Coaching & Development | Mar 18, 2016

The Leaders Sport Performance Summit took place at Red Bull Media House in Santa Monica earlier this month. The afternoon sessions combined insights from the NBA’s LA Clippers on organizational alignment, the Oregon Ducks and Cirque du Soleil on talent development, and ended with the Center of Body Computing and the Neuroscience Imaging Center talking about using technology to optimize the human brain for performance.

Our guest speakers engaged an audience of elite sporting practitioners about the ways they pursue excellence in their fields. “Plenty of insights from a life in the game,” tweeted Andrew Fagan, CEO of Adelaide Football Club, of Clippers Head Coach Dave Wohl’s session. 

Here are some of the themes that emerged from the late afternoon sessions, including the need for organizational alignment in big sporting teams, the ways one can replace fear with confidence, and ever-developing technologies for increasing brain plasticity – the brain’s ability to change – in a positive way.

Dave Wohl, General Manager of the LA Clippers, Delivering Lessons in Leadership in an NBA Career:

  1. Organizational commitment will be tested when your team hits a period of adversity. A franchise or club needs a united front from the Owners, the General Manager, Head Coach and the playing staff. Communication must be open and clear at all levels and trust established if everyone is to be aligned with the collective goals of the team.
  2. This organizational alignment provides a useful framework when recruiting and providing new employees with meaningful goals and metrics by which to achieve them. This extends beyond the front office and coaching staff to the players. Talent is important in elite sport but even athletes must be recruited according to the values of the franchise.
  3. Analytics are becoming increasingly prevalent in sport and they are useful for identifying problems but that is often the extent of their utility. General Managers and Head Coaches must be able to call upon their experience and intuition in order to make informed decisions. Analytics will supplement that but they can never replace it.

Mark Helfrich, Head Coach of the Oregon Ducks, and Matthew Sparks, Head Coach and Dance Captain at Cirque du Soleil, discuss talent development

  1. Fear must be eradicated. Successful performers have confidence and so they must always be encouraged to try something new and understand that to make mistakes is an inevitable part of long-term progression. Coaches must be open with feedback and build ‘spheres of confidence’ for their athletes or performers. This is done by gradually building competences in different areas so that they can trust their bodies.
  2. Encourage creativity. Too often inspiration disappears when athletes and performers become self-conscious. Children possess creativity in part because they are not self-conscious about playing with their peers. It is incumbent upon coaches to inject fun into their routines, be it playground games or other performance disciplines that enable athletes and performers to try new things in a non-pressured environment.
  3. Learning is often effective when athletes or performers are taught by their peers. At Cirque du Soleil, the organization develops artists’ sense of ownership by enabling them to progress into teaching other performers. They experience different disciplines, develop a sense of ownership across the circus, and receive instruction in coaching a variety of roles. A performer may start in one discipline but will eventually be comfortable teaching in other areas.

Leslie Saxon, Executive Director of the Center of Body Computing, and Professor Adam Gazzaley, Founding Director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center, on optimizing performance through health tech and video games

  1. The player must be prioritized. Wearable technologies have pushed advancements in training and performance but too often devices fall into the trap of championing technology at the expense of the player. Their interests must come first and there must be a sensible alignment that takes into account both safety and efficacy.
  2. Brain plasticity can be developed well beyond childhood. Performance is a brain activity and the natural tendency for reduced plasticity as a person ages. This can be halted and improved by targeting the brain’s underlying process systems through video games that use closed-loop systems.
  3. Technology now permits controlled development. The closed-loop systems in use permit continual corrections and modifications. Games rich in data and environments can be adapted to build controlled trials that can focus on either a player’s physical or cognitive abilities as required.





Category Partners




Sign up to our newsletters

To ensure you’re keeping up to date with the latest intelligence, sign up (for free) to receive newsletters. Get exclusive insight from top organisations worldwide on leadership & culture, human performance, coaching & development and data & innovation.


Become a member

Join our exclusive community of 600 leading global performance organisations to target all aspects of high performance and challenge thinking with access to premium events, unlimited thought-leading content & networking opportunities. 

Become a member