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How to lead change as a sports leader? An introduction to Kotter’s 8-step change model 

In sport, as in any industry, change is constant. Administrators and leaders, whether they be in sports clubs, schools, regional or national organisations, must be able to manage and lead change effectively in order to keep their organisations and communities moving forward. In particular, leading and managing change has become super important for the work of Balance is Better. 

John Kotter’s 8-step change model is a useful framework for administrators and leaders in sport to think through and plan out the process of change management. In this guide, we will explore each step of the model, discuss how sports leaders can use it to facilitate positive change within their organisations, and provide examples of what this looks like in practice. 

Why is it important for Sport Leaders & Administrators to think about change management? 

People often save their best and their worse behaviour and judgement for sport. They might be completely reasonable people in everything else they do in their life but because sport creates such strong emotion and stirs such strong emotion in people. For a lot of people it’s a lot more than fun, its joyful. And for some people it’s the only joy they have in their lives. These people can be very very defensive, and very engaged in preserving what’s important to them. 

Mike Hester – Participation Development Manager, New Zealand Rugby 
Mike speaks about his experience working with the rugby community to make changes to the how rugby was delivered at an U12 level. 

When it comes to the work of bringing Balance is Better to life, this work often involves change – change to how a sports competition is delivered, changes to how a coach coaches, change to parenting styles… The list goes on and on. Understandably (and predictably) we have seen many people and organisations introduce change underpinned by the Balance is Better philosophy, only to be met with resistors, detractors, and agitators. Despite good rationale and the best intent, sometimes instigating change can go awry. 

Being able to lead and manage change is an important skill for sport administrators and leaders. Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model can help sport administrators and leaders plan and work through the process of leading and managing a change initiative. The eight steps are: 

  1. Establish a sense of urgency 
  2. Form a powerful guiding coalition 
  3. Create a vision for change 
  4. Communicate the vision 
  5. Empower others to act on the vision 
  6. Create short term wins 
  7. Build on the momentum 
  8. Institutionalise the change 

Context is important: 

It’s important to preface to readers that the following should be read in conjunction with an understanding of your own context. While the framework presented below can help support you with leading change, you should also factor in your own context. 

1. Establish a sense of urgency 

One of the most important steps in any change initiative is to create a sense of urgency among the people involved. Without a sense of urgency, people are more likely to resist change or simply not bother trying to understand it. A sense of urgency can be created by highlighting the problems that need to be addressed, the opportunities that could be gained by making the change, or the threats that might result from not changing. 

Key tactical considerations here include: 

I. Open forums 

The reason to change may be compelling to you, but what about others? Do they understand the problem at hand? Have they had time to think about potential solutions? Creating a time and space to discuss openly the upcoming change with the people impacted is critical. 

II. Evidence and stories 

What compelling data can you draw on to outline the need to act? This could be statistics from Sport NZ or your national body. It could be academic research. It could be recorded trends at your club or school (e.g. rates of retention). Stories are data too – can you showcase stories of people who have been impacted by the problem at hand, or have benefited from the potential solution? Lastly, youth voice is a powerful form of data to showcase both the need to change and potential solutions.  

Key evidence and research underpinning Balance is Better 

III. Advocates/Experts 

Sometimes who says it matters. Start to gather support from influential people within your organisation or community, and/or enlist an expert to back up your rationale and argument. Using the voice of young people here is also a good way to help spell out the need for change. 

Examples of establishing a sense of urgency from the sector 

– New Zealand Rugby spent time working into their communities to present a compelling need for change 
– Netball New Zealand collated then communicated with their community key and compelling evidence to rationalise the rollout of the Player Development Programme as a replacement for Year 7 & 8 representative structures. 

2. Form a powerful guiding coalition 

Change is much more likely to be successful if it’s championed by a group of people with the influence and authority to make things happen. This coalition should include both people who are directly affected by the change and those who have the power to support or oppose it. 

Key tactical considerations here include: 

I. Identify your change leaders and your key stakeholders 

You will want to bring into your coalition people who have the ability to influence others. This may be because their job empowers them with certain decision-making power, or it might be because they are respected by their colleagues, peers and community. 

II. Ensure different perspectives are represented 

You will also want to ensure that the various perspective of the different stakeholders that the change may impact is represented. For example, administrators who are looking at making changes to a competition structure should bring the perspectives of coaches, athletes (and even parents) into their guiding coalition. 

III. Confirm commitment from those within your coalition 

After gaining agreement in principle from people in your coalition, it’s important that you provide clarity and get a commitment on the responsibilities, tasks, and actions these people will need to lead and support. For example, certain people may need to take the lead in having discussions with different groups. 

