Tuesday, 18 September 2012

To C, Or Not to C...

I've worked in high-performance sport now for almost 20 years; and I've been involved with National Teams that have been centralised, and others that haven't.  Some are not well enough funded, so it's very difficult.  Others just don't lend themselves to it for one reason or the other.  In larger countries - such as Canada and the US - that don't funnel a lot of money towards amateur sport, it is often quite challenging to centralise.  In smaller countries - such as the UK - especially in sports that are well-funded - it makes little sense to not be centralised.  

So to centralize or not to centralize?  My point is - it depends on the situation.  A couple of my friends and colleagues express similar feelings.  

Matt Price is a strength and conditioning consultant with the Canadian Sports Centre, Calgary, and is the Head S&C and Physiologist for the Canadian Alpine Ski Team.  Dr Peter Davis has been involved in high-level sport for 30 years, and has had leadership roles at the AIS, the USOC, and was the Director of Sport Sciences, Sports Medicine and Technology for 'Own The Podium', an Olympic preparation program for Canadian athletes for both the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, as well as future Canadian Summer Olympic Teams.  He now consults with a variety of international sports Federations in all areas of high performance sport planning and development.  

I certainly recognize there are a multitude of methods of which to develop athletes, but when it comes to "playing odds", the centralized model provides the greatest chances for long term and sustainable success on the international stage.  As well, many of the arguments against the centralized model come from the "one off" talents and/or shallow talent pool sports and can be directed straight back to point #2 about compromise.  I personally enjoy hearing about sports, teams, and federations that want to reinvent the sport development wheel and roll the dice on low percentage systems.  It is this environment that provides disparity amongst the competition and provides an opponent, against which those who prepare relentlessly and WITHOUT compromise, to kick ass...

People/programs often miss the best model by being totally black or white...looking for one vs the other... i.e. fully centralised vs decentralized... full time residency or part time residency. I think you have to build whatever works based on things like the sophistication of the sport and coaches, age and maturity of athletes, sophistication of the sport science-sport medicine network, need for facilities and a host of other things.

I have always believed that one of the biggest advantages - and 'intangibles' - is that having a group of athletes all around each other builds the culture of hard work and excellence. A lot of athletes in Calgary, for instance, probably benefited from seeing how hard some of the top level speed-skaters worked on the ice, off the ice etc, or Jessica Zelinka etc.  - same thing happened at the AIS... same thing happened at USOC in Colorado Springs... you can't get that working alone in Moose Jaw or Timbuktu.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Centralisation: guest post by Gary Anderson...

A couple of days ago, I wrote a short blog about 'Centralisation' - basically, why I think it is a necessary part of building a long-term, successful, and sustainable program.  The blog has prompted quite a bit of interest, and additional insight from colleagues and professionals throughout the UK and North America.  
Gary Anderson is the Performance Director for British Bobsleigh, and he has been kind enough to offer up his thoughts on centralisation for today's post.  This brief post really gets at what is truly important for the development of sport...I look forward to your comments...

This is a topic very close to my heart, the subject of my postgraduate research and in my working life the search for the “holy grail”.
Centralization to people of a certain age, myself included, conjures up images of eastern bloc institutions, state run, where children who demonstrated any sporting prowess were herded off to be schooled and “coached”. Eastern bloc countries saw sporting events as an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the communist way of life. These programs were funded and closely monitored by the central government.
Today it is somewhat different.
I was fortunate to be working for UK Sport in 2002, or to be correct the United Kingdom Sports Institute (UKSI) a much heralded breakthrough in sport in the UK, a result of the new funding mechanisms that were allowing British Sports to develop their World Class Programmes, many of whom were electing to go down the route of centralized programmes. Much of this was to do with the influx of Australian personnel who after Sydney were in much demand (will London see the drain of UK Coaches to foreign parts ?) the “Aussies” had their own centralization called the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
Australian Institute of Sport
The AIS was born out of failure: At the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, Australians won just one silver and four bronze medals. When Australia’s prime minister at the time toured the Olympic Village, he was booed by the athletes, who felt they hadn’t been given the necessary support.
AIS hoped to capture the intensity and success of the Soviet academies, without going to the same excesses. The idea was simple: Get the best coaches and the best athletes together on a year-round basis, without any distractions, and hope that athletic magic would result. It worked well. Australia won 14 medals in 1988 and 27 in 1992. Then, in 1993, it was announced that the 2000 Summer Olympic Games would be held in Sydney. Like many host nations, Australia decided that a standout performance was crucial, and athletic funding was radically increased.
When you look at “dynasty winning” sports in recent Olympic cycles the vast majority have a “centralized” theme – some have several “hubs” but it is a well resourced programme of central support. 

