Thursday, 6 December 2012

Que sais je?

This was today’s Daily Mail many more across Europe, I’m sure.  Detailing the new research from the Netherlands Centre for Human Drug Research, and just published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology...another example of ‘bad science’....just like steroids don’t work (see reviews in Wilson, 1988; Elashoff et al., 1991; O’Connor and Cicero, 1993; Friedl, 2000).  And eggs will kill you (again The Daily Mail).

And - along with the following sequencing of events - it was the inspiration of today’s post. there such a thing as evidence?  Even Über-scientist, Dr. Stuart Phillips admits the limitations of scientific research, comparing the results of reams of scientific inquiry into intensity, effort, intent, volume, and sequencing of loading to a hopeful guess.
In perhaps the first of its kind, Twitter yesterday was kind enough to host a ‘Stutrifecta’ discussion on the  proof - or lack thereof - offered by the research that optimizing load, intensity and sequencing is an important part of the performance process.
Professor Philips has a point.  To a point.  Do any of the reams of literature really prove anything?   No - it is NOT evidence....but is it supposed to be?  
Besides suffering from various personal and professional biases and preferences, statistic limits, population specificity, straight-up errors, and misinterpretations, the linear-causal mechanistic, and reductionist simplicity of the typical scientific investigation - double-blind, placebo-controlled, etc. - frequently just does does not fit into the complex, ever-changing, interdependent, chaotic sports-world where multiple, poorly-understood cause-effect  interactions are the order of the day.

The athletic world works through complex mechanisms operating simultaneously, that cannot be reduced to simple, single-condition research.

Dr. Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, addressed this issue in an editorial titled, The Precautionary Principle: “We must act on facts, and on the most accurate interpretation of them, using the best scientific information. That does not mean we must sit back until we have 100% evidence about everything...”. 
Discussing the current condition of medical science - not sports-science per se - Horton continues “Application, synthesis, and reflection—these are my personal wishes for a renaissance in clinical medicine. It is not concerned with hierarchies of evidence; it is not dependent on up-to-date literature alone as the arbiter of clinical decision making; it does not proselytize a bottom-line approach to the reading of new research. Rather, it is about preferring interpretations to conclusions, external validity to internal validity, context to the highly controlled—and artificial—experimental environment.
Dr David S. Jones, in the Textbook of Functional Medicine,  opines that at the very best, research makes us uncertain.  And - in the face of uncertainty - we must take a broader view.  Step back from the canvas of individual studies, and view the landscape of scientific inquiry as a whole.

“The paradox of the clinical trial is that it is the best way to assess whether an intervention works, but is arguably the worst way to assess who will benefit from it”

So until medicine can transcend Newtonian mechanics, and become truly biological, incorporating evolutionary and organismic biology into its molecular scheme.  Until science and researchers  better understand the organization, interrelationships, and interconnections of the self-organizing and self-regulating complex system. Until we can believe and confidently apply the research we read...

...good coaches will use an epistemological method in developing a training philosophy - constantly asking themselves “what do I know?” - “why am I doing this?”.  Within this, we can choose to take a rationalist or an empiricist approach; most often, combining the two.  (i.e. we use both reason -deduction- and experience -induction- to guide us).

Our rational selves use the ‘narratives’ provided us by ‘scientific research’ to first deduce a ‘thought experiment - eventually playing itself out practically as part-whole of our program.  We use this practical experience to inductively support or alter any subsequent gedankenexperiment, and thus program.  

Relying less on top-down planning - instead adopting a rational Bayesian decision framework - we continue in this manner, combining research narratives and personal experiences (of both coach and athlete(s)) - both feedforward and feedback processes - all the while being careful not to stifle our inner bricoleur, remaining open to the individuality and daily fluctuations of the athlete dynamical system. As Nicholas Nassim Taleb would put it - “...exposing ourselves to the envelope of serendipity”.  

We will monitor, assess, and adjust constantly. By monitoring the correct variables, patterns will eventually form.  We can then begin to more accurately predict adaptation.  We will adapt our training methods to the athletes, not vice versa.   We will question ‘knowledge’, and respect introspection and a willingness to admit to uncertainty. We will not be emotionally tied to our plans. We will learn to adapt on the fly.  To improvise.  
And we will continue to read.  And to learn.  And even to respect the scientific works of researchers such as Professor Phillips.  

"Que sais je?" - Michel de Montaigne

Monday, 22 October 2012

you must leeaaarrrrn...

Developing a philosophy is a process that most of us do sub-consciously; the lives we live, the experiences we experience, our innate morals and ethics, and the relationships we develop all help us in this.  Many business leaders, teachers, and politicians develop philosophies as a necessary part of their careers.  ‘Life-coaches’ are now recommending the process of personal philosophy development to their clients; books are being sold; conferences are being sold-out.  Personal philosophy is big-business...

...and while it is a good and useful thing for all, it is a requirement for a coach.

