Human Performance, Performance | May 27, 2020
Themes around developing athletes explored, discussed, and parsed in a virtual learning environment.

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The first Virtual Leaders Meet: Athletic Performance arrived just in time for sport’s big restart.

By John Portch

Approximately 400 members of the Leaders Performance Institute logged in to hear best practice insights from the Irish Rugby Football Union, Melbourne FC, the Football Association, the Lawn Tennis Association, and the Philadelphia 76ers.

The event, hosted by friend of Leaders Michael Caulfield, was initially earmarked for Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park stadium where, coincidentally, an hour after we wrapped up, local favourites Borussia hosted Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich in a rescheduled match behind closed doors.

German football is not alone, with the question of returning to play facing numerous leagues across the globe at present. It represented just one of the topics on a packed agenda. For those of you who made it online, here is a roundup of the day’s main takeaways; and for those of you unable to make it, we hope you’ll find a pinch of insight here for your ongoing projects.

Developing a Team of Teams: The IRFU Athletic Performance Model

Nick Winkelman, Head of Athletic Performance & Science, Irish Rugby Football Union

Irish Rugby operates as a team of teams, with Winkelman and his colleagues supporting the delivery and development of athletic performance and sports science across all national [men’s and women’s XVs and VIIs] and provincial teams [Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht]. “I present this through the lens that we are a community of competitors” The IRFU’s Athletic Performance Model runs on holistic, integrated, collaborative approach.

  • The IRFU have a unique challenge and opportunity in that we have to get four distinct teams, who are all competitors of one another, at specific time point throughout the year to come together; players from different coaches, athletic performance teams, medical teams and performance coaches; we need to knit four of those parties together to create one team.  Question: how do we optimise player performance and the autonomy that that team needs within the province but also have enough continuity and consistency to accelerate the ability to jell these players together when they pull on the green jersey.
  • “That is my remit: I am not the bricks, I am not the wood – I am the nail, I am the mortar that connects things together. I see myself as the seamstress; I am trying to pull it together to create one story while respecting the autonomy, insights and entities of the four provinces.”
  • The IRFU want to operate as a team of teams, which allows us to operate four times faster, as we integrate contextually similar data or information across four environments. If we can dissolve all ego and get parties to share with one another I will be able to synthesise a three-to-one value. This egoless nature is a core value that nurtures this idea of a community of competitors idea.


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The Current Climate: Navigating Through Challenges on Athletic Performance Programmes

Darren Burgess, Head of High Performance, Melbourne FC  

Bryce Cavanagh, Head of Physical Performance & Medicine, The Football Association

  • In a national team, tournament-based set-up the best way to find efficiency in your periodisation strategies is through representative training designs that resemble the tournament. There are three areas that can stretch a team in the field during those denser periods when scenario training is required:

1. Intensity – physical risks around fatigue; maximise the stress components

2. Clarity – to promote better decision-making when performing under pressure

3. Execution – better execution of skills

  • These result in physical, tactical/technical and psychological constructs and the aim should be to hit two or three of those for the benefit of both coaches and players.


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Building Modern Day Athletes: Holistic support to maximise development

Dan Lewindon, Head of Performance Science & Medicine, LTA

How to support and work effectively with athletes taking into account their context, your ability to build trust, as well as the role of integrated work and even compromises in achieving outcomes.

1. Understand & value the individual

This is fundamental to the LTA’s success in supporting athletes and coaches and leading teams of people. We need to understand people as individuals and there is a growing understanding and awareness across all sports, throughout all stages of an athlete’s career, that wellbeing and resilience play key roles in the achievement and sustainment of success.

2. Shape your environment and communication

  • This is principally about how support staff work together in support of the athlete and coach and create the right balance of communication with each other and coaches.
  • There has been an explosion in specialisms, which creates opportunities for dedicated expertise and diverse thinking in problem-solving; equally, there is the risk of silo working and unnecessary noise. How do we harness that expertise into a single, cohesive view?

Interdisciplinary vs multidisciplinary

  • The former is more about integration, those pieces working together. It requires a structured and safe environment where support staff and all stakeholders can share their views and feel valued for doing so, which requires a funnel for doing this in a cohesive fashion.
  • Get it right and it produces clarity for the athletes, reduces the noise.
  • This style of approach allows you to be bold in your recruitment to facilitate this model of interdisciplinary working.

Communicate with care

  • It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to sound clever when speaking to coaches or using unnecessarily technical language to make a point; it cannot be about your needs but your athletes’ holistic needs.

3. Understand all demands

  • You need to understand the game: the technical, tactical, physical and psychological demands as dictated by such considerations as game style, position.

4. Have clear plans and processes

  • Are we all clear about the plans that have been put in place?

Hector Vivas/Getty Images


Trust the Process: Opportunities in Human Performance & Science in Elite Sporting Environments

Lorena Torres, Performance Director, Philadelphia 76ers

Torres became the Sixers’ Performance Director in August last year having been at the San Antonio Spurs for almost five seasons in the sports science department. Barely six months passed when the pandemic brought the NBA to a halt but here she paused to reflect on her journey from sports scientist to a leadership position.

  • It needs to be a long-term vision that drives the team. What are the organisation’s values? Is it to hire caring people? Ambitious people? The more you can project, the better the hiring process.
  • Applied sports science is a fairly new feature at most major sports teams across North America, where the sports organisation/university sports science collaborations are not as common. Teams tend to bring in outsiders, such as Torres, from either Europe or Australia. It is a topic Torres has written about with her friend and fellow sports scientist Yann Le Meur in their essay: 10 Challenges Facing Today’s Applied Sports Scientist.
  • Set an organisation up for collaboration rather than collisions. It is important to define staff roles and set expectations, then give people the freedom and autonomy to perform their roles and the ability to interpret their job. With that comes increased self-awareness and staff members will be better-placed to ask for suitable support or suggest ways in which they would like to see the culture develop. Vulnerability and humility are important.

Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

Could you and your team be making better use of your performance metrics?

If so, then the latest Leaders Performance Institute Special Report, Analyse This: Managing Your Metrics, will be right up your street. It features a variety of sports organisations, from the San Antonio Spurs and England Netball, to the Wests Tigers and Tennis Australia, via British Skeleton. Download it now.

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