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.


  1. Good response to my comment. This works in sports where there re high quality support staff and coaches at the central base. It doesn't work where there are junior people put into work with senior athletes.
    Some sports get this right, some don't. Judo tried and failed, hockey try with mixed success. What about those sports without full time funding?

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