their sport, I have been writing about governance gremlins and outdated sport systems and one possible approach inspired by the National Golf Course Owners Association. As I continue to reflect on what might be needed, I was inspired by poet David Whyte’s words “sometimes everything has to be inscribed across the heavens so you can find the one line already written inside of you.”

So here’s my one line … what might be possible for an integrated Canadian Sport system?

The sport community has been talking about being aligned for nearly two decades. The term alignment means ‘to arrange in a straight line; to cooperate; to join others in a cause.’ This noble commitment brushes up against the reality of how sport is structured. Our attempts to align have sometimes created more confusion that at times, have triggered a competition mindset. Put simply, the current governance system that underpins sport is not designed to support our alignment efforts.  So, what might be new language that speaks to our intention? In speaking with sport leaders over the past several months, the word integration surfaced as a ‘means to bring together into a whole; to unite; to meld and become part of the culture.’ When we consider what might be needed in the future for sport, how might systems integration more accurately describe what is needed? How does choosing different language to better reflect what we are longing to become shift our energy and our hope for a different way?

In working with Triathlon Canada over the past few years, we have seen what is possible when a group of committed people acknowledge their blind spots, get curious, and commit to having radically candid conversations. Triathlon leaders were interested in working together on BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals – and kept brushing up against ‘us versus them’ mentality, outdated mindsets, or poor communications. In the end, it took a series of ‘courageous conversations’ inviting leaders to speak truth. The gift of being in conversation (from the Old French word meaning ‘the manner of conducting oneself in the world’), is that you pause long enough to listen, check in on assumptions, see a different perspective, and confirm intention.  The impact has been heart lifting. The collective came together to address one of their wicked problems around lack of role clarity. This led them to create a Roles and Responsibilities Charter that brought much needed clarity to each organization. In so doing, the trust meter nudged up a bit and leaders are now talking about the next big project they can work on together. The mindset that kept them divided, or a fixed mindset, is not the one that is needed to help them re-imagine a future where they are working better, together. The growth mindset as defined by psychologist Carol Dweck requires a spirit of optimism, resilience when facing adversity, a willingness to put in the effort, a nonjudgmental approach, and a desire to see things through. Who better than the Canadian sport sector to rise to the occasion, just as we rose up to bring common sense and compassion when deciding to not participate in the Paralympic and Olympic Games this summer?

In what ways might we use our time together to re-imagine what sport could look like? With so much uncertainty looming for the foreseeable future, how might leaders band together to ask really, really, powerful questions. Some examples might include:

  • With limited resources, a depleting volunteer force, and fresh perspective, what might an integrated sport system look like?
  • When we look at the world’s best organizations and systems, how are they self-organizing?
  • What are the world inspiring, ceiling shattering, jaw dropping imagined futures that are compelling us?
  • What are the shared values that might make this possible?

And what are the risks if we don’t pause to ask ourselves these questions?

The reality is that humans are creatures of habit and will default to what they know and what is comfortable.  But what happens when disaster strikes? Our ability to adapt to the dynamic environment is what makes humans brilliant. Darwin himself recognized that it’s not the strongest that survive but the ones that are most adaptable. In what ways can Canadian sport adapt in response to a sector that was depleted prior to COVID-19? Safe sport issues, an over-burdened workforce, a competition mindset, and ever-changing demands on an already exhausted sector is not the ideal state to return to. What might our new, imagined, preferred future state look like?

What might sport transform into if we paused during COVID-19 to critically examine our governance mindset?  Might we be willing to ‘let go’ of outdated systems and structures and allow ‘new and emerging’ ones to take root? What would need to happen for us to re-imagine sport?

I intend to continue writing blogs, facilitating conversations, providing integral coaching services, and asking powerful questions. My hope is that these intentions continue to serve sport and the leaders we care about. As always, I enjoy hearing from you, so please send me a note at DBL@sportlaw.ca and let me know how this blog made you feel.

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