Examples of forming a powerful guiding coalition from the sector 

– Sport Canterbury facilitated a guiding coalition across codes, council and education to realign season transition timings in Canterbury 

3. Create a vision for change 

The next step is to create a shared vision for the future that everyone can buy into. This vision should be inspiring and aspirational, but also realistic and achievable. It should also be specific enough to provide direction for the change process. 

Key tactical considerations here include: 

I. Align the vision 

Does the vision for change align with your organisation’s key strategies and values? Many people will also point to the Balance is Better philosophy to underpin the ‘why’ for their vision.   

II. Outline the strategies that will underpin the vision 

What are the key systems and structures that will need to be changed, addressed, or introduced to achieve the vision? In order to shift these systems and structures, plan and document what objectives and tasks you and the guiding coalition will need to undertake. 

III.Verify that the vision can be easily communicated 

Test people within your coalition and then more widely in your organisation. Do they understand the vision for change? Can these people in turn easily communicate it to others? The aim here should be that you can explain the vision in five minutes or less. Can the people you are powering up to explain the change pass the ‘supermarket test’?, i.e. could they explain the vision to a friend they might bump into randomly at the supermarket. 

Examples of creating a vision for change from the sector 

– Early on in the roll out of the Player Development Programme, Netball New Zealand sought internal alignment with its own staff by ensuring all of them (not just delivery staff, but marketing, finance, etc.) understood the rationale for the new programme. 
– NZ Rugby used Daniel Kim’s Levels of Perspective to identify that at a systems-level declining under-12 numbers were a consequence of under-11 players having a poor experience and not returning the following year.  

4. Communicate the vision 

Once the vision for change has been created, it’s important to communicate it to everyone involved in the process. This communication should be ongoing and should take different forms, such as written materials, speeches, and meetings. 

Key tactical considerations here include: 

I. Use a variety of mediums/channels 

Communicate the intended change, and the rationale for change, ahead of time, via as many channels as possible. This might look like: 

  • Direct email/phone call/ video call/ all of the above to the guiding coalition and other key advocates, empowering them with key messages to cary 
  • E-newsletter to your community 
  • Messages on social 
  • Posters or handouts around your premises/facility  

II. Communicate frequently and repeatedly

Consider planning how you might communicate the information about the change, and the rationale over time, as opposed to all at once and only once.  

This might look like: 

  • Regular posts on your social channels explaining/talking to relevant issues and potential solutions in the months/weeks leading up to the change initiative being introduced to the wider community. 
  • Having more than one forum or Q&A after the change has been introduced to the wider community (so there are multiple opportunities for them to feedback and be heard). 

III. Use simple language

It’s important you do a ‘plainglish’ (plain English) check on your communications. Look out for acronyms and jargon.  

Examples of communicating the vision from the sector 

– Golf NZ used a variety of tactics to communicate the messages and resources derived from the Golf for Life project 

5. Empower others to act on the vision 

The next step is to empower those involved in the change process to take action. This means giving them the authority, resources, and support they need to make the vision a reality. Conversely, you might need to take an addition-by-subtraction approach, removing obstacles and barriers that prevent people from acting on the change. 

Key tactical considerations here include: 

I. Funding 

Often there is a real or perceived financial cost to implementing change in youth sport. This could be because new or additional equipment, resource (e.g. access to facilities) or expertise (e.g. coaching) is required. Or it could be because change forces some people/organisations to move from a model that makes financial sense to them, and (at least in the short term) you may need to financially compensate them to experiment with a different alternative. 

For some, funding is a good lever to drive change into other organisations, as you can make the funding conditional or certain actions be taken or outcomes being met.  

II. Space and time (and other equipment) 

Often times new and different programming, competitions, and activities will not get priority access to spaces (e.g. facilities/courts/grounds) or favourable times for operating. If applicable (and you are in the position to do so), consider how you allocate space and time. 

III. Incentives and rewards 

Other than funding, what other ways can you incentivise change? Rewarding and celebrating good practice is one way of doing this. Conversely, you might need to review what incentives are in place that need to be removed or deprioritized (hint – this is often in the competition structures themselves). One example of this is changing what ‘measures’ are celebrated as successful in youth sport.  

IV. Reporting 

What we measure matters. Sometimes reporting requirements can draw people’s attention towards focusing on or overemphasizing the wrong thing. For example, an a reporting requirement on participation numbers or sessions often leads delivers to focus on quantity not quality. We’ve even seen examples where deliverers have targeted the same participants with more activity to meet reporting requirements (as opposed to targeting harder-to-reach groups, or marginal participants).  

Also, be wary that new programmes and activities often need time to grow. Sometimes, it might not look like not much is happening, or few participants are involved. Best to focus on the quality of the programming, not the quantity.  

