Inspired by the spirit of volunteering

We recently held our first Team Spirit Conference which was attended by almost 200 volunteers from across the sport. Among those who attended was Margaret Connarty, a regular parkrun runner and volunteer. Here she tells us about her experiences of the day.

A few weeks ago, a tweet from England Athletics caught my eye. They were putting on a free conference in Birmingham to celebrate volunteers, and for volunteers to share experiences with and learn from each other. It sounded fun. There would also be a free lunch and free tea and coffee! After checking out the train times, I signed up. It looked good; regular, informative emails, friendly website, even a handwritten postcard a few days before the conference! I thought this was a nice touch.

On the day, I had a 6am start to catch the train to Birmingham. Cold and dark, but I was happy to be fitting in a parkrun at Cannon Hill before the conference. As I was running round the park, I felt good knowing I would be doing something positive for the rest of day, but I was slightly nervous too, wondering what it be like. It was going to be a long day, would I be stood around not talking to anyone, would it be really crowded, would I be overcome with nerves or start wittering on when I tried to talk to someone?

I got to the university at about 10 o'clock, slightly bedraggled from the rain and running. I went in and was immediately welcomed by lots of lovely, smiley red t-shirts. It was quick and easy to register, which gave me plenty of time to make myself a bit more presentable. I was about to go into the main hall when I saw another woman there, so we went in and sat at a table together. So lovely and unexpected to meet a new friend. We had fun during the day with the photo booth and writing on the learning wall, little things that made the day special. We both loved the goody bag too.

The first part of the conference was a talk and welcome, then a quiz, for which I somehow ended up in the final five out of 200 people. It was slightly nerve-wracking going up onto the front stage, but I was thankful that I didn't trip up/down the steps. Plus it was nice to be clapped even when I got the question wrong (and a relief to sit back down again!).

The talk by Donna Fraser was inspirational. England Athletics CEO Chris Jones mentioned parkrun in his talk; it's always lovely when people speak so positively about parkrun.

After the break, it was the first workshop; I chose the one on Communications. I thought this would be useful as I help with the Twitter accounts for Shrewsbury parkrun and parkrun UK. It was nice to get a few ideas and share knowledge.

I was also able to catch up wth Glenn, who is a parkrun Run Director and running coach for Shropshire Shufflers. (Glenn, Donna and Margaret pictured)

After lunch (which was tasty and plentiful) there was an activity around the tables in the Great Hall. It was interesting to hear stories from the other people on my table of why they volunteer and what volunteering means to them.

Then the second workshop of the day. I went to the one on how to have difficult conversations; also very interesting, but it couldn't have been more different than the first workshop on Communications. I found it quite heavy-going as it was so in-depth and brought up issues which I didn't want to think about (the whole point of the workshop and why I chose that particular one).

There was then the keynote talk by Mark Russell of The Art of Brilliance. This was one of the most engaging, inspirational speeches I have ever heard. There was so much to take in with all of the talks, but what stayed with me particularly was the part about perception, e.g. how two different volunteers can hear instructions from someone and carry them out in completely different ways. Plus the part about being happy and positive and how life is for living (I have often let opportunities and life pass me by). After the workshops and talks were over, I went up to Mark (not natural for me at all, as I am not a confident person) and said to him how brilliant his talk was and how everyone was especially moved by the video. Mark said that he didn't think he'd ever quite such a reaction to it when everyone clapped afterwards nor had he ever had such a receptive audience.

I thought the whole conference was powerful and emotional. It was an amazing opportunity, something that doesn't come along very often. It was great to be listened to, to be able to talk about what matters to us (I could chat about parkrun all day long!) to have fun, to meet people, to be around 200 positive, happy people. My one regret was that I didn't talk to more people, but that is something to learn for the future. It was an energizing and inspiring day and I was honoured to be part of it. Probably the last time I felt so inspired was about four years ago when I did my first parkrun.

My favourite quote to take away from the day is: "If you think you can or if you think you can't, you're right". On a personal level, I think this highlights that being in the right environment and with the right encouragement, anything is possible. I loved that the conference was open to all sports volunteers, there was no hierarchy of whether one type of volunteer was better or more worthy than the other. Volunteering is the perfect way of using one's passion for sport, of equipping people with the power to make better things happen and to change lives.

Pictured are Margaret, Glenn and new friend Yvette