Part 9 – The Club (And What Isn’t)

I

Not the Club

Lacrosse in Ontario can be broken down into several organizational pieces, from the OLA to the Zones to leagues, the clubs, to teams, members, players, etc.  While there may seem to be a sort of hierarchical logic to how it is organized, all is not as it appears.

A minor association president told me once that “the OLA governs us.”  If you have been reading along over the past year, you will see how prevalent that attitude really is, but no more so than at the OLA board of governor level itself, including Zone directors.  They believe they are the stewards of the game, charged with setting the direction of lacrosse, of rule-setting, of discipline and big money, they have the power.  These beliefs have been carefully cultivated over a long time, but as beliefs go, it is more of a myth.  (How this mythos came about in the OLA could be the fascinating subject of a historical study one day, but insight can be had with Lacrosse: A History of the Game by Donald Fisher.  Thistles History of Lacrosse by Paul Whiteside is also a good source.)

The point here is that the most important and key organizational component of the OLA is the member club – major, senior or junior team, a minor association, field team, etc.  It is the club around which all stakeholders gather whether that means players, fans, officers, volunteers, etc.  No other organization has the long-term staying influence on the game in their area as the club.  The further you go up that hierarchical organization, the less influence there is and there are good reasons for this.  For example, the OLA simply cannot field the amount of volunteers required to run local lacrosse programming across the province.

Certainly the representatives of the OLA wield some sway at the CLA level, but that influence mainly pertains to national events, like 3championships, just as the OLA oversees provincial championships.  There is very little impact at the local or regional level by the OLA.  If the OLA ceased operations, clubs would still exists and there would still be inter-club competition; if the clubs ceased to exist, there would be no OLA.

The OLA is actually an aggregate of its member organizations, which elect a board to oversee their functions, and includes the hiring of a few employees for operational purposes.  It is this aggregation that is at the heart of the OLA’s narcissistic perception of itself: member clubs come and go, but the provincial association has endured, therefore the staying power is with the provincial association; this requires fealty to the people who run it; everyone else is out.  This is the orthodoxy.

It is easy to see how this view is perpetuated by people that wish to extend their volunteer experience into the ranks of those who administer the provincial association.  A person of a certain type will ‘graduate’ from the club to ‘ascend’ to a position within the OLA, usually at the lower rungs of the Zone, but then possibly to ‘power’ within the OLA Board of Directors or organizers.  And I say “person of a certain type” for a reason: simply, that person must adhere to the orthodox beliefs regardless of their misgivings about them.  Don’t get me wrong, I have met people with a deep knowledge and passion for the game, but as soon as their ambitions lead them outside of the club, compromises must be made.  Those that don’t compromise aren’t around for very long.

There are also others who are willing to compromise their beliefs, not necessarily to comply with any abstract orthodoxy, but more for the extension of that volunteer experience, for the feelings of importance that comes with a position of responsibility, or in order to influence or manipulate others for the sake of some personal need or desire.  Despite the overwhelming numbers of very good volunteers in the OLA, there are those that are gaming the system for their own personal benefit.  (I am sure at this point that if you haven’t met such persons, you have most likely read about them.  It’s true, they exist.)

This willingness to compromise, for whatever reason, in order to administer the sport at the provincial level is the weakest link in the chain because it introduces the idea that integrity is secondary to other considerations.  When the consideration is based on a personal need or desire, conflicts inevitably arise lowering the efficiency and effectiveness of the association overall.  This loss of fidelity costs in time, money, and resources.  The costs – whatever they may be – are always downloaded to the participants in one way or another.

You merely need to scan over the list of OLA operating policies to get an idea of what sort of ‘other considerations’ may require (or have already required) a course correction.  Coupled with the concern that OLA administrators may not have the willingness to apply those policies to themselves, you might be able to see how vulnerable such an organization can be.  This is why the OLA can never be greater than the sum of its members.  The idea that it is somehow greater than its membership is a delusion that weakens the organization further.

The OLA is not a club and never can be; it is important to keep this in mind.

II

The Club

When you get right down to it, organized lacrosse happens mostly at the club level in Ontario.  Sure there is lacrosse in the schools, and some excellent competition at the high school level, but by and large, whether OLA-affiliated or not, it’s the club around which lacrosse runs in a particular region, city or town.

It is true that the OLA can never be more than the sum of its parts, but is this also true with the club?  One of the things that a club possesses that the OLA does not, is a much greater measure of ‘team spirit’ and this is very important in one’s perspective of what the club is, what it means, and how it should operate.  (Compared to the grassroots activity that goes on at the club level, the OLA is more like a bureaucracy.)

This team spirit tempers all activity at the club level.  In fact, if your club isn’t the best damned lacrosse club in the entire province, if not the entire country, I would question your dedication to its causes.  However, such a question isn’t the worst thing that could happen since modern life often consists of a series shifts and changes with loyalties and priorities, especially with work, occupations, interests, and so on.  Who can be blamed for not being the biggest club booster all the time?  The devil is in the details.

While team spirit can lead to team cohesion, also a much sought-after condition for boards of directors as much as rep and house league teams, there will all be varying degrees of what people get out of the club.  This means that the club is created by an association of individuals who may not always be on the same page with respect to life experience, expectations, sociability and so on.  It is the club that binds them and even though the idea of ‘the club’ may be somewhat out of fashion in some circles, it is still a powerful platform for local lacrosse promotion and activities.

The first sign of trouble with the club is often trouble with club’s team spirit.  It’s the sign behind the waning interest and participation in club activities, the lack of enthusiasm, the tedium and, eventually, the in-fighting and nasty social politics.  Once team spirit is pushed out the only thing that remains is narrow self-interest that eventually changes to something else besides lacrosse, leaving the club in a lurch from which it may not recover.

The second sign of trouble is the lack of a ‘big picture’ perspective, which includes the long-term view, expansion of sustainable programming, workable ideas, etc.  I’ll be frank here, and this is nothing new so it shouldn’t be a big surprise to you: if you have volunteers, whether they are helpers, convenors or board members, who are mostly of the narrow, self-interested view, there are going to be problems with the club because this me-first attitude will inevitably contradict team spirit.  How so?  How many parents have bailed on a club because their kid was cut from the team or the parent wasn’t chosen as the coach?

It would be unrealistic to expect that every club volunteer be completely altruistic and selfless to the nth degree and I don’t think anyone ever expects that. However, the club should give every interested person the opportunity to develop a genuine sense of that team spirit where what they do is ultimately for the greater good.  But you cannot give away what you do not possess, and phoney platitudes are a poor substitute for a durable, long-term vision.

This all leads to the club as an organization and what that actually means to its members.  In a way, we have come full-circle now, from the experience the club provided to the father and son and what it ultimately meant to them.  Is the club truly something more than the sum of its parts, or is it some abstraction represented by only a few overly ambitious and overly zealous volunteers?

What the club means to a club member, or to the player and their family, is ultimately key in establishing the club as the primary source for local lacrosse development including increasing the membership and community outreach efforts.  In their best and most noble voice, everyone says, ‘growing the game.’ Is that what the experience of the father and son was all about – growing the game?  Both gave a considerable amount of time and energy to their club, an unspoken oath of loyalty, they sunk their own resources to make their club better, and this is how the club re-pays them?  Who on earth would anyone want to be a part of something like that?

I am not trying to be too specific here, the father and son I have told you about, could be any parent/child in any club across the entire country; I suspect it is not as rare an occurrence as one may think.  If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone – and that includes you – for any reason under the sun.  And if it continues to happen, ‘growing the game’ eventually transforms into yet another phoney platitude repeated ad nauseam that no one really believes.  And we all lose.

It would be true to say that the ethical principles of an organization are reflected in their rules – the bylaws, the regulations, policies and so on, but a greater measure of how important these principles are to an organization is determined by how those rules are administered.  That is, you can have all the best and most important rules in the world, but if they are not enforced, are enforced inconsistently, are manipulated to harm others, or apply to some, but not others, the organization is in big trouble.

At the club level, the mishandling of the basic ethical principles can have devastating effect including the loss of volunteers and a rapid decrease in membership.  People talk; and with the wide menu of youth sports available, they talk with their feet.  It doesn’t matter how many innovative programs you can come up with, if people hear the club mistreats its members, they will stay away.

The inevitable conclusion to this, of course, leads us to one of the most basic principles we know: treat others as you wish to be treated.  This directly refers to the concept of fairness.  If you have the best damned lacrosse club in the world, it had better treat its members fairly, without prejudice, and as unbiased as possible.  This suggests also, that the people administering those rules have to possess the maturity to competently understand them.  If their personality is such that they cannot do this, perhaps another position is in order, one that cannot affect the club’s reputation in such a negative way.

Once the club has established itself as a worthy thing to a solid core of members who believe that club  principles are important enough to uphold, the final step is to take that vision out into the community and sell it to others.  There is no way around this step. Believing that community engagement is a secondary consideration or that online registration and social media are the final answer will have dire consequences.

An electronic presence is important, don’t get me wrong, but it is in no way a substitute for getting out to the rinks in the winter, the malls, the neighbourhood parks, and anywhere else sporting people may gather.  The ‘build it, they will come’ attitude is deadly for a lacrosse clubs unless that club is designed for, or resigned to, keeping things small scale and low key.  Keeping it all a secret isn’t growing the game in my opinion.

As the single most important entity in the growth of lacrosse, the club must get out to promote the game; to the community, to each new generation, to each new member of the community who may have never heard of lacrosse, and to renew that love of the game to previous participants who left.  All the OLAs in the world cannot do what the local club can.

The one thing that must be made clear, in public as much as in private, is that the club comes first, and by that I mean the integrity of the membership as a whole.  It’s true, you cannot please all of the people all of the time, and some members will become jaded, but by and large if the membership believes the club is there for them, will support them and their children, will protect them and, above all, do the right thing, they will stay.

Not only will they stay, but they will help make the club better.