This is my son, who's just about to graduate with an engineering degree, possibly kicking his first soccer ball (black and white for effect, not out of necessity).

Soccer has been a part of my family’s life since my kids were little wee ones. I’ve used soccer analogies many times to try and explain an idea to people in a way that is non-threatening and easily identifiable. So, it’s probably no surprise that when I was searching for a way to express my frustration about something this week, I eventually came back to “the beautiful game.”

Back when I could still look down and see my two children (a day that has long since past) smiling back up at me in their tiny soccer cleats and jersey, I was heavily involved in my community’s local soccer association. I served as loyal soccer mom, team manager, coach, trip organizer and eventually, was inspired to become a player myself (although I gave up that up and went back to being a faithful fan). The majority of my volunteer hours were as a team manager and this is where I learned a few things about communication.

My soccer team management began before people widely used email. Our only way of communicating with the parents of our little soccer tots was by telephone. As team manager, I would type up schedules and revise those schedules multiple times, printing them  and handing them out at games. There was a lot of follow-up via telephone to remind parents about time and field changes, who was responsible for the oranges and advising on where to pick up the cheapest shin pads. As a volunteer, I put in countless, exhausting hours chasing people around via phone trying to communicate with them about their children’s soccer involvement.

When email came along, I was jubilant and wanted to jump right in immediately and start using it. I looked forward to the way this new tool would make my job of communicating easier. I am an early adopter, so I’m usually the first to jump in with these things. The only trouble is that often I jump in and look around to discover that no one else is with me.

Dealing with email resistance

This is my son leading the what we used to call the "beehive" of soccer players (proud soccer moms everywhere are treasuring a similar photo).

So, this is what happened over the course of several years as I tried to get my team’s parents to sign on to email so that my job as a volunteer team manager would be easier, thereby making their child’s soccer experience more fulfilling. There is nothing more disappointing to a little soccer player than missing the phone call about a time or field change for a game. But there were many excuses as to why parents did not want to get an email address at home. Some parents told me they couldn’t afford a computer. This was always a tough one and I would often wonder why they couldn’t afford a computer and yet, they had a television. But that was just my bias against TV.

Other parents had computers but used email only for business reasons and didn’t want personal email. They told me that if they create an email account for themselves, they will receive too many junk email messages and they didn’t want to spend time reading these useless time-wasting emails. They’d much rather be sitting in front of the television, I guess. I told them about junk mail filters and got only blank stares.

Talk to the hand: I won’t make it easy for you!

As time went on, and pressure to get email increased, we started to get closer to the root of the issue. Parents would tell me they didn’t know how to use email and didn’t want to learn it. This was usually followed by some verbal foot-stomping “and you can’t MAKE me.” I would sigh and agree. No, I couldn’t make them–at least, not yet. Meanwhile, I continued to collect email addresses from the parents of players who were not as stubborn and for a while, I had to spend more time contacting half the parents using email and half the parents over the telephone. I’m sure you can imagine which method was quicker and more efficient and which parents were more “on the ball” about what was happening with their child’s team. Telephone calls were made, messages left and repeat calls were made when calls weren’t returned. I developed a real dislike for the telephone as my success rate in communicating was quite low.

Finally, the day did come when our community soccer association began mandating that all communication (unless you applied for a special exception, which no one did) would occur via email. Volunteers across the association were elated. Their job became that much easier and communication reached more parents via email than it had ever via telephone. Email also shifted responsibility back to the parent. With the telephone, parents would often say that they didn’t receive the message and coaches and team managers would be blamed. Email changed all that. It was the beginning of a shift, whereby you were responsible for checking your email messages and keeping up to date. This was a pretty significant shift in our understanding about communication. We were no longer merely passive receivers of communication, but actively involved in seeking out information that was shared with us.

Email brought a new attitude toward communication--responsibility for checking messages meant parents had to step up.

I think it’s worth pointing out that the most basic, face-to-face communication continued pretty much as it always had, although many parents expressed fear that things would become less “humanized.” There was grumbling and stories of email abuse circulated around, but were largely unsubstantiated or disappeared over time.

Shut down abuse by taking action

In all of my years of soccer (about 15 in total), I think I only ever saw one abuse of an email list–in this case, to promote a homophobic point of view. I was the first parent to reply via email to that person, shutting them done immediately and letting them know that they had abused the email list. They quietly faded and the soccer association never had a problem with them again. There are always going to be some folks who don’t understand the appropriate use of a communication tool–but the vast majority are respectful.

Now, I don’t think any community sports association could imagine functioning effectively without email. But, as a soccer volunteer in the trenches trying to bring email communication to the organization all those years ago, I remember how difficult it was to convince people that this new tool was good for communication purposes.

Fast-forward to today

My kids are in university and I’m an (almost) “empty nester” involved in many causes and activities requiring communication. That’s probably no surprise, given that I am a professional communicator!

Also not surprising is that I find myself “back to the future” in terms of convincing people about new communication tools like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter available to move organizations and individuals forward. One organization I worked for resisted it because they felt it too time consuming and thought it was a wasted effort, questioning the ROI and demanding hard numbers. One colleague of mine in the not-for-profit sector summed it up nicely when he said, “no one asks for the ROI on your office telephone, do they?”

Another organization is simply annoyed that they would all have to get involved and learn how to use this new tool. Learning new things is so tedious isn’t it? Well, get over it. You are not going to win large numbers of people over to your cause, if you don’t engage with them in the way that so many others are already doing. You’re going to have to eventually do it anyway (unless you want to become completely isolated). Why not make life a little easier for everyone else by not being stubborn? If your cause is truly worthy, then you need to use social media to spread the word about it without being a “snob” about it. I’ve said this before about Facebook, whether you like it or not, there it is.

Opting out won’t make it better

This is my daughter, chasing her dad, the soccer coach, across the field before she was even old enough to play officially. She didn't want to get left behind either.

Some individuals I know, including dear friends (I love you, still) are resisting using new tools on “principle.” They are concerned about abuses they’ve heard about and say they fear that they are somehow endorsing those abuses by joining in the conversation. If people are abusing the communication tool, then it’s up to you to get on there and speak up about those abuses. Without joining the debate, you can’t possibly change the things that are wrong. By getting involved, we can make things better.

Finally, there is no cost involved in social media so it is the ultimate democratization of communication. Other than your internet connection, which the majority of you already have, social media is available for free–which is its ultimate power.

Soccer is a sport with very little equipment. The costs to become involved are minimal, which is one big reason why the game is so popular globally. Let’s bring some of that soccer spirit to your communication and not get left out of the social media game.

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