Tuesday 17 March 2015

Reflections on volunteering at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games: what can sport teach us about life?

Anne enjoying volunteering at the Commonwealth Games!
Our latest guest post is by Anne Woods - Anne is a freelance writer, researcher and photographer living in Powys. Sport has been an important part of Anne's life pretty much since she could walk! She has represented her county in competitive gymnastics, taken part in equestrian events and played football for Brentford WFC: the highlight, winning a preliminary round match in the Women's FA Cup. She volunteers at several major sports events, including the British Grand Prix at Silverstone. She is currently playing for Hay St Mary's Ladies' Football Club, who train on Wednesday evenings in Hay-on-Wye. They welcome new players, aged 16 and upwards. Find out more on their Facebook page or via Twitter.

Last summer I was a Clyde-Sider, one of the small army of 15,000 volunteers at the Commonwealth Games. Whilst in Glasgow, I was lucky enough to have immediate access to some of the top athletes in the world and to watch them training and attempting to perform to the best of their ability in competition. What struck me as I watched them, is how much sport can teach us about ourselves and how we navigate through life, falling, picking ourselves up and trying again.

Sport encapsulates the full range of human emotion, providing a controlled and safe environment for the expression of frustration, disappointment, even fear; emotions that sometimes we seek to keep at bay and avoid in life. It occurred to me how useful it is to have an outlet for both positive and negative emotions, where feelings can be expressed in the moment without festering or escalating. With good coaching, sport offers a structure for learning how to manage and channel emotions positively: skills that we all find useful.

I was working in The Hydro, a cauldron of expectation and excitement as up to 10,000 spectators cheered on their heroes in the rhythmic and artistic gymnastics competitions. At first hand, I witnessed the anxiety that each athlete experiences and must learn to control to perform well under pressure. As a former gymnast myself, I know how important focus is to remain fully in control of acrobatic movements that have the potential for injury if not executed correctly. Balance and awareness, remaining alert and making minute corrections second by second can be the difference between a gold medal and falling off the beam in agony.

Sport is about the mind and body working in harmony, being in the 'zone', in the present, going with the flow, not over-thinking, not letting the nerves take over or being over-confident but allowing the muscles to do the movements they've trained to do over thousands of hours of often gruelling practice. The discipline of training itself teaches perseverance and determination and an acceptance that we might not be able to do things immediately but with practice we can get better.

Competition brings out the best of us and also the worst. What I remember most about my time as a gymnast is the perfectionism that blighted a good performance and made it not good enough, rather than a joyful expression of hours of practice and the feeling of achievement of pushing my body and mind to their limits. I saw evidence of gymnasts being very hard on themselves at the Games as they strove for perfection by contorting their bodies into shapes most people could only dream about. This is the element of sport that has the power to distort our image of what is good enough and replace enjoyment with disappointment and feelings of failure.

Scene from the opening ceremony. Humanity, equality and destiny are the
underpinning values of the Commonwealth Games Federation.
Image credit: Anne Woods
I was also lucky enough to volunteer at the Olympics in 2012. I was a Games Maker at Greenwich Park for the equestrian events. I will never forget watching the breathtaking performance of British rider, Charlotte Dujardin and her horse Valegro in the dressage - the "dancing" horses. At the very end of what had been an almost flawless routine, Valegro lost composure, and broke stride in an obvious error. I, along with thousands of others, gasped and held our breath. It didn't matter: they won the gold medal with a score of over 90%. What I learned from this and watching days of equestrian competition is that even the best in the world make mistakes. What distinguishes them is their ability to move on quickly and not let the mistake affect the rest of their performance.

The athletes who do best, in my opinion, are those who achieve the balance between pushing themselves to achieve, accepting their successes humbly and not taking their failures too seriously. Giving '110%' is important but not at the expense of self-compassion. Perfection is unattainable and there will always be something to be disappointed about if we look hard enough for it. Focussing more on what has gone right makes for a kinder and more enjoyable passage through life.

At the closing ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, Lord Smith of Kelvin made a speech. These words hit home, "no matter who you are or where you are, sport has the power to make you feel part of something bigger." Certainly, my experience of volunteering at big events bears this out. I would recommend that anyone gives it a go. Even if you don't think you like sport, if you like people, there will be something positive to take from it. The volunteering community tend to be caring, friendly and will go out of their way to help others. Spending time with people like that is a good way to restore your faith in humanity. Sometimes we all need to feel part of something bigger. I agree with Lord Smith. Sport has that power.


  1. This great, I agree that both volunteering and sport play an important part in recognising important life skills. Hoping that our volunteering paths cross again one day :)

  2. Thanks Penney. I'm sure our volunteering paths will cross again, especially considering the number of events you volunteer at!

    I have gained so much personally from these experiences - had some of the best times in my life and met some incredible people. I'm so glad to have had the opportunity to give my time and energy to events like this and to help everyone involved, from athletes to spectators, and all the support staff, to have an enjoyable experience.

    It just goes to show what great things human beings are capable of when they work together.