Coaching & Development, Leadership & Culture, Performance | Nov 24, 2020
What are some of the steps you can take to ensure your team emerges from the pandemic on a stronger footing than your rivals?

Will the pandemic prove to be an accelerant or a disruptor across elite sport? The evidence, so far as it exists, leans towards the former, at least during the next couple of years.  

By John Portch

The trend towards ever greater personalisation and athletes accepting more accountability in their development precedes the pandemic, but is likely to speed up as sports return to play and high performance dynamics shift behind the scenes. 

Here, we pick out six considerations to help prepare your high performance teams for the immediate future. 

1. Watch your language 

“Something that’s struck me is the importance of an environment where you need to be adaptable, where there are unusual occurrences and some teams are not necessarily prepared for that the level of autonomy within their organisation,” Ulster Head Coach Dan McFarland tells Leaders and Elite Performance Partners [EPP]“We’ve almost got used to things being unusual,” he observes. “I don’t mean that in the sense that we’ve gotten used to unusual things, what I mean is we’ve gotten used to the fact that there are going to be unusual things. That breeds an adaptability in us and the fact that we are going to be heading into the unknown. 

It is easier to be nimble when there is an agreed and shared performance lexicon but that is not always the case at some organisationsThis is a good time to start. Speaking of his time at the British Olympic Association, Nick Chadd [now Lead Sports Scientist at City Football Group] understood that having a shared language was essential because a term may mean different things to different people. The organisation needed to work at it. “We did this through a process,” he explains. “No1, Identify the terms that create ambiguity within a team; 2. Define the vocabulary that is needed to the team; 3. Make it live through everyday use or build it in to other processes. Whilst you cannot scope out every element of a team’s vocabulary, reoccurring and pivotal terms should be targeted. 

A definition does not necessarily need to be dictionary perfect, but it needs to work for your team and the team need to agree to use it and understand what it is to be used for. Build it in to thought processes and systems, have it on walls, paperwork, whiteboards or whatever the living method is in your team’s world, so it is referred to regularly in the correct and required context.” 

2. Where can you best contribute to the team? 

Even before the pandemic there was the risk of teams getting hung up on the signs of a good culture as opposed to tackling performance challenges. “There have been many discussions sparked by teams defining and wearing the correct training or staff kit without there being a clear link to the performance problem we were trying to solve,” observes Chadd. “These discussions and energy not only shifted focus and drained resources but also prevented other possible solutions to a clearly established focus or performance problem.” He suggests teams take into account four areas: “1. What is the global performance problem and focus? 2. Define each department or discipline’s performance problem and focus contributing to the above; 3. Communicate through every layer at every opportunity; 4. Constantly sense check interventions and strategies against the focus.” 

3. Give your people the right spaces to fill 

McFarland is full of praise for his support staff, who each bring different skills to the fore. The opening phase of the pandemic were an ideal time for them to find their voice within the team. “I use the phrase that you’re trying to create space for them to shape it,” he says. “If you fill that space they’ll never shape it. To be fair, some people don’t want to be involved in shaping; they’re like to be told, they’re happy to follow, but if that space isn’t there be to be filled because I’m filling it constantly or somebody’s filling it constantly, people won’t be able to do that.” 

4. Let your practitioners be question makers, not mere operators 

On the flipside, practitioners cannot afford to be ploughing a lone furrow without engaging the wider team. “We’ve developed roles and encouraged practitioners to be technology operators rather than sports science question-makers and solvers relevant to the context of the environment and sport,” says Robin Thorpe, the Director of Performance & Innovation at Altis. Of data scientists he adds: “If you’re just operating and not thinking about what data is telling you; is it reliable or sensitive or are we collecting it in the right manner and at the right time; then some of the information from those processes is not going to be accurate enough to give you the confidence to make those big decisions.” 

5. The return of the specialist-generalist 

As finances suffer and Covid-19 protocols prevent full staff gatherings at training or in game day parties, performance staffs are inevitably being reduced, which has seen also the inadvertent return of the specialist-generalist capable of sliding across different roles. The question is continually raised at the Leaders Performance Institute and Dave Slemen of EPP feels this may give multifaceted practitioners a chance to shine. “During the ‘good years’ when many sports were wellfinanced,” he says, we found a growth of specialists for every role, and a certain presenteeism that eroded the power of the individual and created an element of groupthink.” Consequently, “it’s forced initiative on other team members, allowing those who are ready to step up and do things differently. 

6. The value of diverse thinking 

Speaking of groupthink, Chadd posits four further steps to encourage diversity of thought within your organisation. He suggests: “1. Break the traditional thought process with different personnel from different disciplines or backgrounds; put in place a structured thought process for problem-solving; 3. Use provocation strategies to understand problems such as the ‘five whys’ or ‘six thinking hats’; 4. Use lateral thinking strategies for what can be rather than what is.” It is not all about throwing out the baby with the bath water either. “Rather than representing a complete overhaul of systems, these steps can actually confirm many of our processes whilst protecting them from emotion, subjectivity, assumptions and perception, all of which can change on any given day based on external or internal influence.” 

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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