In conversation with Alex Wilkins, winner of the Rising Star Volunteer of the Year category at the 2022 British Rowing Awards, Rosie Oates discusses the motivations, benefits, and learning opportunities of volunteering at a young age
A fresh perspective
Rowing needs volunteers. Whether behind the scenes at an event, or front and centre in the boathouse, volunteers are at the heart of what keeps so many of our clubs, regattas and head races afloat. And with over a quarter of British Rowing members aged 16 or under, younger volunteers, be they juniors or students, are essential for helping ensure that these are run in a way that’s relevant to their peers.
It is this fresh perspective to volunteering, combined with a steadfast commitment to the sport, that earned student coach Alex Wilkins of University of Leeds BC the British Rowing Rising Star Volunteer of the Year award this year. For Alex, an interest in giving back to the community began at a young age. “I first started coaching at Bedford RC when I was 15 and rowing at Bedford School,” he explained. “I taught my mum how to row and from there it just snowballed. Pretty quickly I realised that I wanted to carry on coaching when it came to moving to university.”
Alex now splits his time between coaching at University of Leeds BC, Leeds RC and Bedford RC; clubs that are largely maintained by volunteers. “Through working with other young volunteers, there’s a real consensus [at both clubs] that we’re putting our own stamp on the club’s legacy,” he reflected. “There are also constant cycles of new ideas that keep things interesting.”
“We do it because we love rowing”
Like many young volunteers, for Alex, when discussing the ‘why’ behind his dedication to the rowing community, the motivation is simple. “I just think we do it because we love rowing,” he smiled. “Rowing has brought me so much enjoyment since I first got in a boat, and I channel this enjoyment into every session I coach.”
Unfortunately, injury mean that Alex had to give up rowing himself. This setback, he now feels, only drove him further into his love for volunteering. “Getting injured is tough. Everyone in rowing who has had to deal with injury knows it,” he outlined. “The saving grace for me was that I could still come down to the boathouse every day and pass on my knowledge through coaching.”
Numerous like-minded young volunteers across the country will undoubtedly share Alex’s genuine passion for the sport. “Whether I’m putting someone on the water for the first time, or fine-tuning a high-performance crew for BUCS regatta, I have equal amounts of fun across the board,” he highlighted.
Volunteering benefits the individual
Throughout our conversation, Alex outlined the clear intrinsic benefits of volunteering, drawing on his coaching pursuits. “It might be cliché, but seeing the enjoyment people get out of my coaching is one of the most rewarding elements [of volunteering]. It gives an enormous boost to my wellbeing,” he explained. “The simple ‘thank you’ from my athletes at the end of a session will put a smile on my face for the rest of the day.”
Beyond the fact that supporting your local club or university is great fun, there is certainly no shortage of learning opportunities that come with volunteering at a young age, too. Still a student, Alex values what coaching brings to his CV. “The freedom of coaching just because I want to means that I can use it as a self-development exercise,” he highlighted. “I know that by sharpening my leadership skills through coaching my athletes, I will be much better equipped to manage people throughout my career.”
Something for everyone
While Alex’s volunteering journey has mainly revolved around coaching, he repeatedly emphasised the number of ways youngsters can get involved with volunteering at their local club or school. “There’s always a need for extra volunteers,” he shared. “Whether you coach, stay behind after training to tidy up the boathouse, or volunteer at events as a marshal or a runner, your club will definitely appreciate the extra time you’re dedicating to it.”
“Even former athletes can rediscover their love for rowing through volunteering”
Current junior or student athletes are undoubtedly well placed for starting a volunteering journey. However, that’s not to say volunteering is exclusively reserved for those who already spend every day at the boathouse. “Even former athletes can rediscover their love for rowing through volunteering because of the fond memories it churns up,” Alex highlighted. “Just because you’ve stopped rowing, I think the in-built community spirit that comes with the sport never really dwindles.”
Get involved today!
Alex’s unwavering commitment to rowing is nothing short of inspiring. “My main piece of advice for young rowers, junior or senior, is to just give volunteering a go,” he concluded. “Chances are that your boat club will be grateful for the support. You’ll also enjoy it more than you might expect to.” You heard it here first: ask around at your club! And don’t forget, you too could receive the Rising Star award in the future!