Great Britain set an Olympic record by winning 67 medals at the Rio 2016 Games, two more than they managed at their home Games of London 2012. The organisation, spearheaded by Director of Performance Chelsea Warr, is on a continuous hunt to identify and develop future talent, through constantly iterating its methodologies in the process.
In Staffordshire, the Football Association is also embarking on a journey to create world-class talent at its state-of-the-art home, St. George’s Park. Gareth Southgate first became involved in the set-up when he worked on the creation of a new pathway whist operating as the Under-21 Head Coach and has since made the step up to Head Coach of the England men’s national team. Something must be working as England’s Under-19s won the European Championships this summer and the Under-20s claimed World Cup glory. The next challenge is to take this talent through to the senior team.
The Leaders Performance Institute has identified three key components in each organisation’s efforts to create a pathway for future talent:
Warr explains how UK Sport, much like good venture capitalists, are always considering relative future potential. In other words, how strong is the evidence to suggest the current athletes targeted for podium success could actually reach the required levels, and how strong are the methodologies and processes giving them the platform to achieve this? So what do UK Sport focus on?
The first step is to benchmark the talent against the rest of the world. “The first work stream is benchmarking – we profile all 44 Olympic and Paralympic sports we currently fund twice in a cycle to try to understand, from a sports-specific perspective, how effective and efficient they are at finding and developing world-class performers,” Warr says. “The crux of this is comparing and contrasting against what we consider the world’s best.
“During this process we consider more than 100 metrics that are determining factors in implementing a world-leading talent identification, confirmation and development programme. Following this, we then activate improvement programmes at either a system-wide level or sport-specific level. The principle of profiling followed by support originates from a wise colleague of mine who taught me that critical challenge is three times more likely to be accepted and acted upon if immediately proceeded with help and support. That’s the underpinning principle of our benchmarking work stream.”
The second work stream is built around a specific programme designed to enhance the knowledge of the individuals responsible for unearthing and developing that talent. “Our Performance Pathway Education Programme is designed to accelerate the knowledge and skills of our Performance Pathway Managers. This structured programme unfolds over an 18-month period and comprises intensive residential modules delivered in collaboration with individuals and/or world-renowned institutions who are leading authorities in identifying and developing precocious talent. For example, we have worked with the European Space Agency, Royal Ballet School, the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Surgeons to constantly benchmark ourselves against ‘gold’ standard organisations.
“Finally, we take these guys on a world talent tour whereby they will systematically study 13 institutions that can demonstrate sustainable success and a constant production line of talented individuals that go onto to be at the top of their game.”
- Research & innovation
This work stream is solely focused on staying ahead of the curve. What are the next frontiers in enhancing performance and how can they be integrated? “It’s about having the finger on the pulse with cutting-edge research in the field of developing expertise and then being able to translate it into real-life practice.
“Benchmarking work streams generate some real killer questions that, if we were able to answer them and apply those answers to our methods, it would enhance the chances of identifying the right people and developing them in a more efficient way. We’ve initiated many different applied research projects over the years, it keeps the whole programme fresh and curious, and this is an important quality in a performance-based industry.”
The Football Association
In December 2014, the Football Association launched the ‘England DNA’. The purpose of the DNA was to outline both a playing and coaching philosophy for England teams and a vision of the future England senior international. The five elements of the DNA (Who we are, how we play, the future England player, how we coach and how we support) all revolve around the development of talent. So what does Gareth Southgate feel are the key mechanisms within the pathway?
- Creating a uniform approach
The creation of St. George’s Park has allowed all England national teams of different age groups to be on site at the same time. “During an international break there are occasions when some of the senior players come in to talk to the younger age groups and some of the younger boys might go to train with the senior team,” says Southgate. “Inspirationally that’s important and it’s more of a Club England due to more interaction.
“We’re constantly working on a method and a culture that isn’t too dissimilar at Under-15s to Under-21s. We understand that they can take more in at Under-21 level, they’re further on in their football learning, so there’s got to be an incremental change in their curriculum all the way through.”
- Being comfortable with being uncomfortable
In a high-pressure arena like the World Cup or the European Championships, the teams that are able to handle the occasion most effectively have an increased opportunity for success. “We’re looking at how we can work on personal development with some of our players around the areas of leadership, and especially performing under pressure.
“One of my big learnings is that I don’t think we can take that pressure off the players. It’s there, whatever you talk about as a coach, it’s there, they can feel it and if they’re going to be top players they have to learn to cope with it. In the first 18 months we were talking about how we can make it more comfortable for the players to play for England. The environment is important but also they’ve got to accept that there’s pressure that comes with it. We need to get them used to pressure and give them coping strategies for dealing with it and then put them into those scenarios in a safe environment.”
- Making the talent part of the coaching and feedback process
The way talent is nurtured is constantly evolving and the importance of bringing Millennial talent into the decision making process cannot be understated. Southgate believes that contributing to their own coaching is crucial in developing future talent.
“If something needs freshening up we’d like to think that we as coaches would pick up on that but equally important is the feedback from the players. An example of player feedback is the timing of training. The group we had in 2014 and 2015 wanted to train in the afternoons. This current group prefer to train in the morning so that they can do gym-based work in the afternoon. They just have a different mind-set and I think that we as staff are going to get more out of the players if there is an area that they feel quite strongly about. We’re not conceding power or the ultimate decision, it’s just good to include them in the decision-making process as ultimately they are the ones performing on the pitch.”