Human Performance, Performance | Aug 1, 2017
How we went about connecting the global sports performance community to elicit their views.

By Al Smith, Chris Goddard and Scott Drawer

It is becoming increasingly apparent, in both sport and business, that the traditional scientific management principles of the industrial age are no longer fit for purpose in tackling the challenges of our times. Anchored in a ‘clockwork universe’ world view, these approaches are in danger of draining sport of its very humanity by reducing aspirational life journeys to metric laden strategy plans, by reframing moments of creative wonder as computational problems with machine modelled solutions, or by simply seeing people as functionaries and performances as tradeable commodities with a monetary bottom line.

However, the conversations bubbling up at the water cooler of our sporting institutions are fuelling a growing sense that we may be approaching a turning tide. Indeed, there appears to be no shortage of desire across the sporting landscape to throw off the shackles of mechanistic thinking, but behind this impulse lies a great deal of uncertainty about just what to replace it with.

So how might we breathe life back into sport and more fully embrace the organic, complex, inter-connected, nonlinear and wondrous dynamics of the personal experiences that sit at the heart of all journeys to excellence?

The Power of Narrative Landscapes

People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact it’s the other way round…” Terry Pratchett

The Future of Sport initiative was instigated to explore a novel method of strategic engagement that is rooted in storytelling and underpinned by the complexity sciences. Journeys to excellence in sport are inherently complex, as are the endemic issues that sit in the shadow of sporting success. Despite our best efforts, these challenges will not be solved by machine modelled methods that lead to ever more elaborate attempts to do the wrong thing righter. In the end, helping people find meaning and purpose in sport and extract value from their sporting experience requires a willingness to attend to the ever changing dynamics at play in their own world.

For those leaders who wish to influence journeys to excellence in sport it therefore becomes critical to find a means to understand the ways in which people are making sense of their world before we can hope to influence the ways in which they behave. Inviting people to share the stories of their life in sport and to view their experience through a variety of conceptual lenses offers the advantage of generating shared perspectives on the things that matter whilst keeping people’s views anchored to the deep, contextual knowledge they’ve developed about their world.

Story Capture

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.” J.K. Rowling

During this first step into the Future of Sport, 150 stories of life in sport were shared by a high quality cohort of athletes, coaches, support staff and leaders who have journeyed to excellence in performance sport. Story’s were captured and analysed using SenseMaker®, a novel methodology that blends qualitative data with quantification frameworks that invite people to make sense of the lived experience they’ve just shared in narrative form (example below – Fig.1). Crucially SenseMaker® allows the storyteller to signify the meaning of their own story in order to minimise external bias and develop an unfiltered view of the issues that matter to them. From multiple storytellers then we are able to map narrative landscapes that display emergent patterns of both similarity and difference in the meaning people have attributed to their experience in sport.



figure 1. example SenseMaker® signification framework showing shifts in team dynamic from the start (left graph) to end (right graph) of people’s stories (each data point represents a story)


Story Elicitation

In order to elicit people’s stories a small number of prompts were designed to encourage people to draw on their lived experiences in performance sport. Storytellers were asked to share their thoughts on the future of performance sport by describing from their own sporting journey the moments that, on reflection, seem to matter most now.

Crucially, storytellers were only asked to make sense of their story (quantified signification) after it had been shared (qualification) such that the only influence on the story people shared was the elicitation itself.

Story Signification

Storytellers were then provided with 12 signification frameworks in order to make sense of their story. These signifiers were developed by engaging a range of stakeholders to road test the process and inform the iteration of frameworks anchored to people’s views on what matters to the future of sport.



A thematic analysis was then conducted to highlight the most common areas of interest in people’s stories as well as identifying the small signals that popped up less frequently. Subsequent efforts to iterate forward strategy can therefore focus on both the frequency and the diversity of emerging themes in order to unlock the potential of what matters to people here and now.



figure 2. a learning framework constructed from the thematic analysis


Story Themes

The storytellers who took part in this process shared generously from their deep personal, and often emotional, experiences of life in sport. In the majority of stories people talked about the dynamics of learning about and developing themselves, their roles in sport and/or the sporting cultures they were part of (fig.2). Within each of these broad areas a number of themes emerged from the analysis.

In the next article we will explore the emerging themes alongside the ways in which people chose to signify their meaning.

Further reading:

Part One: Join us we Take a Glimpse at the Future of Sport

Part Three: The Future of Sport and Learning from the Moments that Matter

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