The mistakes some have made are they adopted the “build it – and they will come” mentality, great infrastructure and facilities but missing the key ingredient that make it work …..PEOPLE or more accurately COACHES. The coach is the key – get “buy-in” from the coach and the athletes will follow. Let the coach lead the process.
If the coaching is of the required standard the support services can be built around that creating the high performance environment – an environment that creates winners. It does not work for everyone, all sports have examples of athletes “outside” of the system who have become successful. 
Are my thoughts and beliefs correct – that’s a matter of opinion. I have worked in sports where we have had strict centralization, we had great successes but at times it was very difficult. 
I have worked in sports where there was no central system of support – “herding bloody cats” comes to mind…….

Friday, 14 September 2012

"The Wolf"

Yesterday, UKA took the first step in the post-CvC era.  By hiring Neil Black, UKA have re-committed to driving the sport forward on the same path they have been driving since the Beijing Olympics.  

A sometimes controversial, and often mis-understood piece of that path is the ‘centralization of services’.  In 2008, UKA identified two High Performance Centers (HiPACs) - one each in London and Loughborough - and committed to drive a substantial amount of energies into supporting athletes and coaches that would train in these two Centers.  Although it is still unclear how UKA will proceed over the course of the next quadrennial, I will be extremely surprised if they decide to change course on some of their main philosophical constructs - including the decision to centralize.

Folks will argue against the HiPACs’ value, possibly pointing out that three of the four UKA gold medals came from athletes who did not work within the Centers, but I personally feel that they are missing the point.  So, in this post, I will share my thoughts on why I feel Centralization is the way to go.  

There are at least three key reasons why a sport should centralize:

1. A View to Long-term Success
NSOs have to be led by the long-term sustainability of success within their sport.  You can't build a successful program - with depth - without centralization.   The Federation objectives have to move beyond individual athlete success, and instead focus on sport-wide success; getting as many athletes as possible to within the podium range ultimately increases odds of success at Major Games. (as explained by my good friend and expert strength coach - high-performance consultant, Matt Jordan

You can have episodic and individual success in a decentralized model but you can't create program success and long-term performance sustainability - as we have seen in the UK with the success of Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah.

2. Integrated Support Services:
The centralization of the support teams is a key to the overall success of a program.  Support Teams (coined ISTs - integrated support teams - by my friend sport scientist Dr Peter Davis) are the Sport Sciences, Sports Medicine and other team management professionals that support coaches and athletes/teams. ISTs typically include a physiologist, sport psychologist, biomechanist/performance technologist, nutritionist, physical therapists/athletic therapists, and physicians; as well as other professionals (including sport administrators), depending on the nature of the sport and the specific needs of the coaches and athletes. The IST works regularly with the coaches and athletes to ensure that athletes receive world-class care and support for their training, recovery and competition programs. The goal of the IST is to effectively debrief prior training periods, and optimize upcoming training periods to ensure that the athlete(s) is healthy, fit, and psychologically ready for optimal performance.  Centralization brings all the important members of the IST together - where they have daily contact with athletes and coaches

You can have individual success without centralization providing you recreate an IST but it's expensive, inefficient, and not sustainable.

3. Management of the Team Environment
As any coach who has worked remotely with athletes cxan atest to, managing from a distance is extremely challenging.  It’s the same within the sporting organization: how can it be possible to effectively manage a diverse group of athletes, coaches, and support staff if they are spread out all over the country?  Potentially destructive individuals will be particularly difficult to manage: within any team, there will inevitably be divisive voices and personalities. Strong, contrary individuals can spread negative thought like cancer, making it extremely difficult to create a positive and high-performing environment.  You need to change the environment to change the culture.  The environment is just as important as the people that are in it, and with the wrong people, creating a positive high-performance environment is impossible.  The culture, then - being dependent upon the environment - will remain dysfunctional.

Possible Challenges to Centralization: 

1. It is imperative that there is a common guiding philosophy of high performance
The challenge is providing the type of structure, environment, resources, governance, and culture that will enable high-performing people to work together for the betterment of the sport.  This is difficult and will require patience from those in charge of the NSO - regardless of centralization philosophy.  But in my mind, it is much easier to provide and sustain a guiding philosophy if the major players in the program are all in the same Center.

2. Strong leadership
The lack of a singular, visionary — and often autocratic — person in charge is one of the biggest reasons why many organizations lose focus and ultimately fall short.  Instead, compromise becomes the order of the day; and compromise is the governor of change. It’s interesting that in the UKA Press Conference yesterday, when CvC was asked what his greatest regret is he stated that perhaps he compromised too much!

3. Truly integrated working relationship between coaches, athletes, and support staff
Every NSO talks about integration.  Few, though, truly enjoy an effective integration of services where all are respected partners in athlete and program development.  Constructive disagreement within the team is essential, but it must remain within the guiding philosophical framework of the organization.  