A coach develops a philosophy to help guide their planning.  Without understanding your methodology, how can a coach even begin to put together a program?  How can he justify the program to his athletes once it is developed?  How can he know what to change if something goes wrong?  Justification of a personal or coaching philosophy should be a constant , on-going, and consistent process.  This is the ‘natural’ part of our development as coaches - the part we don’t really cognitively think about, be we do and experience on a daily basis. As well as these daily developments, we should set aside periods of structured justification.  I try to to this at least once a month, and have done it as often as daily, when our strength group used to meet on a daily basis to discuss certain concepts. The process could be just me sitting alone in a coffee shop, and questioning some of the things I do.  Or it could be more formal meetings with athletes, support staff, and other coaches.  Or anything in between...

The biggest systematic part of the evolution of my coaching philosophy occurs once a year during the break between competitive seasons. Each year, as part of my debrief protocol of the season prior, I do a bit of a ‘spring clean’: a large reassessment, where I review the previous year - what went well - what went not so well - why this was so, etc. - and begin to prepare for the upcoming season.  This year, I took it back a couple of steps further, and I studied my justifications of everything within my system - from the most basic to the most complicated. It has been a very enjoyable process, which has allowed me to really zero in on what is important, and led me into more study into the science of philosophy.  

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write a little about this synthesis process, but today - just a little background on how I feel the philosophy development process seems to work (at least for us coaches):

I see it as a four-step process:

1. Exploration: Without much information or experience, we slowly begin to find our way - taking influences from large varieties of sources and inspirations, we begin to explore many different information avenues, and begin to find which of them we can best use to find our own way.

2. Information: As our passions rise, and our energies soar, we begin to collect information like it’s going out of style.  It is through this early part of our lives and careers where mentors can be especially important in guiding us through what can be an overwhelming process.  Especially in the present age, the amount of information we have available can be intimidating.  It is this step where I feel most coaches get a little lost, and begin to struggle.  Overwhelmed by information, they never really develop a succinct philosophy, and without guiding principles, we have nowhere to turn when things go wrong.  Basically, it becomes an ever-lasting series of ‘blow it up and start agains’.   Conversely, rushing through this step - trying to develop a philosophy without the requisite information is also problematic: this is where we see a lot of average coaches.  Examples are the coaches who cling steadfastly to what they have always done - perhaps what worked for them when they were athletes; dogmatic in their beliefs, but lacking the basic information necessary to convincingly justify their positions.  Our guiding philosophies, at this point, are usually very heavily influenced by others.  Opinions are not strong, and can be quite fluid in form.  We must not be afraid to  experiment freely - it is important that the information we gain is practical; and the most successful in this process are usually the ones that have failed often in their practical application of their principles. 

3. Knowledge: as we develop more breadth to our information base - giving us additional perspectives, we simultaneously begin the process of synthesis.  Some information may not fit with our admittedly malleable philosophies, and we quickly dispose of it.  Through this process, we begin to become knowledgable.  We develop a certain expertise.  Opinions are now predominantly our own, and are usually not borrowed from others.  Our outlines of our programs don’t change much from year to year; details often do, but our methods remain constant.  We don’t change guides half-way up the mountain.

4. Wisdom: As we develop our information base; as we begin the process of information synthesis, we to continue to learn - but a majority of new information comes from subjects outside of our particular area of expertise - where we begin the four-step process again - just in a field that others may not see as necessarily related.  It is this ’lateral thinking’ that gives perspective and breadth to our knowledge, and it is when we begin to synthesize a variety of different subjects together where we develop true wisdom.  We began our careers, and our adult lives, as generalists - not having enough information to have specific opinions on any one topic, we form general opinions on many.  Throughout the course of the development of our philosophies, we became specialists - zeroing in on specific domains - what was important to us, and the impact it had on our lives.  Through this final process, we again become generalists - we acquire sufficient knowledge to be seen as ‘experts’ in a number of domains, and it is how we link these varying domains together that truly define our legacies.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

It's not whether you win or lose, but...

Having worked with athletes in Canada, the United States, and Britain, I have often spoke of the difference in the development of high-performance in all three - and specifically, the differences in the philosophy of participation vs winning at young ages. How sport is approached at the younger age-groups is often a remarkably good predictor of the types of athletes that are produced at the top-end.  
Aron McGuire - a former decathlete and National Team Bobsled athlete for the United States is well-suited to discuss this topic.  As the Associate Director of Championship and National Teams for USA Track and Field, Aron has vast experience in all levels of sport in the United states.  Like me, he questions whether there is too much emphasis ‘participation’, and not enough on ‘winning’ - a construct that has recently begun creeping more and more into the US system...

