With the Commonwealth Games finishing recently and the athletes returning home from Australia to more normal lives, I thought I’d focus this blog post on sport. In particular, on hockey and its relationship with the wider world and the working lives of the members of the national team. Those who know me will have heard me talk about hockey, every so often. It is a sport that has played a key part in my growth through child, teen and adult life so far.
In my second year at uni I was very fortunate to be nominated by my Bath University hockey coach for a Great Britain Development Squad trial. I got through the various early stages and found myself selected for a place in the final squad. The programme ran from February to August 2017. When I agreed that I’d start my undergraduate placement at the Welsh Government (WG) in July 2017 I wondered how I’d be able to manage both the hockey and my new work commitments. This blog post will focus on the extent to which high level sport and full-time jobs can work together and the policies that might facilitate this.
Luckily, in July lots of the development training camps were at the weekends, so I didn’t have to worry about taking time off work. However, there were several tours in the schedule that would clash with work. When I arrived at the Welsh Government I checked the special leave policy for taking time off for international sporting commitments. The policy outlined that there are only two circumstances where special leave with pay was granted. The first was if you were representing WG or participating in individual or team Civil Service sports championships and qualifying events. The second was for participation in international sports events such as the Olympics and Commonwealth games.
I was somewhat surprised by this policy. Firstly, who knew there were Civil Service sports championships?! Secondly, you’re only granted paid leave for participating in international events? The policy does not mention paid leave for training for these events. I wonder how many athletes are able to attend the Olympics without training within work hours?
Helpfully, I wasn’t selected for any of the summer tournaments, so it wasn’t as much of a problem as I’d first thought (not bitter…I really enjoy my work in the WG). But if I had been selected, I would have had to either use my annual leave or ask to take unpaid leave.
I think employers should be encouraging people to participate in non-professional sports such as hockey. The current policy would only work, 1) if employees have the financial stability and line manager support to be able to take unpaid leave; 2) if employees use their annual leave and have no time for holidays; 3) or if training is re-organised to be outside working hours. All these scenarios suggest that this current policy is not inclusive or supportive of elite athletes.
Perhaps if I had been selected for the tournaments, I would have been able to have a chat with someone from HR and they would have found a way to be supportive. And compared to other organisations, I’m sure the Welsh Government would have been even more helpful and understanding, as generally they have very flexible working practices. However, on paper, the policy looks constraining rather than enabling. I wonder what the circumstances are like at other organisations. Please comment on this Blog if you relevant information or experiences to share.
I believe organisations should recognise the difficulty of competing in a sport that is not professional and has little money available to fund and sponsor athletes. The employers should be supportive towards people who are trying to juggle the two roles as there are benefits to employers too. Staff retention; staff engagement, reduced staff sickness; all staff wellbeing, recruitment and positive role models, as well as an organisation’s marketing and reputation might all be improved by having nationally known elite athletes on the staff.
A consequence of non-supportive sports leave policies is people have to choose between sport and work. If developing athletes want to take their sporting career seriously, they often sacrifice their working career. Some are prepared and able to do this and others aren’t. I also wonder whether if it were easier for the two to work together, the national standard of non-professional sports would increase? I’m sure there are some incredibly talented athletes who are unable to excel in their chosen sport due to clashes with work commitments or because they are unable to maintain an adequate lifestyle. If policies were created to be more cooperative towards sports development, maybe the pool of athletes in contention for the top spots would increase.
Another consequence is that the individuals who make the top spots have similar characteristics. Individuals either need to be able to support themselves financially, have a strong support network around them, or be so driven that nothing will stand in their way. This limits the diversity of the top athletes and creates a specific and limited range of role models for future athletes that reinforce these characteristics.
Being such a passionate hockey player, I think these restrictions to the sport effect me deeply. In my opinion, team sports are extremely beneficial to people in every walk of life for multiple reasons and any restrictions that get in the way of any person competing at their highest level frustrate me. However, I understand that in elite sport there are numerous barriers that athletes face and just focussing on employment leave policies is not completing the whole picture.
If I were Welsh would it have been easier to receive paid leave to represent my country…