V. Policy and process 

Ensure your policy and processes line up (and don’t counteract) with your vision for change. Places to potentially review include, competition and programme rules, selection criteria, coach job descriptions. 

VI. Education and learning 

Employees, volunteers, coaches, and parents might require support and learning to help understand the change and think and act differently. 

Examples of empowering others to act on the vision from the sector 

– Netball Central discussed a variety of obstacles they needed to address (e.g. providing coach development to support confidence and capability of coaches) in order to roll out the Player Development Programme into their zone. 

6. Create short-term wins 

One of the most important aspects of any change initiative is to create some early successes that can be used to build momentum for the process. These wins should be specific, measurable, and achievable, and they should also be related to the larger vision. Creating these early successes is essential for maintaining momentum and buy-in from those involved in the change process. 

Key tactics here include: 

I. Work with the willing 

Start making changes with the early adopters. The change hesitant and resistant can wait. Develop and showcase the proof of concept first. 

II. Breakdown bigger goals into smaller milestones 

Transformational change will often require the sequencing of a lot of chunks of work. Identify key milestones and celebrate the accomplishment of these milestones with your guiding coalition and/or community/organisation at large. 

Examples of creating short term wins from the sector 

– Netball New Zealand, Netball Central and Wellington Netball Centre all spoke about working with the willing as they respectively rolled out the Player Development Programme. Netball Central made a point of supporting and showcasing the early adopters (Centres) so they were able to showcase to other centres the revised programme. 

7. Build on the momentum 

The next step is to build on the momentum that has been created by the early successes. This means continuing to implement the change initiative and expanding it to other areas of the organisation or community. It’s also important to keep communication channels open so that people can give feedback and share their experiences. 

Key tactics here include: 

I. Rolling out proof of concept 

Within a school or club you might have started the change at a specific age group. Can you carry this change into older or younger age groups. Within a regional and national context, change might have been focused on a few centres, clubs or schools to begin with. Can you take the learning from these early initiatives and adapt them to new areas? It’s sometimes useful to use those who have now undergone the change to advocate for it in new areas. 

II. Review 

Sometimes change comes with hidden or unintended consequences. Now is a good time to review the intended change and think again about where you may need to empower people (and remove barriers). 

III. Continue to communicate the vision 

It’s important to keep communicating the why for change and the proposed solution. Also share stories about success and the benefits and impact that change has had. 

Examples of building on the momentum from the sector 

– Netball New Zealand spoke to the phased process they took to rolling out the Player Development Programme, by starting with a strength-based approach and using an opt-in approach to being with. They were able to then collect evidence of impact (an additional 700 young people getting access to skill development opportunities). 

8. Institutionalise the change 

Kotter’s eighth and final step is to institutionalize the change. This means making sure that the new way of doing things becomes part of the culture. It might involve creating new policies or procedures, changing the way performance is measured or rewarded, or providing training and support for those who are implementing the change. 

Key tactics here include: 

I. Embrace new norms and values that align with the change 

Continue to share stories about progress and success, with your organisation and community.  

II. During recruitment and onboarding of new employees and volunteers, emphasise the new norms and values 

This might mean rewriting job and position descriptions to ensure the new norms and values are emphasised. Onboarding should also focus on highlighting these new norms and values. For sport administrators and leaders, you may want to reflect on the type of coaches you employ/engage and ensure that their coaching philosophy appropriately line’s up with your organisation. 

Read: Setting coaches up for success – A guide for sport leaders & administrators 

Read: Creating a positive parent culture: A guide for schools and clubs 

III. Continue to provide support and training for people to develop skills and knowledge to carry out the change effectively 

It’s important to recognise that for some change initiatives, the provision of a one-off learning opportunity (e.g. workshop, email, guide etc.), will not result in the transformation of necessary behaviour and attitudes of adminstrators, volunteers, coaches, parents etc. Rather – ongoing support and learning opportunities will need to be provided, so that these people are better apt to support the change. 

Examples of institutionalising the change from the sector 

– The New Zealand Rugby Board approved the changes to Under 11 rules and regulations so that the new format became the default delivery model for club rugby competitions.


Turning intention into impact will always involve change… With change in the sport sector you have always got to focus on the compass not the clock 

Mike Hester – Participation Development Manager, New Zealand Rugby 
Mike speaks about his experience working with the rugby community to make changes to the how rugby was delivered at an U12 level. 

As discussed earlier, we know that despite good rationale and the best intent, sometimes instigating change in the sport sector can go awry. For work aligned to Balance is Better to be realised, those leading the work will benefit from having an effective approach to planning and managing the change. As discussed in this guide, Kotter’s 8-step change model, is a useful framework for sport leaders & administrators to map through the changes that they are overseeing. 

Image Source: Unsplash

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