Sport Writer and President of BUAC Cool Runnings Timon Burford shares his guide to running a sports club at the University of Birmingham

Student of History, President of BUAC Cool Runnings
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Images by Sophie Peck

This past year, I have had the privilege of leading BUAC Cool Runnings, the university’s participation-orientated athletics club. It is a privilege because I have been able to give back to a group which has given me so much over the previous three years. Being the President of a UB Sport club is a significant responsibility but also a fantastic opportunity.

However, as I have learned from my own experience, it is not always plain sailing. Challenges will come your way but with hard work and resilience, these can be met. While this is by no means a comprehensive guide, if you follow these seven principles you will be on track to succeed.

A president cannot do it alone

As a president, you shape club policy. This gives you significant personal influence, but remember you are also the chair of a committee, filled with individuals who have their own opinions and ideas for the club. Successfully managing a committee is the most important thing you will be required to do. If your committee is not working effectively then neither is the club. The nature of committee elections is such that each position is individually elected –  you have no control over who you will be working with. If you are the president of a large club, like Cool Runnings, there is a good chance you may never have spoken to your new colleagues.

Successfully managing a committee is the most important thing you will be required to do

Building a sense of chemistry and cohesiveness with your team is crucial early on. I would recommend organising a committee social or a low-intensity meeting over the summer to get to know each other a bit better. From my own experience, learning how to successfully delegate tasks is the cornerstone of good committee management. It is impossible to organise and micromanage everything at your club. As such, you must invest a high degree of trust within your committee. From the get-go, identify the talents and capabilities of your committee members and consider how these can be best utilised to serve the club.

All about the admin

General administration, replying to enquiries, writing emails, filling out paperwork. These are not exactly the most thrilling responsibilities of being a president, but ones that must be fulfilled with care and due diligence. In many ways, these tasks form the bread and butter of the role, at times seeming draining and repetitive. However, as the face of the organisation and often the first point of contact for prospective members, it is a responsibility that you cannot shy away from. My best recommendation would be to prepare a set of pre-written replies to frequently asked questions to save yourself time when responding to club enquiries. Additionally, you may feel it necessary to set up a separate social media account specifically for the role of President. This can help negate your personal accounts from being inundated with questions.

Plan for Freshers’ Week

You can never plan enough for Freshers’ Week. Freshers’ should be a culmination of a whole summer of preparation as you must account for every likelihood. To best set yourself up for this week of madness, get things such as the club conference and risk assessment complete well before the academic year begins. Have a clear timetable of the sessions and socials you plan to host, but do not overextend yourself. If you are hosting trials or taster sessions, expect high demand and come to a conclusion on how many people you can safely accommodate at a session. This was a notable failure of mine. At Cool Runnings’ opening 5k event this year, we had 120 people take part with only myself and two other committee members present to organise the session and ensure social distancing. We ultimately avoided any accidents or reputational damage, but it was a situation that easily could have gone horribly wrong.

You can never plan enough for Freshers’ Week

The sports fair is another intense moment of Freshers Week. As long as you are prepared to answer questions and have a clear understanding of your club’s identity it should go off without a hitch. Remember though, it is a team effort. The sports fair is hosted over an entire day so rotate shifts among committee members.

It’s the member’s club, not just yours

After being elected President, you will most likely go through a transition period during which your predecessor advises you on how to perform the role. One of the pieces of advice which the outgoing Cool Runnings President gave me deserves retelling here: ‘Remember that the club was here before you and will be here after you. When making decisions always ask yourself the question, how does this benefit the club?’ This advice particularly resonated with me and I believe it perfectly encapsulates the role of the president. You are first and foremost the caretaker of the club entrusted with looking after a much-loved organisation, and have a duty to serve the interest of its members. Rest assured, you still have the ability to leave your mark on the club, but always take the time to consider whether your ideas and values match up with those of the general membership.

You don’t have to be the best at your sport

I could just be covering my own shortcomings here (the less said about my 10k times the better) but I think it is fair advice to share. As a president, you are elected principally because your members believe you are the best candidate to run the club. It should not be a role awarded merely to the club’s best athlete, nor should it be a popularity contest. Presidents must always give their all at training, inspire others to excel, and lead by example. However, this does not mean that you should feel inadequate if your own ability does not match up with others at the club. Neither should you feel at all afraid in asking for performance advice from your members.

You should not feel inadequate if your own ability does not match up with others at the club

Adaptability is key

During the pandemic, I feel like we have become more adaptable. If my time as a president has taught me anything, it is to focus on the here and now. By all means, have ambitious plans for your club, but recognise that unforeseen, uncontrollable circumstances will require a far more pragmatic approach. It is during these moments of change and uncertainty that your credentials as a president are put to the test. When facing imminent challenges, never implement drastic decisions alone. Always consult your committee and if possible gauge the opinion of the general membership.

Get good at time management

Being the head of a sports club will take up considerable personal time; to thrive in the role you must be able to work efficiently. This is a hard thing to provide any robust advice on. It is really up to you how you manage your time and how much of it you want to dedicate to the club. If you are studying a degree with high contact hours or in your final year, setting aside two to three hours a week to work on the club can be the best way to optimise your time.

It is really up to you how you manage your time

Lastly, it is worth reminding yourself that it is a voluntary role – no one expects you to do the work of a paid professional. Always prioritise your mental well-being and degree. Most importantly, be honest with your committee. If you are struggling to fulfil your obligations, they are there to help you too.

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