Five Ways To Help Deal With The Pressure Of Sport Management In A Covid World

Capitis Consulting - Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir picture
Paul Varian MBA, C.Dir

Covid-19 has been brutal to the amateur sport industry. How do you manage your sanity if you are one of the sport leaders left behind in a heavily-downsized sport organization, putting on a brave face but quietly struggling with it all?

In August 2020, I surveyed a couple of dozen Executive Directors and General Managers in the Canadian amateur soccer world about all things Covid. Back then, the greatest fear this group saw for the future was the realization of a second wave of Covid-19 infections this Fall - a fear scoring 90% on their terror scale.

Fast forward to mid-October and sadly their worst fears have materialized. Covid-19 has bounced back and the immediate future of sports activities under the spectre of new lockdown measures remains unclear at best.

Management of a sport organization – whether a club, league association or governing body – continues to be a challenging and exhausting experience. So how are the sport leaders who remain stuck in the thick of this coping?

We all feel dreadful for the many people in amateur sport who have lost their jobs due to this pandemic. But some say that they’re the lucky ones. Spare a though for the poor bastards left behind. They used to be management, but are now trying to manage what used to be six people’s jobs in the chaotic world we’re in. In many respects, managing sport is practically impossible, especially in contact or team sports.

And it isn’t showing any signs of letting up. As we seem to heading back into what we thought we had got through in April, even the strongest sport leader with steel mental fortitude must be taking a deep breath and wondering if they can continue to do this.

It’s a hidden problem. You see, we don’t really think about the people in management this way, do we? Sure, we think about the front line workers and the people who have been let go, as we should. But we forget about the people in management. They are either lucky to still have jobs or are able to manage all of this anyway. After all, isn’t this what they signed up for when they moved into management, and why they get paid the big bucks?

But don’t think the pressure and stress of managing a sport organization during these Covid times isn’t taking its toll on our management brain trust. Back in August, of the group I surveyed, only 21% said thy were generally feeling okay, or better. 37% said they were things hard or worse, with over 10% saying they were ready to quit.

Tear away fancy job titles and corner offices and you’ll see that leaders are still just people. They may put up a tough exterior (none of the leaders from my survey said they were concerned for their own job – are you believing that?). But believe me, they are going through the same emotional and mental stress that everyone else is. You just can’t see it.

Professor Tracy Vaillancourt is one of Canada’s leading authorities on mental health in the Canadian sport system and beyond. She’s witnessing increasing stress and anxiety on people, particularly women and those with school-age children, as people over-extend themselves in the face of Covid-19.

‘Our particular worry is that the most vulnerable in society (pre-Covid-19) are bearing a disproportionate burden during this pandemic, which is placing them at even great risk for poor outcomes,’ she says.

If you are a sport leader reading this, this is probably resonating with you. But what to do? Sure, we can talk about the good stuff around finding a work/life balance, taking a break to walk the dog, thinking positively, eating well and getting exercise. But that is easier said than done when six work tasks are urgently needed to be completed by tomorrow morning and its 5.30pm.

So let’s move from actions and behaviour to simple mindsets. Here are five mental controls I’ve learnt, often in my darkest, lowest moments, that might give you a bit of calm when things just feel too much.

1. Don’t Talk Yourself Into Despair

This may sound obvious, but it's an easy rabbit hole to run down. Talking about the difficulty and unfairness of it all to whoever will listen can be cathartic, and in moderation, helpful. But wrap yourself in the blanket of self pity too much and it will badly impact on your mindset, leadership ability and ultimate performance. Watch out for environments when this kind of negative exchange can get out of hand and end up being bad for you. Be careful about ‘venting’ with work colleagues and peers, or ‘comparing experiences’ that are really just chances to shake your heads at how terrible this all is.

Watch out for whingers and don’t hang around them, at least not for long. Surround yourself with people who will listen and be empathetic for a while, but be honest with you when its time to take your head out of the tissue box and get back to leading. Watch out for this. It can creep up on you without you noticing, but will make it impossible for you to rise above the difficulties of these times when all you hear are voices encouraging you to talk up the doom of it all.

2. Know Your Worst Case Scenario And Get Comfortable With It

Negotiation 101 says you should start any negotiation knowing your BATNA – Best Alternative To (A) Negotiating Agreement. The logic here is that you can negotiate with more confidence if you know you can pull the plug on it all at any time and go to your alternative. If you don’t know your alternative, you are unlikely to rock the boat when negotiating with your opponent, because failure in the negotiation could mean the fiery pits of Hell for you, if you haven’t worked out otherwise.

The same applies to you in your sport leadership role. Let’s assume you are in an employed leadership role. With all the chaos that is going on, what is the worst that can happen to you? I’ll leave that for you to figure out for yourself. But let’s assume that the worst scenario is that you lose your job. Scary as that is, how truly bad is that? Most people in employed leadership positions in amateur sport are there because they are qualified, experienced and deserve it. Those still in jobs right now likely remain employed because they are not only qualified and experienced, but because they also excel at what they do. They are very valuable, so they remain when others go.

If that’s you, take the time to think through your worst case scenario and explore how you would deal with it. If your job goes, where would you look for new employment? What other opportunities might this bring to you, personal or professional? Take the time to understand how employable you really are and how losing your job isn’t something you should bone-chillingly fear. It may be out of your control anyway.

