This week, I spoke with the Hampshire FA’s Football Development Manager, Chris Smith. In this interview, Chris touches on the importance of volunteering towards leveraging your sports career, the critical values to practice for a successful profession in sport and the benefits of working in a small-scale environment.
Q1) Chris, thank you so much for joining Ash’s Sports Talk today. Can you tell the readers how your career in sport began?
I did a degree at Chichester University in sports science, which I was interested in when I came out of college. Despite there not being a massive connection between my degree and what I do as a job, it gave me a sports degree and transferable skills.
Coming out of University, I tried to get a job working for County FA’s as I was keen to explore what they did. I also had an interest in becoming a coach, I applied for multiple development based roles, but I found myself getting the inevitable response of not having enough experience, a situation most graduates find themselves in.
For a while, I found myself working IT, which did help me develop my technological skills in a business environment. After this, I took a career break for a bit and decided to go travelling to South America for six months. While in South America, I did some community coaching with a top-level club in Ecuador, which was very different from the top division in England; however, it was a fun and exciting experience. Coaching in South America opened my eyes to what Football is used for across the continent, at the time, it helped me stand out from the crowd, and it motivated me to get into Football.
I returned motivated to start my coaching badges and started enrolling onto coaching courses. Funnily enough, one day I got a phone call from a lady who currently works at the Hampshire FA mentioning a space had opened on a course which I was interested in. I remember saying that I was available, which I think she was quite shocked at considering the short notice. On that call, we got chatting about me being eager to work in Football, and she happened to mention a job role they had open, which I sent my CV over for. I got offered an interview the next day. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the part, but they saw my enthusiasm and decided to open a part-time development administrator role for me. It was only part time but thankfully I had supportive parents and it provided me with a foot in the door.
That’s where it started for me, and it came from applying myself to anything available. In six months a full-time football development officer role came up, which I received, and it’s led me to become the Hampshire FA’s Football Development Manager.
Q2) Throughout your sports career journey, how important was your University degree? What did it teach you about the bigger picture of sport and what skills did it provide you?
Throughout my degree, there was no sport development modules or degree for that matter. It wasn’t a field people were aware of; it was only a couple of years old at that point where County FA’s begun creating departments for those roles. A lot of people that study sport at University go in with the mindset of working in an academy. However, the avenues you could go through were limited. Now, the accessibility and routes to pursuing a career in sports development have opened up massively, ever since Universities have been made aware of it.
In terms of general skills, I have to write reports regularly for The FA, Hampshire FA’s board and external funders. At Uni, writing reports and applying critical thinking stood me in good stead to take on this responsibility at the Hampshire FA. Also having a hypothesis you’re going to test, such as running, monitoring and evaluating a program and using the results to inform future delivery comes from my University experience. Even working in IT helped me to this day, working in a project planning environment has enhanced me organising certain phone lines being installed into our offices and assisting others in getting set up from working at home.
You’re learning all the time. In the last five years, we started talking about customers rather than players and coaches. Football has evolved from the ‘they’ll come to us’ mentality to ‘how do we make the process as easy as possible for someone to engage in our sport’. This is where any experience you get can be utilised to help you deliver in a facility, the broader the understanding, the better.
Understanding how you connect the dots is critical. It’s not enough to just have a sports degree, think bigger about how your experiences make you the best person for the role. I’ve also learnt about the importance of volunteering; it helps hugely to fill in knowledge gaps.
Q3) What message do you have for sports enthusiasts that can raise the awareness of the benefits behind volunteering, despite it involving the individual giving up their time for free?
You can’t underestimate it. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, because I still place a lot of value on obtaining a degree. Like I mentioned in the previous question, the importance of skills you pick up in an environment are vital for moving forward. Volunteering should be approached with a long-term mindset, such as,” I may not be earning anything now, but I will gain invaluable skills which will stand me in excellent stead for my future career”.
It’s a chance to go through the process of understanding what skills you need to get your dream job and turning them into your strengths. Once you’re in that process, you can close the gaps between your current experience and the experience required to achieve a role in this industry. I appreciate its hard while you’re at University, particularly in your final year but its also essential to make sure you’re ready to get your foot in the door. This is what I emphasise to the football studies students now when I attend Universities on behalf of the Hampshire FA; I make them aware that sport for development is a viable career path to work in Football that you might not have considered. By the County FA collaborating with the University, we provide opportunities to gain experience in year one and year two, that will help students stand out from the crowd. This works well as if we advertise a job opportunity tomorrow; we’ll probably get 40 applicants from former Solent students.
