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  • Marc Iturriaga

Don't Forget to add Belonging to your Sport & Recreation Re-Opening Strategies

Updated: Sep 3


First and foremost, let's celebrate and acknowledge the research, planning and innovation that sport and recreation leaders have engaged in to ensure that people have a safe environment to come back to. This includes utilizing new technologies, new cleaning & health procedures, changing spaces, new program delivery and updated training & new roles for staff. They are prioritizing Risk Management and Health & Safety to ensure that return to play doesn't mean a quick return to quarantine and shutdown. Though the outcomes of these strategies are for people to be safe, they focus on space, place, and procedure.


What does it mean to focus on BELONGING in our re-opening strategies?


Creating sense of belonging - where people feel invited, welcome and included in our recreation centres - was challenging before the pandemic. Add temperature gauge sensors and questionnaires at check-in gates, Plexiglas dividers at customer service, new participant expectations and staff in masks and you have the makings of an apocalyptic summer blockbuster! It may not seem so challenging as the first wave of members, who are eager to get back to their regular fitness routine, rush back and take it all in stride. Many will not return right away, willing to wait and see the outcome of the current "back to play" strategy. Even more may feel intimidated and excluded due to the numerous more rules and restrictions imposed. So how do we help navigate the new normal with a focus of belonging?


The Invitation

Let's examine how sport and recreation is inviting participants back into their spaces and programs? I have seen a lot of warm messages on social media inviting people back with words of inspiration, sentiments of "We missed you" and encouraging messages of getting back to normal. These are quickly followed up by shopping lists of new rules, guidelines, policies and sign up procedures that may require a lawyer to sift through. I understand the need for risk management and safety, but the jump from motivation to restrictions doesn't inspire a sense of belonging. Let us be mindful of a few things:


Answer some basic questions: Can I use the change room? Bathroom? Do I need to wear a mask or gloves? What programs or services are open in your facility? Will I have to line up and wait? Who can I work out with? Why can I use fitness equipment but can't play basketball? Think of your participant and member basic needs first before you get into the nitty gritty of rules and procedures.


Provide opportunity for personal interactions: Signage and lists of changes are all well and good, but you need to provide an opportunity to talk to live people. Your members have been missing that personal interaction with your facility and staff, so don't only direct them to posted information. Put extra emphasis on ways to connect to your staff such as phone, email and social media where they can have a personal interaction to ask questions, voice concerns, and understand the why and how of the new changes.


Show them the changes: A virtual tour of the facility, changes made in procedure, and greetings from staff will help participants ease some fears and questions before they even arrive and help them decide if it is right for them to return at this time. Walk them through what they can expect to see when they first arrive, show them where equipment has changed, and again address some of the basic needs and questions.


Welcoming with Empathy

People are now taking the courageous steps to venture out into the world and participate in what you have to offer. Whether they are returning members or new patrons, how they are welcomed into your facility and programs will be critical to the retention of these people. They will have a lot of questions, varying expectations, and multiple needs that need to be addressed. It will be critical for your staff to take an empathetic approach to all they do.


Staffing Roles: Now more than ever you need to focus on staffing roles that help facilitate and navigate the experience for your patrons. Just as in the invitation, you will have people with a lot of questions. Make sure that you have the staff to properly spend time with each patron to ensure they feel comfortable and knowledgeable about the new expectations and protocols. This not only includes at customer service but in each area of activity. Have staff float among the facility with "Ask Me" tags looking for confused faces to help alleviate stress. Provide small orientations or tours that demonstrate new procedures or equipment locations. Create areas for questions and one-on-one engagement separate from regular area as to not congest areas where knowledgeable members just want to get to their activity.


Facilitation not Enforcement: Approach concerns, questions and issues with empathy not confrontation. Practice patience - though you may be answering the same question for the 100th time today, it is still the first time for the patron. You will have patrons who will question decisions and regulations, so be sure to stress the WHY changes are in place and be empathetic to their frustrations and challenges.



Include Everyone

Have you looked at changes through the lens of those with varying needs? What challenges might someone with hearing concerns have in speaking with a staff wearing a mask? If you have added specific sign up times for equipment, have you accounted for those who may need more time or space to accommodate their needs? How will you address and meet the needs of those patrons who are not coming back because their activity of choice is not in the current phase of planning?


As exciting it is to re-open our facilities and programs, if we do not take into consideration the WHY of what we do - which is essentially a healthier and active PEOPLE - we will quickly find out that all the risk management and safety protocols will have been for naught if the people do not feel like they belong.





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