Human Performance, Performance | Jul 6, 2020
Nick Chadd, Lead Sports Scientist and S&C at City Football Group, identifies some barriers and suggests steps all teams can take in the pursuit of high performance.

What are the barriers on the ground within performance cultures that prevent us from reaching our high performance potential?

By Nick Chadd

We often attend presentations or read articles that cite the importance of a positive culture or working as integrated departments, but that is often easier said than done. It can paint a rosy picture that can jar with our experience out in the field. Here, I identify some obstacles we all face and suggest some steps that all teams can take in their pursuit of high performance.

Limited by our language

Let us start with the limits of language. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once observed: ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.

We have all been part of conversations and discussions where elements were misunderstood or misinterpreted by the receiving audience. An example in my world is that of a multi-disciplinary team with varying educations and experiences. Each person might have learned their craft in specialist areas in different formats and vocabularies.

The process of creating an integrated and aligned performance team may lead to more effective work in the support of elite athletes but, if the staff are not all on the same page in terms of understanding, then this strategy is not going to fulfil its potential.

I have sat in many conversations where words, sentences and phrases have gone over my head. This could be due to the technical language associated with medical, psychology, or coaching disciplines. Alternatively, during my time working across multiple sports and at the British Olympic Association [BOA] intensive rehabilitation unit, I have found that each sport has its own language to describe its components and demands.

How can we overcome this impasse? At the BOA, we worked long and hard on defining our language. For context, it was a multi-disciplinary team with only some full-time staff with other disciplines dropping in at various points through the rehabilitation process of athletes. Integration was one of the silver bullets for achieving success and ultimately winning medals or preventing athletes from retiring earlier, or in some instances both.

Everyone being able to understand everyone was of utmost importance and we did this through a process:

1. 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, with an example being the term ‘functional’ between a strength & conditioning coach and physiotherapist. A term may mean many things to many people and, therefore, it is important to agree common definitions. The 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.

Finally, you should have someone who is willing to ask: ‘what does it mean?’ or say ‘I do not understand.’ This anchors the term regularly back to its definition ensuring the meaning is constantly sense checked and reiterated by those that use it.

On what matters

The focus on what matters can be lost where teams have multiple layers of personnel. Furthermore, this sense of focus may never have been defined or may be one of the many unwritten rules that exist in organisations but never clearly and effectively articulated.

This lack of focus on what matters or, to steal a phrase, ‘what makes the boat go faster,’ is a powerhouse in preventing high performance success. It drains energy and resource from dealing with the actual performance problem when the matter is unsolvable or not even a problem in the first place.

The reality is there are multiple sets of focus, as the structure of the organisation filters into departments, but all of these should filter into the overarching performance problem. For example, making the boat go faster in rowing or accumulating the most points to win a league: these are dependant variables, dependant on other factors to achieve a greater outcome. There is clear evidence that injuries affect team performance negatively in football with lower injury burden and higher match availability associated with higher league positions and success in Uefa Champions League. Therefore, this will be the focus that informs practice for any sports science and medical team.

The barrier comes when we forget our focus, work in silos, and define importance and success by our own set of standards relative to our discipline or area. Too often teams, in their drive to achieve a positive culture, end up focusing on the symptoms of a good culture, such as being on time, wearing the correct kit or sweeping the sheds. These should be the outcomes of a culture already in place. 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. 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. Would it have made the boat go slower if they were wearing different kit? In your teams, consider the following:

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.

If we cannot think it then it cannot be

When addressing stagnated thinking in the dawning era of the Cold War, Albert Einstein once said: ‘a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels’. Clearly sport pales into insignificance compared to nuclear annihilation but numerous aspects of sporting and training application suffer from stale thinking, with teams having barely any capacity to explore known unknowns.

The real challenge with any given task is predicting the human performance. Some sports rely on equipment or technology – much of which is knowable in its responses – but all sports rely upon the potentially unpredictable application of the human in leveraging a performance advantage.

While we tend to focus on the controllable and measurable aspects of human performance, there are a plethora of variables underneath the ‘surface’ that can alter the performance of the human organism. This can be seen in the completely unpredictable nature in which athletes can obtain injuries through seemingly innocuous and controlled training and playing strategies. Equally, the ability of the body to supersede predicted possible performances of the recent past even to within 50 years indicates our thinking and knowledge potentially limits our ability to push the performance boundaries. In order to surmount these barriers, consider implementing the following steps:

1. Break the traditional thought process with different personnel from different disciplines or backgrounds.

2. 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.

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.

With a structured framework of discussion you can identify areas and details that may have previously been overlooked or not considered. If you were to design a thought or discussion flow, such as when case conferencing an injured athlete, this can lead to targeted interventions in areas often more holistic to the injury, including shared problem-solving, innovative thinking and programming. Another example may be that of a formalised feedback mechanism post training, game or competition with structured components ensuring that a framework of thinking is followed whilst not being restrictive in promoting alternative or creative strategies.

In summary…

There will always be obstacles to performance success, as organisations, teams and individuals move around, break up, reconfigure or set new goals. However, having a process in place to minimise barriers and recalibrate regularly can go some way to prevent these accumulating. Often there is an opportunistic moment or catalyst that can instigate changes, such as a new staff member or other factor causing a negative outcome, or simply a zone out from the day to day to identify what is really happening. At these moments sit our opportunity to address any barriers and do our best to limit them on the path to achieving our high performance potential.

Looking for more performance insight?

Performance 21 is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.

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