Pinpointing your worst case scenario and reconciling yourself with it will help you manage the pressure of your leadership responsibilities right now. Knowing that your fall is six feet, not six hundred metres does wonders for your blood pressure and likely makes you a calmer, clear-thinking leader. Know your bad place and mentally stay there for a while. Learn how terrible it really is – or perhaps isn’t. It’ll help bring you the calm you need so you’ll hopefully never have to go there anyway.

3. Be Pragmatic In Your Thinking

Speaking to people in sport leadership, what I have found most striking about the descriptions of leading in a global pandemic is how personal this all is. We are literally dealing with people’s health, sometimes life or death. This makes it emotional and extremely stressful. The idea of being logical, business-focused and Spock-like in our analysis, well, it just doesn’t feel right.

However, know this. You can’t manage effectively through pure emotion. And even if you can, it’ll kill you with stress, worry and anxiety. In the emotional chaos of it all, the best and most durable leaders move to a pragmatic mindset that maps out logical alternative courses of action, assesses risk and consequences, and focuses vision and thinking around the choice selected.

Yes, it may seem heartless and insensitive to people’s plight. But remember, when a plane is crashing, we’d all rather see the pilot in the cockpit calmly saving the plane, not sitting next to you holding your hand telling you how they feel your anxiety, through tears and hugs.

Much of leadership is just getting on with it and ‘doing’. In times of crisis, the ‘doers’ are the true leaders. So be a decisive ‘doer’. Push the emotion and unfairness of it all from your thoughts and get down to business. What must be done? What will it take? What are the risks? What risk will we tolerate? What must we sacrifice? Then make a decision and go do it. It’s what the people you are leading are ultimately looking for from you and what will calm your soul when you ask yourself ‘am I doing all I can?’

4. Pinpoint The Moment When You Need To Pull Your Chute

Here’s where you need to be totally honest with yourself. As part of the worst case scenario planning exercise I speak about above, you also need to work out when it just isn’t worth it anymore. You see, at the end of the day, your career – no matter how magnanimous and grand – is just a job. It shouldn’t define you more than who you are to your family, friends, broader community or spiritual self. Take time to understand at what point all the bullshit you have to deal with isn’t worth what you are sacrificing in other areas of your life.

Know when you need to quit.

I worked this out relatively early in my career. I started out in the recruitment business. I remember saying to myself ‘the moment I start seeing people as placement fees, not people I’m trying to help find a job, I’ll leave this industry’. Two years in, I reached that point. I left the industry. I never looked back and have no regrets (nor bad feelings to the recruitment industry, I might add).

Knowing exactly what things need to look like for you to pull the chute is hugely important to your management of leadership-created stress today. Even knowing that there is a chute there to pull, and that you are giving yourself permission to pull it at a carefully thought-out, predisposed time or event will do wonders in giving you calm through otherwise exceedingly stressful times. It’s about knowing how far you have to fall, but also knowing you can decide when you actually fall.

Stay in control. Have your chute prepared and know when to pull it.

5. Accept Your Limitations And Don’t Hide Them

If you’re an effective sport leader, you’re probably never satisfied with ‘success’. Something could have been done better, quicker, more efficiently. Great leaders who are very productive and consistently get results do so largely due to an uncompromising, ‘never satisfied’ approach to quality.

Covid-19 has turned that idea on its head. For most sport organizations right now, the game has moved from trying being the best to simply just trying to be.

Right now, you must change your mindset from attack to defense. Reconcile yourself with the fact that you simply can’t do it all and be okay with that. Better still, promote it. Ensure your business partnerships, members and other stakeholders know that your capabilities, and what they should expect from you, are not what they were a year ago. That isn’t failure. It’s reality. Believe me, they are saying the same thing to the people they serve.

Shorten your bat swing and set modest targets. Accept your limitations – organizationally, but also personally. Know what you can’t do at the moment, especially if you have a family at home with kids trying to manage their school environment online out of their bedrooms. A dad or mom is more important than an Executive Director or General Manager.

See no shame in this. You haven’t failed. Everyone is being dragged down by the same tide.

Finally, any sport Board members reading this, understand that you have a crucial role to play. In my survey, when asked what their Boards of Directors could do to help them, half of the responding Executive Directors or General Managers indicated that simple empathy and personal support would help a lot.

‘Transparency is always helpful,’ says Vaillancourt of how Boards can help their executive leaders. ‘It helps reduce the anxiety that is typically associated with unpredictability. I would also suggest that a clear prioritization of the workload is needed. Staff leadership personnel cannot do it all and Boards of Directors need to convey that they understand this is a unprecedented situation that requires flexibility and compassion’.

‘Finally,’ she continues, ‘Boards of Directors need to be mindful that their staff leadership are absorbing a lot of the anxiety of other employees. Thus, Boards need to be patient, reasonable, and flexible to help reduce this extra load’.

Get behind your executive leader. You need them more than ever right now. But don’t forget that they also really need you.

Paul Varian is the President of Capitis Consulting Inc., a boutique management consultancy focused on adding value in and around the amateur sport Boardroom. Visit for more and follow Paul on Twitter at @paulvarian or on LinkedIn at Paul Varian.