Coaching & Development, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Aug 17, 2020
We take lessons from New Zealand rugby, UK Athletics and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Leaders Performance Institute once asked Arsène Wenger how he knows when a young player is ready for the senior team.

By John Portch

“When he plays in training and the other players give them the ball,” he responded.

Teammates or fellow athletes may be the best judges but Wenger, who served as Arsenal Manager between 1996 and 2018 and enjoyed a reputation as a coach who championed youth, ensured that his young players had every opportunity to thrive.

Here we dip into the Leaders Performance Institute vaults to shine a light on three elite performance environments – New Zealand Rugby, UK Athletics and the Pittsburgh Pirates – and explore their approaches to developing winning traits in their athletes. We also looked ahead to see where neuroscience could make an impact for those willing and able to take a punt.

Setting gold standards

A player must be exceptional if they are to be considered for selection by a team as accomplished as the New Zealand Black Ferns.

The five-time Women’s Rugby World Cup champions represent the pinnacle for any young rugby-playing girl in New Zealand and, when the team is afforded the opportunity to compete they tend to be dominant, as their 2017 World Cup success ably demonstrated. Just four nations have inflicted defeat on the team in its 30-year history.

Ominously for the rest of the world, the plan is to improve further. “Everything is centred around what is going to make the players better,” said Jamie Tout, the Black Ferns’ Strength & Conditioning Coach.

“We have gold standards around what that looks like in a game performance and how we can better use that in a training environment – it’s not just the standard that the players have to meet, we’re accountable as well.”

Players, who start from a high base in the first place, develop winning traits through high intensity training. “In a game sense it’s about increasing our game understanding,” says Head Coach Glenn Moore.

“We’re continuing to grow our skill base and we do a lot of skill activity at high intensity under enormous pressure, trying to get players used to being able to operate under pressure with a calm demeanour; we’re doing a lot of work around mental strength as well. We’re continuing to try and evolve the game.”

Establishing networks of support

The Black Ferns have a natural advantage in the fact that the entire squad is based in New Zealand, but what about decentralised programmes where the coaches and athletes are dotted across the globe?

UK Athletics [UKA] is a prime example and the Leaders Performance Institute spoke to Steve Paulding, who currently serves as Interim World Class Programme Director at UKA, about the beginnings of a four-year Olympic and Paralympic cycle.

“In the first year we’re working with some new athletes; some athletes will also have left the programme,” he said. “We will have had changes in staff too. So there’s some embedding required to ensure we’re aligned and on strategy; that we’ve checked the balance of our strategy.

We then start working to ensure we get the right networks of support around the athlete and making sure that any new relationships are built.”

The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games presents all sorts of challenges but athletes across Britain’s World Class Programmes are well supported in their development.

Prepare your athletes for speedbumps

Though the Black Ferns and UK Athletics differ in that one is centralised and the other decentralised, by the very nature of their competition, both exclude non New Zealanders or non-Brits.

The same cannot be said for Major League Baseball, where Forbes reported that 27% of players are foreign-born. The embedding process presents a cultural challenge long before the question of winning traits rises to the fore.

To that end, the Pittsburgh Pirates founded their Cultural Readiness and Peak Performance programme, which is headed by its Director, Dr Héctor Morales with the express purpose of helping the team’s foreign players to find their feet in the United States.

“It’s not that we’re going to give them the solutions – the ‘keys to the kingdom’,” said Morales. “We are making them aware of the speedbumps they are going to find that will significantly harm their career if they are not prepared for them.”

As with the Black Ferns, there is an assumption that new arrivals already possess the talent and so the focus is more holistic.

“If you don’t have a contingency plan, a mental tool to pull out at that moment to reset and get back to where they need to be.”

The future? Neurocognitive assessments

It is becoming increasingly clear that beyond talent, winning traits are rooted in resilience. That can be resilience out on the field or in other areas of an athlete’s life but it is essential – it is also something of a soft skill.

Optios, a specialist in neurocognitive assessment, are at the vanguard of a movement in elite sport to place science-based metrics on supposedly soft skills such as resilience.

Scientific data, they say, can be leveraged to help coaches and athletes with stress, resilience and performing under pressure.

“The ability to recognise how both your body and mind can change in response to stressful outside influences, and the ability to control your reactions through capabilities such as neurofeedback, can provide a distinct advantage by creating a mental shield to help keep you in the game, in the moment, and performing at your best,” said Dr Tom Nugent, who spoke at the 2019 Leaders Sport Performance Summit in London.

He added: “Stress can have both positive and negative effects on performance, and knowing the variance of an individual player’s response to these things will give better insight into how to maximise their potential while maintaining optimal mental health.”

Looking for more performance insight?

Performance 21 is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.

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