The very best of sporting champions and sporting leaders have learned to thrive in a world full of uncertainty, to get comfortable with the realisation that it’s never going to get comfortable. This ability to learn and adapt to the shifting dynamics of the performance landscape is a critical hallmark of sustainable success and the foundation upon which greatness emerges.
With a growing body of research now committed to better understanding the factors that enable such journeys to excellence, identifying and focusing on the possibilities emerging from new knowledge and expertise is increasingly becoming the challenge of our times.
With this in mind, late last year the ‘Sky Performance Hub’ and the Leaders Performance Institute embarked on an exciting new initiative that aimed to surface and share the collective wisdom of the global performance sport community regarding their views on the future of sport. In total 150 stories of life in sport were captured from a high quality cohort of athletes, coaches, support staff and leaders who have journeyed to excellence in performance sport. A wide range of Olympic, Paralympic and professional sports were represented with a large number of storytellers having performed, coached, supported or led major championship or Olympic campaigns in their sport.
Over a series of articles in the coming weeks we will examine: why we decided to engage the wisdom of the crowd to explore the future of sport; how we went about connecting to the global sports performance community to elicit their views; what we discovered by inviting them to share the moments that mattered in their life in sport; and where this might lead us in aspiring to shape our sporting future.
The Future of Sport is here and now
The story below was one of the 150 life experiences that were generously shared by members of the performance sport community. Whilst this story was typical of many in its depth and quality of insight, it stands alone as one of many rich and varied experiences that people shared to bring meaning to their life in performance sport:
“when I realised the secrets of training quality: The first adult I coached was already Olympic and world champion. I was young but theoretically strong and thought I knew all there was to know about exercise physiology and training. When analysing training I normally looked for differences between athletes in their training distributions and types of intervals. However since this was shortly after I retired as an athlete myself I was strong enough to follow on most sessions. I could see him in the eyes when he was tired, hear his breath and experience the quality of each push off. His training programme was tough but not exceptionally. However what I realised was that compared to his training mates throughout the whole season he was 1% better physically and mentally prepared for the sessions, he was 1% more focused during the sessions and 1% better to mentally and physically recover. The better preparations led to more specific sessions e.g. he attacked every turn, used different techniques to suit differing conditions and tried out how and when to attack every time he had company in training. These aspects were trained twice or maybe three times as much as the others. He used each possibility and not only when it was planned to do so. Just because he was this 1% more conscious about the details. And in the end these were the aspects that decided all the important races he won. It was not luck – he trained it every day! But in his diary nothing differentiated him from the rest. It made me realise how important it is to analyse the demands of the sport and critically look at how training is performed to meet these demands. It also made me realise that you need to find and use a role model to set the standard on each of the most important qualities. And you need to follow up closely so these details are not forgotten and quality goes down.”
The Future of Sport project was established to explore the potential benefits of an innovative approach to insight capture and strategic engagement, rooted in the power of storytelling. Whilst it’s tempting for the reader to draw conclusions about the meaning inherent in the story above, challenging such conventions lies at the heart of this approach. You may be drawn for example to the recognition that “in his diary nothing differentiated him from the rest”. Or perhaps what caught your attention was the notion that “you need… a role model to set the standard”. Deep in our cultural makeup lies the need to make sense of our world by sharing and making sense of the stories of our life experiences as they unfold. However, all too often in an organisational context, modern management methods push the job of sense making up the hierarchical food chain and lock it into long term strategy planning that bears little relation to the shifting dynamics and lived experience of those then expected to act with strategic intent.
More stories like this, fewer stories like that
By design, the intention of this project has been to describe a range of insights that have surfaced from the diversity of stories shared by a high quality cohort of storytellers from performance sport, whilst avoiding the temptation to draw hierarchical conclusions and narrow in on a set of future strategic actions. Crucially, the storytellers themselves have been invited to signify the meaning of their stories in order to provide a series of narrative landscapes that characterise people’s own views of what matters in their world. This process allows strategy to be iterated based on emerging need in order to help people work from where they are rather than where we might think they should be.
The richness and diversity of experiences and opinions shared through this project illustrate just how complex, fascinating and challenging journeys to excellence can be. These deep personal reflections share a human conviction to believe in better through sport no matter the level of achievement or the challenges encountered. The power of the method adopted here lies in the diversity of the storytellers who engaged in the process and the richness of the stories that they shared. Therefore, the power of the action that emerges from this insight must equally be predicated on the diversity of stakeholders engaged in making sense of and acting upon the findings presented.
The richness and diversity of experiences and opinions shared through this project illustrate just how complex, fascinating and challenging journeys to excellence can be.
By surfacing the deep contextual experience and collective wisdom of a broad spectrum of athletes, coaches, support staff and leaders from the global performance sport community, the future of sport project has provided a unique set of material with which to consider what might be possible in our sporting future. The job of deciding what to act on and why belongs to each stakeholder in making sense of their own context and readiness for change.
For those that are brave enough, this initiative promises to break new ground by instigating a broad portfolio of safe-to-fail experiments stemming from this work and sharing further insights as they emerge. By way of example, a number of novel insights regarding teamship and co-created learning can and should lead to a number of novel actions in the areas of coaching and coach development that aim to elicit improvements in learning environments and team dynamics. Through this collective endeavour the performance sport community can lead the way in ensuring that sport provides us all with more of the stories that we want to hear and fewer of the stories that hold us back from learning how to be a better version of ourselves and how to support the betterment of others through sport.
Through this series of articles we aim to highlight and share the emerging themes and small signals of change that indicate what’s possible for those working to influence the future of sport. We will share emerging insights from this cross-nation, cross-role and cross-sport project and point to the possibilities that open up for those willing to explore the implications of this approach.
In the next article we will explore in more detail the method adopted to enable story capture and the process of both individual and collective sense-making.
Next in The Future of Sport Series: