The Last Line of Defense: The Experience of Club Officers and Implications for Risk Management Practices

July 16, 2011

Benjamin B. Stubbs
Assistant Director, Programs
University of Tennessee

It is a beautiful evening on the river. The water is smooth under the rowing shell, the air is crisp, and the white clouds in the sky are starting to turn pink and orange. But Wallace isn’t admiring the sunset. Instead, he cranes his neck to see into the coach’s boat, trying to count the number of personal floatation devices. The other club members listen to the coxswain, focus on their form, and maybe think about how fun it is to row at night. Wallace, a junior in engineering and the Crew Club president, is thinking about safety.

When it comes to the risk associated with sport club activity, student officers are the last line of defense. Recreation managers devise policies that limit the risks inherent in club activity. And yet, club practices, travel, and social activities are often beyond the scrutiny of sport club administrators. Many risk management decisions and responsibilities are left to the student leaders. However, risk management is only one of the many responsibilities of sport club officers. Officers organize practices and events, communicate with members, staff, and other teams, complete paperwork, manage inventories, and more. Each of these responsibilities is influenced by their specific roles as club leaders, and by their attitudes about their club.

Based on an exploratory study carried out at the University of Tennessee, this article describes the experience of club officers and discusses the implications for sport club risk management. (The University of Tennessee has approx. 40 Sport Clubs with 1000 student members)

The Sport Club Officer Experience
Several features of the experience of sport club officers relate to their ability and motivation to engage in effective risk management. Specifically, officers feel pressure to perform, serve as club planners and initiators, emphasize their role as peer leaders, and give value to the social aspect of club involvement.

The Pressures involved in being a Sport Club Officer
Sport club officers feel pressure to perform as club officers. They feel that responsibility for the success or failure of their Club belongs to the student club officers. Most officers verbalize this pressure in terms of specific tasks, such as registering for tournaments or reserving facilities. The desire to provide a quality experience for their members, personal expectations and standards, and the connection to a club’s history and tradition contribute to the pressure club officers feel. Feelings of pressure compel officers to commit significant amounts of time and effort to the needs of their club, and to take on a wide range of roles and responsibilities.

Club Officer as Planner
Club officers are engaged in a never-ending series of plans. Tomorrow’s practice, this weekend’s trip, upcoming maintenance, and unspecified community service plans permeate discussions with coaches, members, and advisors. Emails from officers remind members of weekly practice times, provide directions to game sites, detail the club’s travel itinerary, and solicit requests for tickets to a James Bond movie, all of which required considerable preparation and planning.

Club Officer as Leader
While officers may be younger or less skilled than many of their peers, they are frequently the catalyst for action. Their presence and direction transform individuals into a team. Most members seem happy to follow officers’ direction in this capacity and view their officers as leaders and resources.

Club Officer as Peer
Despite having been elected to their position and their important role in the operation of the club, officers are very conscious of their role as peer- and participant-leaders. Though officers demonstrate leadership in a number of ways they resist the implication that they are in positions of authority over their members. These students truly feel that they are their members’ peers.

Club Officer as Friend — the Social side of Clubs
Officers describe their teammates as friends, and there is ample evidence that they place a high value on the social aspect of their club. Many clubs use pre-event meals and other activities to foster personal interaction, and officers frequently discuss the social dynamics of their club.

The themes presented here represent both opportunities and challenges for sport club administrators. As peer leaders, balancing friendship with authority can be a challenge in itself. Paired with the fact that members leave almost all club decisions to the officers, it is not hard to understand the pressure that officers are under. Risk management decisions often force officers to choose between safety and club activity, e.g. cancelling a trip due to bad weather or going anyway to play a match. Campus recreation professionals should be mindful of the difficult choices that effective risk management demands of sport club officers.

Fortunately, these findings also present opportunities to enhance officers’ motivation and ability to engage in risk management. Students’ feelings of pressure are at least partly derived from their awareness of their place in the club’s legacy. If officers can be convinced that managing risk is paramount to the future of their club, they may be more willing to make unpopular choices. With this in mind, all risk management training should be framed in the context of club stability and security. Also, members seem to defer to officers in all aspects of club activity. Beyond the social liability, officers have the authority and influence to enforce risk management policies and protocols. However, fear of the loss of social status represents a major obstacle, so campus recreation managers should help officers predict and address risk management issues before they affect club activity, and help them develop strategies for articulating the importance of managing club risk.

Sport Clubs represent a major risk management liability for campus recreation departments. Not only are many of the sports featured in these programs inherently more dangerous than other recreation activities, they are also led by volunteer student leaders rather than paid campus recreation employees. Administrators seek to protect the members and the department by creating policies and providing supervision, but many risk management decisions are made, or not made, by officers during travel, social events, and even club practices. As the last line of defense, campus recreation managers need to understand officers’ desire and ability to effectively manage risk. Understanding the pressure that officers feel, their responsibility for club activity, and their sensitivity to the social aspect of club involvement and their role as peer leaders can help sport club professionals devise effective risk management policies and training programs.

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