Diversity, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Feb 11, 2020
Equality, diversity and inclusion at the English Institute of Sport.

Ask Laura Needham about opportunities for women at the English Institute of Sport [EIS] and her response is emphatic.

By John Portch

“It’s really interesting because, while working here, I have never felt it is even a thing,” answers the Co-Head of Physiology at the EIS. “That’s just our culture, everyone is who they are and everyone has something to offer.”

Needham’s words are echoed by Naomi Stenhouse, the EIS’ Head of Performance Innovation, who says: “My experience is similar to Laura’s. I think I’ve been lucky that I haven’t even had to think about it.”

Stenhouse, who previously worked in the male-dominated steel industry, reflects on the performance innovation team, which she has led for almost seven years. “My team is fairly balanced in terms of a male-female split, and the people like myself, who have an engineering bias are probably more weighted to female than male.

“For me, I feel strongly that having a good balance, with lots of different personalities and experiences is really critical for us as an innovation team. We want different opinions, different backgrounds, and different approaches because we’re always trying to do something that hasn’t been done before.”

Needham, of her own domain, adds: “We just get on with what we need to do and it doesn’t matter who’s delivering it; it’s just who’s the best-placed to do that.”

On the occasion of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, the Leaders Performance Institute explores how the EIS is providing leadership opportunities that its female staff can aspire to by talking to two who are at the heart of the British preparations for the forthcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer.

The EIS provides support services to British Olympic and Paralympic sport in the form of science, medicine, technology and engineering. Additionally, the EIS works with the World Class Programmes in those sports and the medal support plans of individual athletes. This is a network of 350 experts working across more than 40 sports.

The organisation has also enacted an Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which provides opportunities for a broad church.

For Needham, with her sport science background, she works with coaches and athletes to ensure their ongoing development. In addition to her role with the EIS, she serves as Senior Physiologist with British Triathlon, whom she supports on their World Class Programme. “It can be anything from chatting about training with coaches or it might be in the lab one day talking about testing,” she explains.

As the forthcoming summer Olympics will take place in a hot and humid Tokyo, heat preparations have formed a considerable part of her day to day work. “That side of it is really practical, working with the athletes and coaches. Then, in my other role, the leadership role, it’s about supporting others in their ability to do that. We also want to ensure that our practitioners are developing through their time with us in the Institute.”

This is a major consideration for the EIS, which, as it lays out on its website, aims to: “foster a culture of continuous learning and professional development. We are improving the systems we have in place to collect, share and disseminate leading-edge thinking and practice across all areas of expertise. This ensures practitioners have access to the latest developments in sport science and sport medicine both in their own area of expertise and those with cross-disciplinary applications.”

As head of the performance innovation team, Stenhouse is at the heart of delivering that aspiration, whether it’s answering an engineering question related to competition equipment or helping the practitioners on the front line find the answers to other critical performance questions raised by the sports. “There might be a question about the weather in Tokyo, for example, which the sport or the sport’s support team can’t immediately answer– they’d typically come to our team,” she says.

“The Performance Innovation team at the EIS are experts in delivering projects and answers to performance challenges in an elite sport environment.  We couldn’t possibly employ all the technical expertise we might need within the team so once the specifics of the challenge are identified, we then turn to our wider network of experts across the UK to collaborate with us and provide the specific technical know-how.  We act as a conduit and a hub to find the right solutions for the sport and then help them implement them effectively.”

The challenges Needham and Stenhouse tend to encounter in their day to day work is making the science or the engineering relatable to the coaches and athletes.

“When you look at the research and the academic literature, what you try to do is limit the noise that can affect the data,” says Needham, while admitting this can be easier said than done. “We’re dealing with human beings with life stresses and so you’re trying to interpret the data but apply it to a world that’s complex and noisy.

“You’ve always got the balance of science and what actually happens on the ground and you sometimes have to compromise in different areas and you have to be able to make a decision.”

For Stenhouse and the innovation team, much of the fun derives from the challenge of finding solutions that may not be immediately obvious, often deriving solutions from adjacent industries. “The skill and challenge for my team is finding the skill or the potential solution and then being able to present that in a way that’s understandable in the sport and fits into their world and their context as opposed to the world we’re bringing the solution from.”

This has proven to be an essential lesson. “Even when you’re a technology-based project there’s still people at the heart of those projects.” In the same vein, Needham recalls her realisation that she could not go it alone. “You can never expect to be an expert in everything and that’s the beauty of the Institute, really,” she reflects. “We’ve got 30 physiologists and that means 30 brains and sets of experiences to pull on and then all of them have their networks as well. The power is in all of us together.”

With that, the conversation turns to the future, with Stenhouse admitting she already has half an eye on the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. “Tokyo projects are ramping down and preparing to close and projects in winter sport are in full flow at the moment and it’s a critical time in their programmes for doing the bulk of the project development and delivery work.”

Needham points out that competition formats continue to evolve in triathlon, and virtual reality could  play an increasingly prominent role. “It probably won’t be for Paris in 2024 but we’ve seen a huge increase in Zwift, virtual online cycling, and you just wonder where that’s going.”

Stenhouse is also keeping tabs on virtual and augmented reality, as well as to nano technology, but her excitement stems from not knowing exactly what is around the corner. “That’s what keeps it fresh and enables us to keep doing what we do and finding new solutions for the sports.”

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