Coaching / Development Leadership & Culture Performance | 13.11.17

Part Four: Shaping the Future of Sport

Connecting people and unlocking potential in a learning culture.

By Al Smith, Chris Goddard and Scott Drawer

Late last year the Sky Performance Hub and the Leaders Performance Institute embarked on an exciting new initiative, supported by myfastestmile, that aimed to surface and share the collective wisdom of the global performance sport community regarding their views on the future of sport. Over the course of this series of short articles we have examined why we decided to engage the wisdom of the crowd to explore the future of sport (part one), how we went about connecting to the global sports performance community to elicit their views (part two) and what we discovered by inviting them to share the moments that mattered in their life in sport (part three). We finally turn our attention to where this might lead us in aspiring to shape our sporting future (part four).

The breadth of stories shared by the athletes, coaches, support staff and leaders who took part in this project and the diversity of ways in which they signified the meaning behind these critical moments in their life in sport are a rallying call for those who wish to open up rather than narrow down the possibilites for our sporting future. People shared generously of their deeply personal developmental experiences, the development of their professional roles and the development of the sporting cultures of which they were part. Often at the heart of these stories were the same questions we hear in our conversations with sporting leaders:

  • How do we create engaging environments for our youngest participants?
  • How do we better develop our talented athletes/players?
  • How do we become world-leading in developing our coaches?
  • How do we create highly effective performance teams in pursuit of excellence?
  • How do we make our sport more meaningfully connected to society?
  • How can we improve the relationships between investors (funding bodies, commercial organisations, sponsors etc.) and sports?
  • How do we help more people find purpose through their life in sport?

Rage Against the Machine

“Most organisations are working with a century-old framework, and they don’t even know it.” Adam Pisoni

For many, the biggest blocker to progress in tackling these critical questions is the water we’re swimming in. We’ve become so accustomed in organisational life to the efficiency-led approaches of the industrial age, that the first and most important challenge for organisational leaders is to recognise that there are other, and perhaps better, ways of working if we wish to attend more effectively to the unpredictable, dynamic and natural complexities of sporting life. To recognise that meeting these challenges involves more meaningfully connecting people and unlocking their potential to provide the capabilities that enable individuals to adapt and respond at speed to the dynamic nature of sport.

For those leaders that wish to break free of rigid and out-dated management practices that see people as functionaries in the pursuit of a performance, the hope of a more fruitful path may be found by embracing the principles of a learning culture. In more fully attending to the complex, holistic nature of organisational learning and development, leaders can get closer to the true heart of people’s journeys of mastery.

Getting Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable

“The beauty of sport is you never know what’s going to happen next.” Ric Charlesworth

If the difficult, multi-faceted challenges our sporting organisations are grappling with cannot be solved by traditional management methods, then how might we better help people to embrace the uncertainty and let learning lead the way? For an organisational learning culture to evolve perhaps the first and most lasting commitment must be to develop the capacity in people to tackle complex issues by using coaching practices that enhance their capability as effective learners. In order to be effective this must go hand in hand with a shift in practice that builds organisational capacity to developing effective strategic approaches to complex problems. This typically involves a deep commitment to understanding the current situation (“what’s going on around here?”) before any attempt to identify opportunities to take purposeful action with strategic intent. Unsurprisingly, there are no one-off ‘fixes’ or one-size fits all ‘solutions’ to complex problems. It therefore becomes imperative that future-leaning sports organisations develop the capacity to get comfortable making principled decisions in uncertain contexts rather than being led by predetermined processes.

What’s Really Going on Around Here

One of the recurring themes in our narrative analysis was labelled ‘Content is King, but Context is Queen’. All too often in the modern world of sport we find organisations awash with new ways of generating content about their people but at sea when attempting to place this new data in a meaningful context to the job at hand. For a learning culture to evolve, effective people development can only take place by attending to the dynamics of and interplay between personal (‘my story’), situational (‘my role’) and systemic (‘my organisation/sport’) context and coaching people through their lived experiences of the shifting context of the world which they inhabit every day. This sits in stark contrasts with more traditional people development activity that is most often confined to organisational ‘silos’, putting the emphasis on content and task development at the individual level, or off-site programmes focussed on ‘soft skills’, that each ignore the wider context and culture that those people are then expected to function effectively within.



“Context sets the stage for success or failure, so it’s important to attend to organisational design and managerial processes first and then support people with individual development tools.” Why Leadership Training Fails, Harvard Business Review 2016

In our experience, organisations transitioning to a facilitative ‘coaching approach’ to leadership and culture can face tensions between individuals/teams (personal/situational context) and the embedded management structures and processes of the organisation (systemic context). Having the courage to attend to these tensions as they arise maybe a critical success factor for leaders wishing to embrace a coaching approach and become a learning organisation.

Having the Conversations that Really Matter

At the heart of all great coaching relationships are regular, candid conversations about the things that matter. Conversations are the starting point for engaging and connecting relevant stakeholders, as it is only through candid dialogue that we can collectively surface ‘what’s going on around here’ and decide ‘what we need to do about it.’ For the learning organisation these conversations become critical to everyday funcitoning and their absence becomes a significant cause for concern.



Mind the Gap

The stories surfaced by the approach employed in this project, and the individual and collective meaning that emerges from the signification of these stories using the SenseMaker® tool, creates a powerful platform to start the conversations that matter. Crucially however, the real promise of this approach lies in its ability to narrow the gap between insight and action.

Grounding insights in lived experience and surfacing a diversity of stakeholder opinion enables decision makers to dynamically iterate different solutions based on lived experience in local context. It provides an approach to monitor the changing landscape and to amplify or dampen strategic actions in order to achieve ‘more stories like this’ and ‘less stories like that’.

In this context overarching strategy planning shifts from action plans to principles of play and from the prescription of process to the pursuit of purpose. The space for ‘getting stuff done’ then becomes the domain of all those people acting with strategic intent to meet the organisation’s purpose.

“Don’t move information to authority, move authority to the information.” David Marquet

Life in Sport

The future of sport is an uncertain future indeed, but for those that are willing to get uncomfortable and let learning lead the way it promises to be a future filled with opportunities to help people find meaning and purpose through their life in sport.

“It’s a terrible thing, I think, in life to wait until you’re ready. I have this feeling now that actually no one is ever ready to do anything. There is almost no such thing as ready. There is only now. And you may as well do it now. Generally speaking, now is as good a time as any.” Hugh Laurie

Further reading:

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

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

Part Three: The Future of Sport and the Stories that People Tell