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The Story of British Canoeing’s Transformational Journey

British Canoeing’s achievements in transforming its culture and embedding a new award-winning educational philosophy were recognised when it was named Coaching Culture Organisation of the Year at the 2018 UK Coaching Awards. Blake Richardson examines the development of the governing body’s four-year strategic plan, which was born after extensive consultation with its members

  • Our case study includes pivotal points from the consultation stages, development of an organisational strategy, through to the design and implementation of a learner-centred, non-linear coaching pathway.
  • Implementing the root and branch reforms may have felt like a white-knuckle ride at times for CEO David Joy and Head of Coaching and Qualifications Lee Pooley, but they have come to appreciate the truth in the adage ‘the bigger the challenge, the greater the reward’.

British Canoeing has a lot to shout about. Since 2016 the governing body has been on an adrenaline-fuelled adventure, comparable to the rush experienced by those paddlers who have hurtled down the white-water course at the National Water Sports Centre at Holme Pierrepont – British Canoeing’s HQ.

When it embarked on a UK-wide, year-long consultation in 2016 to discover what the members thought about the organisation, it surely could not have anticipated the large-scale and far-reaching ramifications.

The information provided in the feedback would be used to inform The Strategic Plan for British Canoeing (2017-21), Stronger Together.

The review included an appraisal of all coaching qualifications and the coaching pathway and coincided with the arrival of CEO David Joy in February 2016 and Head of Coaching and Qualifications Lee Pooley in July.

Talk about baptisms of fire!

Thousands of members shared their ideas and frustrations at 14 workshops held around the UK and via two electronic consultations. Many of the gripes were painful to hear and read, but the criticisms were taken on the chin and the suggestions fully absorbed. The conclusion: root and branch reform was urgently required.

“We learned masses,” says David, “not least that there was dissatisfaction with some aspects of the coach education and coach development offer.

Our coaching system was broken and the organisation was not in great shape. That’s what the coaches and coach educators were telling us. And the statistics too.”

In terms of the wider organisational culture, Lee adds: “It was eye-opening in terms of what changes needed to be made. The community had lost confidence in the organisation.”

Redesign and rebuild

Some of the concerns raised by members during the consultation stage included that:

  • the coaching scheme was too expensive
  • there was a lack of educated coaches
  • there was a lack of support for coaches
  • the qualification scheme was confusing
  • the organisation was disconnected from the membership.

The message was received loud and clear: in terms of the coaching offer, the existing educational programmes needed a radical overhaul. But more than that, the organisation had to rebuild the trust, transparency and respect that had ebbed away.

The intelligence gathering phase lasted from February to December 2016. There followed a period of digestion and data dissemination before designing solutions and significant new approaches and developments.

Tinkering with the system in the hope of a quick fix would be like putting a sticking plaster on an open wound and expecting it to heal.

The coaching system – underpinned by a new educational philosophy – would need to be redesigned to effectively transform coach learning and development.

But how had the traditional system of delivering coach education been allowed to stagnate?

One of the barriers to innovation and evolution highlighted by Lee was that there were far too many meetings and nowhere near enough concrete decisions being made.

The strategy, advisory and development groups were all bouncing decisions around but nothing ever happened. We needed to streamline the decision-making process to move forward.”

Instead of working out a clear plan to get from A to B, groups would end up trying to connect an entire alphabet of dots, with the lines of communication zig-zagging in so many directions they would end up tying themselves in knots.

Removing the organisational silos helped to improve communication, and introducing an overarching educational strategy also brought essential clarity to roles and responsibilities.

“We were told a single interconnected strategy was impossible when we arrived as our sport is so diverse,” says Lee.

But the leadership group overseeing the implementation of the highly-anticipated new plan – which was launched in March 2017 – have disproved that theory. “Coaching was in three places in our organisation, it is now in one place,” he adds.