4. High-performance physical environment. i.e.: are the facilities high-performance?
It goes without saying that for the Centralization model to work, there must be in place the necessary high-performance facilities to provide for it.  Too often, the model is let down by inadequate facilities, or facilities that are shared between multiple users, including for schools, public and community use.  The high-performance center is ideally a dedicated center for use only for high-performance sport.  A place that the sport can call ‘home’ - that actually feels like ‘home’ - will go a long way in creating the necessary environment for high-performance. 

5. There is a positive and supportive relationship between coaches and support service providers
The success of the IST is intimately tied to each individual’s ability to work together in a team environment. IST experts must have a solid understanding of the sport they are working with and relate well to athletes and coaching staff. They must also be able to communicate well with other IST members so they can deliver a complete, coordinated set of services.  An effective IST will allow for individual IST member contribution, as well as create an environment where team members can best work in an integrative manner to forward each member’s ideas; an environment that values enjoyment, individual talent, free exchange of information, true integration, and innovation.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


So apparently tomorrow we get a new leader.  I’m like you.  I’m in the dark, here! (in best Al Pacino 'Scent of a Woman' voice)But I’m looking forward to the announcement.  There is some excellent leadership at UKA; and I’m sure there have been succession plans in place for quite some time.  So, hopefully, UKA can continue down the same trail it’s been blazing - and further establish itself as a truly world-class amateur sports organization (and trust me - there are fewer of these than you can imagine!).

Like all changes, there will be those who will not agree with the appointment tomorrow.  And those who do not agree with the direction the organization will go.  Challenged by change, they find comfort in the status quo.  But status quo just means you are going backwards.  As the rest of the world is moving forward.  Faster than you can imagine.  

There have been many challenges for the leadership of UKA over the last few years.  There has been much in-fighting.  Public arguments.  Disagreements on organization direction.  Accusations of favoritism.  And even racism.  But at the end of it all - we did OK.  It’s been a pretty successful period for UKA.  Marvelously capped off by a ‘super-Saturday’ that few will forget.  

Tensions will continue to simmer.  Disagreements will not disappear.  I predict, in fact, that they will increase.  At least in the short term.  The path forward, though, will not change.    Consistency is the key.  Consistency in message.  And consistency in action.  

Today, in his excellent blog, Seth Godin writes about the ‘right path’ - ‘are we on the same team?’.  

“Most of time, all we talk about is the path, without having the far more important but much more difficult conversation about agendas, goals and tone.
Is this a matter of respect? Power? Do you come out ahead if I fail? Has someone undercut you? Do we both want the same thing to happen here?”

A common issue within organizations is respect.  And often a lack of it.  Workers often feel disrespected.  While bosses may feel they don’t get enough of it.  

“If you feel disrespected, the person you disagree with is not going to be a useful partner in figuring out what the right path going forward might be.

Deal with the agenda items and the dignity problems first before you try to work out the right strategic choices.”

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Today - leadership is a hot topic.  

Everyone is talking about what a great job the leaders of LOCOG did in putting on the Olympic and Paralympic Games.  The great speeches by national leaders, Sebastian Coe and David Cameron.  (and even better speeches by local leader Boris Johnson).  

...and we are talking about coaching.  

...when Andy Murray has - after 76 years of failure - finally given Great Britain a Grand Slam winner - widely attributed to his coach, Ivan Llendl.  

...and when UK Athletics Head Coach Charles Van Commonee has ended weeks of speculation by announcing that he will leave his post once his contract is up at the end of this year.  

So I thought this may be an opportune time to share some thoughts on the topic. 

Coaching is leadership.  And leadership is coaching.  They are one and the same.  One cannot be a successful coach without being a good leader, and one cannot lead without knowing how to coach.  There is much great research, and many amazing books on leadership.  In fact, a couple of books that are currently in my reading pile are two of the best: Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion is not a leadership book, per se, but it does offer some very valuable insight into an evolutionary perspective on leadership in its ninth and tenth chapters; and perhaps the best biography I have ever read - at a whopping 900+ pages, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris.  Roosevelt is respected as one of the greatest leaders of our times, and I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in leadership, politics, and biographies in general.  

