Clare Barrell is UK Sport’s Senior International Relations Advisor, driving the mission to ensure the UK has a strong, respected and supportive voice in international sport. With over ten years of experience working in international sport development and international relations, Clare’s leadership, management and passion for promoting the positive values of sport in the sector has been integral to where she is today. This interview sees Clare discuss where her career began; the power that volunteering has and her advice for the next generation pursuing a career in the sports industry.
Q1) Clare, it’s great to have you on Ash’s Sports Talk. Would you mind sharing how your sports career began?
Thanks for having me, Ash! On reflection, it started as a 5-year-old, insisting I join my brother playing mini’s rugby and having a taste for the sport, the mud and running with the ‘boys’ every week. Rugby has been a bit of a golden thread throughout my life, but back to that later.
I studied Politics and International Relations at Manchester University and had a series of volunteer sport roles on the side. As an undergrad, I worked with a peer to initiate and deliver an outreach programme in South Africa; a sport coaching intervention with the charity SOS Children’s Villages. This laid the foundation of a deep admiration for and interest in sub-Saharan Africa and the power of sport, and one that I have been fortunate to harness in my career.
After working for the Sports Unions for both Manchester and Sheffield Universities, I knew I wanted to combine my degree and my belief in sport as a tool for good, but I didn’t know how. I sought a meeting with UK Sport’s International Development team as it was then, and the advice was clear ‘if you want to ‘do’ this work, and be credible, you should go and do it.’ She advised me of a post part-funded by UK Sport and the Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO), and I knew this was the path for me. I rejected the traditional postgraduate route, applied, and after a rigorous selection process was accepted to a two year posting in South Africa as a Team Leader for NGO ‘Score International.’
Q2) I can see many of your career appointments have been volunteer orientated, particularly at the University of Manchester, VSO and SCORE International. How important have you found these positions to promote more volunteers in sport, and could you share how vital volunteers are in the industry?
You are right, my early roles all involved working directly with volunteers, and then taking a leap of faith as a Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) volunteer working to support other volunteers from all over the world. Volunteers are so often the backbone and lifeblood of sport. Finding ways to attract, train and retain volunteers, with incentives that recognise, and the reward was a consistent theme in all these roles.
It was SCORE that truly opened my eyes to the importance of volunteers in communities; it was (and still is) volunteers that are so crucial to SCORE working towards its vision ‘to change lives and build stronger communities through sport.’ Without the network of volunteers, my job to deliver programmes would have been impossible. The generosity of community volunteers I met in SCORE provided me with an entry point, a safety net, an education and the skills and tools I needed to navigate through some of the most violent, dangerous and impoverished communities in South Africa. I remain in awe of those volunteers and inspired by their unwavering commitment in humanity that meant they would not let the negative legacy of apartheid South Africa prevent the drive for better.
I do not wish to over romanticise here! Volunteers need support, recognition, training and rewards, and they come in all different packages, shapes and sizes, but with the right backing do genuinely magical things.
Q3) Your current role at UK Sport looks fantastic. Can you explain more about what it entails and what your position looks like day-to-day if there’s such thing?
Pre-Covid there were a lot more airports and passport stamps involved! As the Senior International Relations Advisor it is true that no two days or weeks are the same….
Still, an average week will include the following components: a phone call with a CEO or Chair of a UK NGB to discuss an emerging international issue in their sport and to provide advice, a project meeting to lead the development of an International Partnerships Programme (IPP) initiative, involving international stakeholders (different time zones!) and strategic partners; conversations around how to enhance the UK’s voice and impact internationally in targeted policy areas, team and line report check-ins, overseeing our team strategy development process, delivering webinars for the UK network of international sport representatives on issues of topical interest, engagement in cross-business programmes .. and managing around a three-year-old!
Q4) I see you’ve been in your current post for nearly two years now and you progressed from a non-senior role. What did you find the critical values were to advance your career to the next level at UK Sport?
I joined UK Sport on a part term maternity cover. I had the interview on a mobile phone from a broken down car in South Africa, and I only saw the advert because a colleague put it under my nose, so to reflect on nearly ten years is interesting! I have always cultivated and maintained an active and live network across sport, international sport and sport for development and sought ways to add value to our team and broader UK Sport by feeding in wider trends and considering ways we can innovate. I think an ability to focus on both the task and the team and to maintain and generate high team aspirations is something I have always tried to bring. High levels of cultural and emotional intelligence are the backbone of our International Relations work and crucial to getting work done.
Q5) It’s clear you’ve had a successful sports career that has undoubtedly consisted of hard-work, determination and commitment. However, what have you found the most challenging about working in sport and how have these challenges moulded you into a more resilient asset?
I’m not sure what one thing I find most challenging, but I like to challenge, and I like to challenge the status quo, but as this is International Relations, the crucial part is to do it in the right way. I have been confronted with many scenarios in international sport whereby it’s ‘just the way it has always been done. I seek first to understand (gather as many facts, opinions and different viewpoints as possible) and then I have learned to use collaboration, partnership building and influencing to work to do things better. An example; in international sport governance we have a considerable challenge linked to the lack of women in decision making positions, working with global partners to find solutions to addressing this gives me a tremendous amount of satisfaction and the motivation and resilience to advocate for what is right, even when it may be unpopular.
Q6) Clare, reflecting on your career thus far, what is your killer piece of advice for the next generation to pursue a career in sport?
Shake off that imposter syndrome, know that growth comes with operating outside your comfort zone, self-reflect, be willing to do the hard work, understand where you can genuinely add value and find a way to get there. Don’t forget to respect and value all those you meet along the way.
Wow, what an interview by Clare! There’s so much to learn from her roller-coaster of a journey. She embraced challenge regardless of how big or small it was, valued every individual despite their level in the hierarchy and reminds us of the impact sport has to impact and change lives.