“These streamlined groups now have a clear purpose in an advisory capacity, while I – as Head of Coaching and Qualifications – have been empowered to make decisions and have accountability.”


Creating a ‘Level’ playing field

British Canoeing’s strategy Stronger Together sets out 11 measurable ambitions, 20 Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and “a commitment” to 67 actions.

From a coach development perspective (which includes volunteers and leaders), the two KPIs that British Coaching will measure itself against annually are:

  • All coaching leadership qualifications to be revised and relaunched by 2021 (“and we are on track to do it”)
  • Improve the coach and coach educator satisfaction ratings annually from 2018 (“we didn’t even collect them in 2016”).

Early results are more than promising, with British Coaching having made measurable progress against the ambitions and actions set.

“Across all our programmes, we’ve had transformation at pace in membership, digital, communications and in coaching,” said David.

One of the headline developments is the changes introduced to the qualifications programme – and the removal of the linear approach to coach education.

People were becoming disengaged because it was such a long process of getting to where they wanted to get to: you have to do this, to do this, to then do this. Now, coaches can go into direct entry to what they want to deliver at the level they want,” says Lee.

Try as you might though, you won’t find the word ‘level’, or any numbers for that matter, on the website or in any resources or correspondence. The hierarchical connotations the word carries do not fit with the new educational philosophy, so the terminology has been expunged.

I heard so many times, ‘I’m only a Level 1’. I would say, ‘no, you’re probably one of the most important people we have within our sport. Level 2 or Level 3 does not mean better than Level 1’,” says Lee.

The award structure has been replaced with: Paddlesport Activity Assistant, Paddlesport Instructor, Coach Award, Performance Coach and Coaching Diploma.

“Generations of paddlesport coaches and educators have only known a linear, one-size-fits-all approach to coach education, which usually means attending a face-to-face training course. Creating a flexible learning environment, aligned to the educational philosophy, was essential in meeting the needs of a more diverse audience,” says Lee.

Thousands of reasons to be cheerful

Enabling paddlers to have flexible learning options to construct their own learning journey was a key element of the strategic plan, and Lee says the digital transformation that has taken place has created a truly learner-centred experience that empowers coaches and offers much-needed choice through an array of delivery mechanisms.

People no longer have to travel in a car for four hours to sit in a room and be spoken at for a further two or three hours, before embarking on the four-hour return journey. They can access the same information through a webinar or through e-Learning and pick it up whenever and wherever they want, in bite-sized chunks.”

Digital Education Solutions Lead Ricky Snodgrass runs through some of the innovations that have helped British Canoeing better connect with learners.

And the results speak for themselves:

  • 15,000 learners took part in the Coaching programme in 2018 – nearly double the number from the previous year.
  • 30,000 people accessed British Canoeing’s eLearning (massively surpassing British Canoeing’s estimate of 2,500).
  • In 2018, 849 people went through the Paddlesport Instructor qualification. From January to the end of June 2019, 973 people accessed it.
  • Satisfaction levels are running at 97-98%.

Lee attributes the speed of British Canoeing’s transformation to three main drivers: having the right governance and a well-thought out plan, underpinned by and aligned to the right educational philosophy.

And while it may be true that people’s lifestyle habits have also been going through a period of change in recent years, with the growth in adventure sports and outdoor activities helping British Canoeing’s cause, the governing body deserves the utmost credit for grasping and fully maximising the opportunity.

After a four-year period of declining membership, it has now seen two years of growth: the number of active club members having risen from 32,000 to 38,000, and on target to reach 40,000 by the end of the year.

Make no mistake, though,” says Lee, ‘this is not and never will be the finished article. We understand it is an organic process and that there is work still ahead of us.”

British Canoeing may be on the crest of a wave, leaving the roughest waters behind them, but there are still obstacles on the horizon that could rock the boat. These will provide more stern tests of leadership acumen and mettle. But I very much doubt David and Lee would have it any other way.

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