How does systemic change happen?

There are people working in and around accessible soccer/ football that have been at it for years. This isn’t about the past.

To a certain extent this blog is not really about the present either and much more about the future.

In some of my more recent presentations to clubs and colleges I’ve shared the image below with a quote from the Tamarack Institute. With a membership of over 20,000 and working with over 70 cities they have raised an estimated 200,000 households out of poverty. From their own website; ‘The Tamarack Institute develops and supports collaborative strategies that engage citizens and institutions to solve major community issues across Canada and beyond’. What I want to emphasize at the start and end of the presentation is that the research has been done (link to studies on website), that we have the evidence (link to Resources) and that groups (clubs, associations, coaches, funders) are now engaged. However the real work comes in driving change.

“You put your stake in the ground. It does not mean that there is no flexibility, but if you have done your research, and have your evidence, it is easier to engage others. The engagement is focused and driving toward change”.  

That got me thinking about change. How do you make true systemic change? Something we’ve heard a lot about in recent months. For years these accessible soccer programs have been launched, positive feedback shared and thousands of lives impacted in a positive way, simply because we get children, youth and adults with a disability to participate in soccer. That’s all great, lovely and wonderful BUT from my perspective;

  1. It still scratches the surface of what can be achieved – with approximately one in five (22%) of the Canadian population aged 15 years and over – or about 6.2 million individuals – having one or more disability. The prevalence of disability increased with age, from 13% for those aged 15 to 24 years to 47% for those aged 75 years and over. (Stats Can 2017). Compared with what I would estimate to be 0.17% of all soccer players in Canada with a disability.
  2. It needs a strategic plan that can be operational – organizations use the words inclusive and accessible in a vague sense that’s often hard to pin down. Who defines those words – the staff, the consumer, the board? When it’s operational we can clearly see what the plan is and how it is defined.
  3. It’s taking too long – as I stated earlier, there have been club leaders running programs since as early as 2005 but the progress since then has been more of a trickle than a tidal wave. With all the success we’ve had around soccer in Canada (hosting multiple World Cups, launch of 3 MLS teams and our own domestic CPL, nationwide implementation of the Long Term Athlete Development model  and many more), this is the right time to commit to the entire community.

I don’t want to be facetious with point three but this topic has been around for at least fifteen years and the progress has been painfully slow. In order to make real change, the true systemic change that makes accessible, inclusive soccer programs a typical part of any Club then we need to dig deeper into how that happens. From a cursory search of the internet I discovered this great outlay of systemic change principles as they relate to education written by Beverly L. Anderson. (Adapted from; Inventing New Systems. Educational Leadership, September 1993 | Volume 51 | Number 1, pages 14-17). Anderson describes the six stages of system change as;

Maintenance of the Old System: Educators focus on maintaining the system as originally designed. They do not recognize that the system is fundamentally out of sync with the conditions of today’s world. New knowledge about teaching, learning, and organizational structures has not been incorporated into the present structure.

Awareness: Multiple stakeholders become aware that the current system is not working as well as it should, but they are unclear about what is needed instead.

Exploration: Educators and policy-makers study and visit places that are trying new approaches. They try new ways of teaching and managing, generally in low-risk situations.

Transition: The scales tip toward the new system; a critical number of opinion leaders and groups commit themselves to the new system and take more risks to make changes in crucial places.

Emergence of New Infrastructure: Some elements of the system are operated in keeping with the desired new system. These new ways are generally accepted.

Predominance of the New System: The more powerful elements of the system operate as defined by the new system. Key leaders begin to envision even better systems.

This example of the education system in the U.S. outlines the evolution from a current state to one that emphasizes ‘interconnectedness, active learning, shared decision making and higher levels of achievement for all students’. The chart below maps out the six stages of change as linear but the reality is that from club to club, province/territory to province/territory change is not likely to be linear. Basic time series analysis on the development of many components of soccer can be described as non-linear. Take for example female participation in the sport which made great advances in the early 1900’s before major suppression for most of the 20th century and then a slow growth in the latter part of the 20th century before exponential growth in the early 21st century. This pattern hasn’t been linear and introduction to an established, male dominated system remains a very complicated work in progress.

So if the process of change can be mapped in six phases, what are the elements of our sport system that act as vehicles for change?

Elements of ChangeMaintenance of Old SystemAwarenessExplorationTransitionEmergence of New InfrastructurePredominance of New System
Vision and Values      
Political Support      
Technical Development      
Competition Development      

Key Elements to Change

When, not if, but when soccer moves through this process and we grow the accessibility of soccer to all people with a disability there are, in my mind, six components that will be essential and by default become our measuring stick or Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s).

Vision and Values: For soccer to grow in a way that reflects the entire society the vision and values must be aspirational, relatable and communicated.

Political Support: The vision for wider inclusion is already there – building support for accessible programs from coast to coast to coast – and while that can slowly grow through Networking (see below) the real impetus comes from soccer leaders that define it in strategic plans and staff deliver on it in operational plans. This support will, and already has, initiated a deeper understanding of why, how and what needs to be changed in our current landscape.

Networking: I like to think of this as joining the dots. Grassroots clubs are slowly building accessible programs and promoting their efforts locally and with the power of social media the ability to connect and share experiences has never been better. I’ve seen examples of program plans, budgets, technical plans and video content all shared as a result of clubs connecting through social media. This needs to be recorded, formalised and assessed to identify the strongest path forward.

Technical Education: Player, Coach and Match Official pathways already exist and have been well defined at each level in the country by Canada Soccer and the P/TSO’s. An integrated pathway that enables all participants to find their path is a realistic goal and the transferable skills taught in each of the current streams can serve as a platform for those wanting to broaden their technical knowledge. This group is dynamic and vocal about the sport they want to see.

Competition Development: Since 2013 and the steady implementation of a Long Term Athlete Development Model in Canadian soccer there has been a marked shift in the focus of player development over competition at the younger ages. Festivals and competition policies now promote a more open competition environment that can particularly benefit athletes with a disability. Critical to this will be the inevitable step up to more formal competition and elite streams.

Investment: Provincial and community support need to be aligned and complimentary around the beliefs and practices of greater inclusion and accessibility. This links back to Political Support and the new system benefits from a unified voice. Using the strategic plan as a reference point it can show a genuine commitment to all and provide a framework for investment in key areas.

The transformation towards this systemic change can make great use of the structure and systems already in place; however the challenge of growing resources and sharing knowledge must happen at every level of the game and with the mindset that this is a growth of the entire pie (market growth), not one group fighting for resources over another group (market share).

Using the Matrix

Beverly L. Anderson noted that her original matrix described as “A Continuum of Systemic Change” was proving particularly valuable in three ways.

  1. Develop a common language and conceptual picture of the processes and goals of change among diverse stakeholders.
  2. Develop a strategic plan for moving forward on systemic change.
  3. Develop an ongoing assessment process to support and encourage deep, quality change.

Which leaves us with plenty more to unpack in future blogs.


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