Due to COVID19, volunteering is going to become even more critical because there’s going to be less professional staff across sport, due to funding cuts. County FA’s will need to put themselves into a strategic position to influence as many people as possible to volunteer. Hampshire FA will need to encourage clubs to continue delivering sessions that specialise in areas which volunteers usually fill in the gaps for. Therefore, without volunteers, it would detrimentally impact the delivery clubs are producing on a grassroots level and beyond.
From a broader perspective, volunteers bring an element of enthusiasm, expertise and passion that is hard to find elsewhere.
Q4) While progressing your way up the football industry ladder, what values have been instrumental to your career development?
For me, ownership, practising a positive outlook, and problem-solving are key within my Football Development Manager role. These are what I pride above other values, but I appreciate you need a mixture. As a team, the Hampshire FA will sit down around the table and discuss what our culture is and whether we want to tweak things. Taking accountability for the successes and challenges of an organisation is also imperative. There are all sorts of elements that need to be built around strategies, such as planning effectively, utilising your time to understand when you could draw in other people and the importance of working in partnerships.
The core of everything sits with the mindset, not to be fazed by challenges and obstacles. Instead, start thinking about how you can work around them. Understanding when to stop is a very reputable skill, having the bravery to say I can’t overcome an issue on your own take’s guts. However, if I were asked this question in an interview, I’d probably answer leadership to be the essential value. I’d say I’m a believer in leadership over management, despite there being connections between the two. I always look to understand how I can delegate power across my team, rather than telling people what to do, I prefer to allow others to generate solutions themselves. I’m always open to helping other people around me improve and develop themselves, which they can only benefit from in the long run.
These values do vary for different roles. If I had to pick three of the most instrumental values, I’d go with appreciating the bigger picture to have enough knowledge to shape and bring things together. However, sharing responsibility across your team and trusting those individuals to do their part is essential for career development. But then ultimately, practising a culture where a problem is viewed as a challenge to overcome will serve you well.
Q5) The great thing about leadership within small-scale environments is you find yourself close to critical decisions being made. Has this experience benefitted you well at The Hampshire FA?
Yes, I am someone that responds well to that. This refers back to what I said earlier about having an understanding of what you want to develop and the organisation you work within, match the two together and find the opportunity. If you can’t find that opportunity to stretch beyond your means, it may be okay as you could have enough on your plate as it is, but after a while, you are going to get bored, therefore, don’t get too comfortable.
At Hampshire FA, we are a relatively small organisation so the hierarchy is very accessible; we’re able to communicate upwards. However, before COVID we were growing, we’re now split across three sites, and we’ve got double the staff we had 18 months ago. This means we have had to adapt our communication pathways and make sure they’re feasible, which was a positive learning process.
I would only ever want to work in an organisation like the Hampshire FA; this is perhaps where IT didn’t work for me. IT was a closed environment, I’d come in, answer phones all day, process several emails, and that’s me done. I didn’t have the power to reflect on a project and produce ideas on how we can do things differently, hence why I love my work at the Hampshire FA.
At Hampshire, I can shake things around; which is what we try to embed with our involvement with Solent University students. For example, we would look to give students the autonomy to shape their projects, and most have responded to that positively. Some have found it daunting as they feel like they don’t have enough experience. We then identified students look to us to make those decisions, which was a learning curve.
Q6) If there is such a thing, what does your role as a football development manager look like? Plus, how does your position contribute to the bigger picture of The Hampshire FA?
My role is incredibly different than usual at the moment. I’m a strategic lead and have a role in leading my team which includes ensuring we have the right people in place, we get the freedom to decide that for ourselves with the funding, we receive from The FA for hitting specific KPIs and we get allocated some programmes, for example Charter Standard and Wildcats, that we have to deliver. It’s my job to have oversight on our budget, what resources are available, who’s best fitted to manage a programme and, then to review each progress against the National Game Strategy. To achieve our KPIs, we must delegate the right responsibilities to the right people based on their skill sets, expertise and ambitions. That’s the starting point of my role.