Ever since 1978, when historian, political scientist, and Pulitzer Prize winner, James Burns shifted the focus of leadership from the traits of leaders, to their successful interaction and collaboration with others, most companies have employed a more collaborative system of governance.  Burns identified two distinct leadership styles:  he defined a transactional leader as “one who initiates contact with subordinates in an effort to exchange something of value, such as rewards for performance, mutual support, or bilateral disclosure”; and a transformational leader as one who “engages with others in such a way that the leader and the follower raise one another to a higher level of motivation and morality...higher aspirations or goals of the collective group are expected to transcend the individual and result in the achievement of significant change in work unit effectiveness”.  Kaiser and Hogan offer this summary of the research literature: Transactional leadership appeals to followers’ self-interest, but transformational leadership changes the way followers see themselves—from isolated individuals to members of a larger group. Transformational leaders do this by modeling collective commitment (e.g., through self-sacrifice and the use of “we” rather than “I”), emphasizing the similarity of group members, and reinforcing collective goals, shared values, and common interests (Haidt).

Lowe, et. al., performed a meta-analysis on 39 studies of leadership styles in 1996 which clearly supports the belief that transformational leadership is associated with work unit effectiveness. This effectiveness is highly dependent on the leader’s ability to inspire a collaborative environment.  Author Morten T Hansen, in his book Collaboration, points out that “most leaders believe that company wide collaboration is essential for successful strategy execution’”. 

When operating under stressful time constraints (such as an Olympic quadrennial), this can be an especially challenging proposition.  Like many successful team-sport coaches, the successful leader must convince the individuals in the organisation that they will be better served to operate as a group, and not as a bunch of individuals.  When team or group members have an emotional connection to a previous leader, style, or regime, this is especially difficult.  An example is the difficulty that Andre Villas Boas had with an experienced group of John Terry-led Chelsea players that were not willing to buy into the new leader’s philosophy.    And conversely, this is often theorized to be the greatest strength of Jose Mourinho - the ability to get his group of individuals to perform as a TEAM.  

Social psychologist and author, Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion, states that “self-interested employees are far more interested in looking good and getting promoted than in helping the company”.  Instead, leaders need to build a collaborative environment by employing a transformational leadership style. He explains “an organization that takes advantage of (collaboration) can activate pride, loyalty, and enthusiasm among its employees and then monitor them less closely. This approach to leadership...generates more social capital—the bonds of trust that help employees get more work done at a lower cost...employees work harder, have more fun, and are less likely to quit or to sue the company...they are truly team players”  

And in fact, according to Haidt, this is how we evolved: he describes a multi-level theory of natural selection that argues that we evolved at multiple levels simultaneously:  “individuals compete with individuals, and that competition rewards selfishness—which includes some forms of strategic cooperation (even criminals can work together to further their own interests). But at the same time, groups compete with groups, and that competition favors groups composed of true team players—those who are willing to cooperate and work for the good of the group, even when they could do better by slacking, cheating, or leaving the group”.  The most successful team is the one in which individuals can cooperate, work truly as a team, and divide labor.  Selection at lower level becomes less important, while selection at the higher levels (group/team) becomes more powerful.  The teams with the most individuals who employ this thinking are always the most successful.  

Haidt argues that a great turning point in human evolutionary history was when members of a social group began to share an understanding of how things ought to be done.  This concept is known as shared intentionality - and when any individual violated these shared expectations, there were common and negative feelings from the remainder of the group; it is this “peer pressure” that led to our cumulative culture, teamwork, and division of labour (traits not shared by our common ancestors).

But it’s not a perfect system.  So-called ‘free-riders’ (those 'selfish' individuals within the team who are unwilling to cooperate and work for the good of the team - a concept explained from an evolutionary perspective by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene) still exist.  It is hoped that by creating a truly cooperative and collaborative workplace or team, these selfish individuals will be shamed by their co-workers/teammates into either stepping up and joining in, or taking their behaviors elsewhere.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and many a power struggle exists in both corporations and sports teams.  

So-called Management Consultants have been increasingly popular with businesses now for over a decade, and exist almost solely for this purpose: to help create better management practices, and to foster more efficient and collaborative relationships. As many management theories exist as consultants, but Haidt’s recommendations are instructive, as they have an evolutionary basis:
  1. Create a culture that emphasizes similarities, shared goals, and interdependencies
  2. Increase synchronous behavior - perhaps by increasing socializing
  3. The adoption of intra-business rivalries between teams within the group - not between  individuals.  “...soldiers don’t risk their lives for their country or for the army; they do so for their buddies in the same squad or platoon”.  Conversely, pitting individuals against each other destroys trust and morale (Haidt).

To this list, I would add at least one more. I personally feel it is imperative that a good leader accept responsibility for results - good or bad - and challenge his team to do the same.  

This is what Charles Van Commonee has done through his four years at UK Athletics.  He challenged - often publicly - his team to be better.  To do better.  To perform better.  He required, nor accepted any excuses.  And - in holding himself accountable to those same standards, he has decided he must leave.  

“Over and over again in history it has been proven that every single individual can be replaced...every graveyard is full of irreplaceable people” (CvC)