As a third generation surf life saver, I have been a member of a small Tasmanian surf club in addition to other surf clubs who have won Australian club championships. I have also been fortunate to coach development athletes as well as athletes who have gone on to become Australian champions. Over all my time as a surf club member, athlete and now coach one thing that has always challenged my thinking is the payment of athletes. 

In a nation where we are known as sporting legends, we would be naive to think that paying for athletes does not happen and for those athletes who are fortunate enough to benefit from this practice, they are without doubt extremely lucky to be financially supported in a sport that you love.   

Whilst I am happy to congratulate these athletes, my challenge is often centred around the ethics behind this practice, as well as the coaches who subsequently benefit from other coaches hard work and finally the financial strain on the surf club. Remembering surf clubs are primarily an organisation who provide volunteer life savers with a soul purpose is to keep our beaches safe. The surf clubs who financially support their athletes are also the surf clubs who go out and ask (often beg), in patrol uniform for financial support from members of the public.  The question is… does this money go to support the whole club, the beach patrol or just a few athletes? 

Over many years of not only coaching but being an athlete within surf clubs I have observed numerous situations where parents of athletes (who are funded by the club) may threaten to leave a club and instead simply parting company and continuing the organic growth of the club from its natural talent, the surf clubs look externally, bring in elite athletes at a cost and utilise such athletes as training partners for these kids.

The problem can be that this is not really the best business practice because now a surf club funding both athletes for what can often be a substantial cost. Again, well done to the athletes as funding such as this is scarce. However, surf clubs have proven time and time again that with great coaching it can and will win Australian medals but the threat of internal power plays can cost surf clubs ten’s of thousands of dollars when this money could have and should have been spent on the surf clubs next generation ie up and coming talent.  It is a longer term strategy but one that will strengthen the clubs in more than just talent, it will build loyalty. 

I have had countless discussions with an array of surf clubs over the years and they all tend to lead with this comment “we’re not paying them, a ‘third party sponsor’ is”. The question for any respected committee member in my view as an athlete and a coach would be “why wouldn’t a sponsor simply sponsor the whole surf club so that all members can benefit instead of a single athlete?”

The unfortunate thing is that not all athletes will be offered any financial assistance. Individual results are one thing but as in the above cases, not all team success is evenly rewarded. While two or more of the team may be financially supported by the surf club or a third party, there is always that one athlete in the team who gets no extra funding, does the same training, puts in the same level of effort, passion and energy and brings Australian gold medals to the table yet still misses out on any form of financial contribution. 

And here is one of two concerns I have with the concept of paying athletes: 

The first concern is, if a surf club can afford to pay, the top athletes are looked after, medals pile up and sponsors grow. But what about the remaining athletes who never receive any support? I have seen time and time again where these athletes use their own personal success to move surf clubs because their current surf club can’t afford to give them the same deal or knows that they will stay and put up with the current situation. Therefore we lose talent and loyalty which is created and built over time. 

The second concern is the return on investment for the surf club.  Often when you pay for a service or contract especially when there is no loyalty from being part of building with a club, once a contract has finished you see elite athletes move clubs without even blinking an eye lid while the true loyal athletes who have been coached from nippers or moved (back then) to a better coaching program remain at the club. You simply cant buy loyalty!

What could surf clubs do with $75,000?  Is the short term goal worthwhile ie bringing in a elite athlete hoping that over three years they would bring the club success? Or is investing in youth development and really putting in the hard yards with a five year nipper program more beneficial.  What is more important, loyal, hard working, successful, well coached champions or an instant fix, a potential waste of resources and a high percentage of disheartened athletes? 

In my view and it is simply that… a view, the answer lies to the priorities of the club and more importantly the values to which the clubs hold themselves, their members and their athletes to.  What are your core values… do you have them and are you aligned to these when making decisions around investment?

Final Word:

If you are going to spend money on athletes, terrific.  But spend it where it will count ie on equipment, development and coaching as all of this creates loyalty and success. Subsidise boards and skis because these can be handed down to the next two or three generations. This, in my view, builds athlete loyalty and deeper participation. 

Simply giving financial support, be it through the surf club or a third party sponsor can bring loyalty for sure, but is it sustained or just until the end of that contract where a rival surf club will simply offer more and if you cant afford more, the athlete will leave. 

In my experience, an athlete will stay or join a surf club because they are aligned to its values, they will see that the coaching staff at that surf club and / or the training squad will help grown and develop the athlete into a better all round competitor.  And maybe just maybe, when they are tempted by a financial offer because you have given them all of this opportunity to be the best that they can be… they will stay with the surf club that invested in their from the very beginning.

Julian Norton-Smith

Paddle 2 Fitness