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Human Performance, Performance | Dec 31, 2020
As we head into the New Year, we round up some stories and insights in the field of human performance that deserve your consideration.

That’s a wrap for 2020. There has been innumerable performance stories to emerge from a challenging year for sport and, in many respects, they illustrate the way forward as sport continues to evolve and innovate.


By John Portch

To round up the year, we showcase the worlds of education and international trading, as well as elite sport. Each in their own way is trying to innovate and bring the kind of fresh thinking that delivers those critical edges in high performance. 

Generation Z can collaborate… but they may have to be shown how 

“It’s not that Generation Z cannot collaborate, it’s just that they tend to go it alone,” observes Jonnie Noakes, the Head of Teaching & Learning at the world-renowned Eton College. Noakes, a two-time Leaders speaker who has liaised with a number of elite sporting organisations keen to tap into his and the school’s expertise in the field of education. 

The Leaders Performance Institute asks Noakes what his advice would be for those coaches concerned about their young athletes’ ability to collaborate. “When you ask about how you deal with the behavioural, cultural conflicts that impact upon the collaboration,” he replies, “I suppose you have to say, ‘OK, this is a generation who feel they have to achieve things themselves; they have to be self-motivated, they have to be self-driven to develop their own aims; that is where they’re coming from.’ 

“Tap into those, find out what it is they’re trying to achieve, make sure in a training situation that their aims are aligned with the aims of the team or the aims of the academy; it’s all very well them having individual aims but they’ve got to be aligned with the group aims if it’s going to work. Make sure they’re conscious of how to bring their own aims into alignment with the group aims; and then show them how much can be gained by working together on this. 

“They need to be shown that working collaboratively and in alignment with others is hugely more powerful than doing this on your own.” 

Achieving data mastery in your teams 

As organisations increasingly expect their decision-making to be data-informed, the need for stakeholder buy-in is as great as it has ever been. The ideal, pursued by the English Institute of Sport, is to build a data literate community across the 40 Olympic and Paralympic sports with which it works. 

It is vital that we possess the skills required not only to meet the demands of interacting with both quantitative and qualitative data today but also for a future world where data mastery will become an increasingly valuable expertise,” says John Blenkharn, the Sports Intelligence Programme Manager at the EIS.  

“We are trying to achieve this through different data pathways for coaches and practitioners. For example, developing baseline data skills for those at a foundation level, with a focus on core data structuring, analysis and visualisation principles through to those who are taking more of a data leadership role in a sport where a proficiency in advanced analytics and a deeper understanding of the role of data plays in comprehending the various facets of human performance is key. We are also supporting senior leaders, who are generally the recipients of data insights, to grow their capabilities in reading the story from data and ultimately where data fits in their decision-making processes.” 

Technical learning by itself is not enough and the EIS also promotes study visits to Europe, North America and beyond to challenge existing views and reinforce best practice. “In a rapidly changing environment, it is crucial to understand more about where the data world is heading. Underpinning our plans for these development pathways is a desire to expose our teams to other world-leading, data-informed organisations. One of our core beliefs is that spending quality time away from our day-to-day environment and engaging with different ways of thinking can be a catalyst for the next great idea. 

Heard of improvement science? It may help to integrate your big data 

Could improvement science be useful for managing growth of big data in sport? Improvement science is defined by the Institute of Education Sciences as “a problem-solving approach centered on continuous inquiry and learning. Change ideas are tested in rapid cycles, resulting in efficient and useful feedback to inform system improvements.”  

It is becoming a valuable tool for the Pittsburgh Pirates and their minor league affiliates. “This approach galvanizes technology and data integration in our development processes thus, yielding systematic improvement,” says Brian Selman, the Pirates’ Assistant Director of Minor League Operations. “Improvement science can immediately advance baseball development connecting pragmatic objective measurement between the analyst, the coach, and the player. Secondly, improvement science lends perspective on incremental learning encouraging scalable implementation. Improvement science is not a comprehensive solution, but organises systematic focus on high leverage opportunities producing faster learning. 

“By keeping our focus problem-centred and user specific, we can understand what a good development process looks like, the inherent non-negotiables, and where flexibility exists for nuance and creativity. As we implement change behaviours into routines, we can assign specific measurements to assess progress. Finally, we must collectively review whether the changes made actually signify improvement. If we are not adequately testing hypotheses, we can never truly know if we are progressing.” 

Emotions are a strength, not a weakness 

Traditional thinking says that emotions are a hindrance to performance, but if we want to be authentic and truthful, we must be able to navigate our so-called negative emotions. 

That is the view of Denise Shull, the Principal of the ReThink Group, a New York-based human capital consultancy that leverages both neuroscience and psychoanalytical research. Shull has worked with hedge funds for years but is now attracting interest from across the sporting world, with Nascar Team Hendrick Motorsports taking a lead. 

“Human beings,” says Shull, “always make decisions based on their feelings of confidence. They think it’s their data but it’s actually the feelings about the data. How much belief and confidence do you have in the data and its implications? That’s why confidence is something you can analyse and work with in an intentional way. You can deconstruct for example the emotion of trust or the comfort in hiring a known person and ensure the hire is happening for the best risk-reward ratio.” 

Sport, as she points out, is learning to use psychologists to safeguard and maintain its athletes and staff’s mental health and wellbeing but feels that an improved understanding of emotions can take the mental aspect further. “Coaches don’t realise that they can work with their gut feeling or their confidence – or their lack thereof – in an organised and systematic way. Sport psychologists tend to take a cognitive approach to feelings also but the more you try to ignore emotions the more they’re going to come out in another, usually less productive, way. 

“What’s going to happen on the field next week is unknown, so if you have a grounding in what you believe and why you believe it gives you something that doesn’t change; it gives you something you can rely on; it gives you a more stable place to work from once you have honoured the feeling as a source of information.” 


This article was taken from our latest Performance Special ReportThe New Now: Navigating High Performance During an Ongoing Pandemic – featuring a selection of insights collected from practitioners around the globe as we all continue through these unprecedented times. Download the full report now.

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