Why Curt Harnett believes volunteering is key to success


When I asked the celebrated track cyclist what he planned to do after volunteering as chef de mission for the Toronto 2015 Pan-Am Games, his answer revealed what many pee-wee hockey coaches, board members and charity event organizers already know.

“Protect my lifestyle!” he replied with a smile. He was noticeably exhausted, and he swore he wouldn’t do it again.

But here we are, less than one year later, and Harnett is doing it again. This time, however, it’s bigger: The 2016 Rio Olympics.

Until recently the volunteer role was held by Jean-Luc Brassard, who stepped down on April 11. In a statement, the freestyle skiing legend blamed “professional obligations and other responsibilities” for the move.

In other words, paid work trumped volunteer work, especially when the unpaid efforts revolved around an organization as volatile as the Canadian Olympic Committee, which is still recovering from the sexual harassment scandal surrounding former president Marcel Aubut.

Plus, there’s bound to be at least one more Olympic fire to put out.

So I put it to Harnett: “Why, Curt… Why?”

“It’s easy to stand by and be a critic,” Harnett said. “It is far healthier to be engaged and provide solutions that make a difference. Being a sportsperson, you want to make sure that opportunities stay there for our youth.”

Positive impact

Indeed, there is plenty to love about the Rio gig. When the Olympic Village opens on July 24 in the Jacarepaguá neighbourhood, Harnett will be there to welcome every athlete and make sure they feel supported, connected and able to compete at their best.

“My sporting career would never have happened without dedicated volunteers,” Harnett continued. “It’s the way I was brought up.”

After helping with his son’s hockey career, Harnett’s dad, Mel, took time away from his small HVAC business in Thunder Bay to volunteer as a bike-race commissionaire. He would empty the tools and sheet metal out of his van and throw in a mattress and a bike. Father and son would then drive to competitions as far away as Minneapolis.

Harnett believes that volunteering boosts self-confidence, self-esteem and overall life satisfaction. “You could be playing video games, golfing or out drinking with your buddies, but instead you’re busting your butt to do good for others and the community,” he said, adding that this provides a natural sense of accomplishment.

Three more reasons to volunteer

1. Combat depression: Volunteering will put you in regular contact with other people with whom you share a common goal, and likely interests and ideals to boot. As the Canadian Men’s Health Association points out, being social can add years to our lives by reducing stress and depression. Researchers at the London School of Economics, meanwhile, found that the more people volunteered, the happier they were. Coaching that soccer team or leading that fundraiser will also help you develop a solid social support system that will be there through challenging times.

2. Time added on: Wharton School of Business professor Cassie Mogilner wrote about this phenomenon in the Harvard Business Review. In the same way that donating to charity makes you feel wealthier – the time you spend raising money for the local school’s new sports equipment makes you feel like there’s more room in your calendar.

3. Land a better job: Volunteering doesn’t have to be selfless. The LinkedIn professional networking site added a field for members to list volunteer work after a survey found that 41 per cent of employers value volunteer work just as highly as paid work, and that 20 per cent had made a hiring decision based on it. You chaired the board of your local swim team? That’s leadership!

Why do you volunteer? Send Adam Kreek a message on Twitter@adamkreek. You can also find more tips to improve your body, mind and soul on the Don’t Change Much website.

This article is also available through CBC Sports.

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