The next part is to look at the planning process. Ensuring there’s collaboration across the board, for example, confirming that our disability football development officer is connecting with our women and girls officer when it comes to delivering a disability wildcats session. Essentially, I’m fostering a culture for our football development officers to make sure it happens without me needing to prompt them. However, I also have a line management element to my role by facilitating 1-1 support with my colleagues to ensure they can do the best job possible. I contribute to the bigger picture by fostering good ideas, from using my experience within the industry to help devise tactics and strategies to achieve our KPIs. This is all a part of the planning process.
I must understand the bigger picture of where we are being effective in terms of where our KPIs are connecting well on a national level. If programs aren’t working, I need to feedback on my team’s behalf to influence change. I also answer to several national managers who specialise in certain areas, eg. Coach Education or League and Club Development. As you can tell, I’m a Jack of all Trades!
Q7) While serving The Hampshire FA for nearly 14 years, what have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced that have developed your mindset in the football industry?
It’s been challenging to change the perception of what a County FA is. Unfortunately, those that know we exist often do so for the wrong reasons. E.g. receiving a letter about a player needing to pay a fine for a booking, disciplinary hearings, etc. We need these regulations in place to ensure the game is administered but, we want people to recognise County FA’s as organisations which stand for positively influencing members of the community through Football. We’re getting better at showing how a County FA can support your local community members, however there’s still a way to go.
Football will always be on a pedestal, considering the fluidity of its landscape. Therefore, adapting to changing priorities has been a challenge not only regionally, but nationally. A prominent example is the Black Lives Matter movement; this has proven we have to change and find the right way to lead by example. Also, with COVID-19, we’re aware we don’t have expertise available to us as we’re not medical experts, but we’re held responsible as we are disseminating the information provided by The FA and DCMS which is a challenge. Therefore, we have to process information quickly, learn as we go and consult with experts where we can.
Overall, the biggest challenge falls into creating a perception of what a County FA is and to keep ourselves relevant, so people listen and value us as experts in our field.
Q8) Football is always working to make the game more inclusive to a broader market. Could you share some examples where the Hampshire FA have engaged an underrepresented target group through the sport?
We’ve had some significant successes, but there are some elements of inclusion which Football hasn’t impacted on yet. The growth of the women’s game has been excellent, not only on the pitch but from a local perspective, we’ve witnessed an increase in more female coaches, administrators and referees. FA research has shown that although some young girls are comfortable playing in mixed teams some aren’t so it has been important to provide the 5-11 age group with a female only, relaxed environment to start playing through Wildcats. This has been a great foundation for development in competitive girls football but girls can move into this when and if they are ready to do so.
We’ve had success with coach development too. Our introduction to level 1 coaching sessions gave female coaches the opportunity to find out more and dispel some reservations they might have which has acted as a stepping stone to get into coaching courses. These female coaches that are delivering sessions to locals in the community become role models for the next generation.
The refereeing side of things has taken a step forward as well. We applied similar principles to coach development, holding a welcoming workshop to break down any barriers and then the next step was to progress them to obtaining qualifications to referee.
There’s been lots of development with disability participation. We’ve collaborated with the Saints foundation to create the county’s first PAN disability league which has filled a real void and it’s been delightful to see it grow into building a prosperous community.
Q9) Final question, what is your essential sports industry guidance for an enthusiast wanting to break into sport?
Value self-reflection. Line yourself up to what you want to do now and long-term, and identify the gaps in knowledge, think about utilising opportunities to volunteer, which will help connect the dots. Think outside the box, for example, how can I build up additional skills outside of the office. Focus on understanding the process behind things, for example, how a County FA operates, the procedures football clubs take before and after match days etc. Lastly, always think about what you can do to stand out.
Incredible, this was a phenomenal discussion with Chris that has taught me many lessons to take my sports career ambitions to the next level. The most important learning I’ve taken away is the definition of leadership; it doesn’t have to just exist at the upper-echelon of an organisation, it can be something that’s embedded across every individual at a company. Plus, in the football industry, it’s continuously developing which means you can never be a ‘know it al’, instead, remain eager to learn and nothing can stand in your way to turn your sports industry dream into a reality.