Outstanding Off-Field Teams – The Secret of Successful Youth Sports Clubs and Leagues

This article was written by Ruth Nicholson. Ruth is an internationally certified professional facilitator, mediator, and organizational alchemist helping sports organizations better support players and coaches. She is the founder of GO! offering proven governance, leadership, and administrative tools. 

In 2020, Ruth was inducted into the International Association of Facilitators Hall of Fame. She was a co-creator of the international 2019 Think Tank to Improve Youth Sports which engaged over 60 speakers from two dozen sports. In 2018, Ruth was a finalist for the Hudl Innovator of the Year award for youth soccer. Her work has engaged sports enthusiasts in North America, Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America.

3 Critical Elements to a Successful Club

For successful clubs and leagues, three critical elements make or break an organization’s success.

The three secrets to a successful club lie in balance and partnership between

  1. High-quality coaching and coaching support
  2. Effective governance and leadership that provides direction to club programs
  3. Efficient operations that make the best use of staff and volunteers to support players and coaches

The people who serve in these roles make up the “Off-Field” Team.

Here’s a breakdown of each of these 3 critical core competencies.

Quality Coaching and Coaching Support 

Without good coaches, players will have a difficult time developing and improving their skills in their sport. The real secret is that there are two key components of the quality of coaching in a club.

Behind the scenes, there is the coaching support system. This includes the club’s coaching recruitment and retention system, coaching leadership (often in the person of a technical director or coaching director), professional development and coaching education opportunities, and administrative support for coaches at both the club and team levels. The club’s player development philosophy and training curriculum are also a part of this system.

Coaching skills and knowledge about how to work with players tend to receive more attention and scrutiny. One of the most important criteria a player’s family uses for selecting a club is the quality of the coach for whom its child will play. Whether volunteers or paid staff, coaches spend a significant amount of time off the field preparing for training sessions and games, as well as their self-improvement. Much of this effort is invisible to players and their families even though it contributes significantly to the quality of the player experience.


Governance and Leadership

A great many clubs are non-profit organizations led by boards of directors made up of parent volunteers. This means that the leadership of clubs is made up of people who deeply care for the success of the organization (or at least the success of their child athletes). It also provides an ongoing challenge for parents to separate their advocacy for their children from their legal and fiduciary responsibilities to the organization as officers and leaders of the organization.

The most efficient organizations have clear roles and areas of responsibility for their board members. This enables them to focus on organization budgeting and funding, policy development, setting program priorities and direction, and delegating activities and program implementation to others. Clubs may have a mix of professionally paid staff and volunteers (including coaches) to deliver the club’s programs, but board members need to resist the temptation to micro-manage club activities. Engaging a broader spectrum of staff and volunteers not only spreads out the work but also invites more people to become invested in and supportive of the club.

Engaging a broad spectrum of people is also a critical component of attracting club members, engaging sponsors, acquiring grants, and implementing fundraising programs. The leadership of board members is key to making these activities successful. Without adequate funding, the operations of the club are compromised.

The need for good governance and leadership also applies to for-profit clubs, especially those founded by coaches or former players who are experts in their sport. There is a tendency to believe that game knowledge trumps the other types of expertise, including that needed to run an organization. This perspective can lead to serious organizational problems. It is critical that whoever is leading the governance of the organization – an owner or a board of directors – is always aware of how decisions impact and support players first, while also tending to the realities of budget, staffing, and program delivery.


Operations and Administration

Individuals, sponsors, and grant-making organizations will not give money to clubs that do not have their organizational acts together. Although the day-to-day operations of a club can seem mundane, without player registrations, fee collection, field and facility reservations, registration for competitions, and uniform and equipment procurement, no club can provide athletes training and competition opportunities.

Club administrative activities should support players and coaches in a way that aligns with and implements the club mission and strategic plan.

The operations and administrative activities of a club are often overlooked because people believe they are too busy to build or maintain efficient business processes. This can be further complicated by

  • High turnover and burnout rates in volunteers,
  • The concentration of institutional knowledge in only a few people who may leave when their child leaves the club,
  • Lack of understanding of the number and complexity of the jobs needed to run a club, and
  • An assumption that coaches will pick up the slack even when their skills, knowledge, and interests lie with pushing players, not pushing paper.
  • Staffing and the development and maintenance of a good volunteer management program is one of the keys to a successful club. Well-designed and implemented volunteer programs can have participation rates of 85-100% and return rates of over 95%.

What about Parents?

The three components of the Off-Field Team are functional elements. Parents may play a role in one or more of those components as coaches, board members, or in administrative support roles at the team or club levels. The success of a club rests with how well the people in these roles work together to support players.

The Alpha Dog Syndrome and Conflict

Each of the elements of the Off-Field Team has specific responsibilities and expertise needed to support players and coaches. Parents also have specific responsibilities and expertise to add to the mix.

  • Board members and club owners are accountable for the overall legal and financial management of the organization.
  • Coaches are in a position of leadership with their teams and within the club. They are the subject matter experts in the sport with expertise in how to work with and develop players.
  • Operations and administrative staff (including volunteers) manage non-coaching club operations.
  • Parents are responsible for their children/players.

When We Play Out of Position, We Trigger Conflict

The competition belongs on the field between players, not within the Off-Field Team between adult egos and power games. In successful clubs, the members of the Off-Field Team are all respected sports people with different skills, clear roles, and appropriately integrated responsibilities.


Characteristics of Successful Off-Field Teams

  • Understand their club’s mission and player development approach
  • Respect the roles of the three (3) components of the Off-Field Team: Coaching, Governance, and Operations
  • Understand why rules and processes exist and look for ways to streamline them
  • Actively work to communicate and collaborate within the Off-Field Team to support players
  • Remind each other that when they get lost in details, politics, or organizational administrivia, that Compass Point North Always Points to Players.

The Governance and Operations elements exist to support Coaching. Through the Coaching element, they all support Players. The three parts of the Off-Field Team are equal in importance because they play different roles. They need to be in balance with each other for the club to be successful.