Bowls Canada creates community

Lawn bowling, also known as bowls or lawn bowls, has always been a niche activity, but the demographic is expanding these days as the sport focuses on outreach and inclusion. 

With 202 clubs across Canada, and newly created resources based on Long-Term Development, Bowls Canada has been making steady progress at attracting new talent, developing a coach infrastructure, and making its teams accessible to people with disabilities. This work comes following struggles the lawn bowling community went through in attempting to make the sport relevant to new generations.

“The main problem that Bowls Canada was facing was that the complexity of administering sport in the post-2010 era did not align with the club governance and business structures in place at the local level,” said Executive Director Anna Mees. 

“With membership numbers declining globally, it was clear that something needed to change. We spent a significant amount of time talking to volunteers and club administrators at the local and provincial levels to find out what they identified as their biggest challenges and then we worked to find cost-effective solutions that could be developed nationally and delivered locally.”

“Supporting clubs through our ‘Just Roll With it’ Para-bowls initiative, our ‘Building the Business of Bowls’ club development workshops, and various other projects became more and more relevant as clubs sought new strategies to address declining participation numbers. It was important to us to develop resources that would empower clubs to meet the challenges and needs of today’s culture based on what the clubs themselves were telling us. Today we are finding that more and more clubs are letting us know that we are on the right track.”

Bringing innovation to the game

Jake Schuknecht, development manager for Bowls Canada, has been on the front-lines of these initiatives as their organization experienced attrition. Work began to introduce the sport to new players through their Learn to Bowl program, and at the Sport for Life Canadian Summit in 2020 he shared with delegates the results of a pilot project that saw the program rolled out to 25 clubs. Based on a similar program offered by Bowls Australia, it featured a kit with equipment designed to help newcomers develop the skills necessary to get out on the green.

The next step: introducing coaches.

“We have struggled a bit to introduce coaches, because many of our members have been bowling for a very long time and coaches have never really been a thing. We tried to get people to take coach workshops, but we heard back ‘we don’t have a coach, and we don’t need one’, so we were looking for innovative ways to introduce coach programming into clubs,” said Schuknecht. 

“In the past 20 years, things have become a little stagnant. We wanted to look at the way things were being done, and ask ‘why are we doing this?’ Normally the answer was ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’. People weren’t talking to coaches, the quality of the bowlers wasn’t improving and things hadn’t changed. We decided to bring some innovation into the game, and a big part of that was our competition review.”

What Mees learned during the process was that it was one thing to introduce new concepts, and it was another thing entirely to convince their members that they were making the right move.

“Communication is everything. When Long-Term Development was first introduced, most bowlers rejected the concept because 90% of bowlers could not identify with high performance or anything past the basic grassroots level. We began to use terms like ‘

bowler development’, which was viewed as more inclusive as it applies to bowlers, coaches, officials, clubs and every aspect of the sport without using technical jargon,” she said.

“We also started to focus on what makes sense for the local clubs and the local bowlers. By putting ourselves in the shoes of a grassroots bowler and answering ‘what’s in it for me?’, we’ve been able to use tools such as the Quality Sport Checklist to start projects and create resources that are being received much more positively than they would have been in pre

vious eras. We’re actively looking to work on what makes the most sense for the average bowler at the average club.”

Is there a better way?

Dr. Paul Jurbala of Sport for Life worked with Bowls Canada in 2017 to develop a three-year plan. The Long-Term Development framework they’d created in 2008 was in need of an update, and they wanted to focus on the stages following Learn to Bowl. 

“We got some working groups together and said ‘here’s what competitions exist, here’s what opportunities exist, how can we do more with them?’” said Schuknecht.

Bowls Canada developed resources that outlined for clubs how to be more welcoming and inclusive, sending out posters with tips and tricks all across the country. Using their newsletter, they shared success stories from clubs that had successfully attracted new talent. Then they began to beef up their social media presence, working to connect the clubs so they could share insights and best practices. One priority they focused on was creating opportunities for those with disabilities.

“There used to be a separate organization called Blind Bowls Association of Canada, and as that group folded, we worked with their board to intentionally absorb them. We’re introducing pilot programs to support people with visual impairments and physical disabilities and we’ve hired a contractor to help us become as inclusive as possible. Next year we’ll have new additions to the Learn to Bowl program that address this. 2020 was meant to be the inaugural year of an inclusive national competition, but unfortunately COVID-19 has delayed that plan.”

Throughout this process, Sport for Life resources have been instrumental in the development process of Bowls Canada. They’re currently working towards the creation of a second Long-Term Development framework, they’ve shared online eLearning opportunities for their members, and have incorporated new principles into their coaching and officiating by using the Quality Sport Checklist. 

“What it comes down to is being open to change. We say to ourselves ‘yes, this is the way it was done in the past, but what is the purpose? And is there a better way?” said Schuknecht.

Mees is thrilled with the progress so far.

“The number of people reaching out for help, purchasing our Learn 2 Bowl kits and asking to participate in our club development workshop, is proof that what we’re offering is attractive and there is demand for it. While it’s difficult to measure implementation at this moment, we’re optimistic that we’ll ultimately see increased recruitment and retention rates at clubs, as well as increased interest at all levels of competition,” she said.

“We do see a reason to celebrate, as pre-pandemic we were one of the only bowls nations in the world to be slowly growing in terms of membership numbers. After decades of continual decline, the past few years have seen a slow but steady increase in the number of bowlers across Canada, which is something we hope to continue in a post-COVID reality.”

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