It's not whether you win or lose, but...
a guest-post from Aron McGuire
Over the next month, the Unites States presidential candidates will participate in series of four debates. President Obama will debate Mitt Romney in arguably the most anticipated events of the campaign season. It will be critical for each candidate to influence voters, sway public opinion and connect with the masses with topics which will include foreign policy, unemployment rates and local economics. President Obama and Mitt Romney will need to be prepared to present their plans and opinions, as well as react to the other candidate’s comments.
Preparation is essential for winning the championship game, getting an A on a final exam or landing a dream job, but knowing what and how to prepare play a greater role to a successful outcome. Keeping score is something we all experience at an early age and, most often, keeping score and determining winners and losers is associated with sports. Everyone knows who won the World Cup or the Super Bowl. Several years ago, a trend of not keeping score at youth soccer leagues and baseball games started becoming popular. Perhaps the organizers want to encourage kids to have fun and exercise without the stress of focusing on winning or losing or parents want to spare their child hurt feelings of losing the game. Despite the intention, these organizers and parents are depriving the kids of an opportunely to develop one of life’s most critical skills – the ability to evaluate preparation.
One of the best things of sports at an early age is the development of life skills. We learn teamwork, goal setting, respect for others, hard work, etc. These life skills, if taught correctly, become valuable assets throughout our lives. Preparation is one of the key factors that influence successful outcomes, but more importantly, possessing the ability to evaluate the effectiveness of preparation is critical life skill that leads to future successful outcomes. Preparation is important but knowing what and how to prepare is critical. The earlier this skill is learned the sooner it can be used. Feedback is needed to evaluate preparation and develop the ability to evaluate the preparation. There are very few situations in life which provide immediate feedback better then the score of a game. The score lets us know if the training and practice we’ve been doing has been effective. Have we run enough miles, taken enough shots on goal or spent enough time in the weight room?
Possessing the ability to evaluate our preparation isn’t limited to sports. Let’s take look at a job interview. Most job interviews involve many applicants applying for one position. Basically, there is one winner and a bunch of losers. We provide the company with our resume, research the position and interview with someone or a group of people from the company. If we are fortunate to be the one winner and receive an offer for the job, we can determine that our preparation was effective. If we aren’t so fortunate and receive the disappointing form letter from HR thanking us for our time, we can conclude that we may need to update our resume, spend more time researching the position or work on our interview skill before applying for the next job. 
As President Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for the upcoming debates, they will spend many hours preparing themselves on global economics, health care and the role of the government. How effective their preparation is will play a key role in their success. Although the winner of the debates in unknown at the moment, perhaps one indication may be who played the most sports as child and did they keep score?

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)

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Legalize Doping!

WADA was established in 1999 as an international independent agency composed and funded equally by the sport movement and governments of the world. Its key activities include scientific research, education, development of anti-doping capacities, and monitoring of the World Anti Doping Code (Code) – the document harmonizing anti-doping policies in all sports and all countries. WADA is a Swiss private law Foundation. Its seat is in Lausanne, Switzerland, and its headquarters are in Montreal, Canada.   
WADA works towards a vision of a world where all athletes compete in a doping-free sporting environment.”

This statement is taken directly from the ‘about WADA’ page on the World Anti-doping Agency website.  Nowhere on here does it mention that its major purpose is to catch drug-cheats. 

The WADA ‘Strategic Objectives are as follows:

  1. Provide comprehensive leadership on current and emerging issues and in the communication of effective strategies and programs in the campaign for doping-free sport.
  2. Achieve compliance by all anti-doping and international sport organizations with the Code to honour the rights of clean athletes and maintain the integrity of sport.
  3. Generate universal involvement of public authorities and public leaders in the campaign against doping in sport, and in particular encourage national laws to allow the sharing of evidence gathered or collected through investigations and inquiries by appropriate bodies.
  4. Promote an international framework for education programs that instill the values of doping-free sport.
  5. Promote universal awareness of the ethical aspects and health, legal and social consequences of doping so that stakeholders use that knowledge in their interaction with and education of athletes to prevent doping, protect health and the integrity of sport.
  6. Implement an international scientific research program and foster an international scientific research environment and expert network that monitors and predicts trends in doping science and actively promotes reliable research outcomes in the effective development, improvement and implementation of detection methods.
  7. Lead, assist and perform oversight so that every accredited anti-doping laboratory performs at a level consistent with international standards.
  8. Be a respected organization whose corporate governance and operating standards reflect international best practice. 

Nowhere on this list does it state that one of their objectives is to catch doping athletes.  

WADA President John Fahey states: “WADA is committed to protecting the rights of clean athletes, where hard work and talent are justly recognized and doping cheats are exposed for what they are. Clean sport is fundamental to a healthy society and sets the best example for future generations of athletes.”, without - again - mentioning the mandate of catching dirty athletes.

Again... Why - in WADA’s own words - does it not mention the importance of catching the cheaters?  

Because that is not the issue.  The whole point of drug testing, and the existence of organizations like WADA, USADA, UKAD, etc. is to protect those who do not wish to dope.  Those who choose to compete drug-free.  

The whole purpose of doping controls is to act as a deterrent.  Ross Tucker, in his excellent overview of the Lance Armstrong case, urges folk to ‘recognize the bigger picture’ - ‘that we cannot give up because we are not yet 100% perfect.  The drug-testers are not catching everyone.  Not yet.  But there are far fewer athletes doping now than there was five years ago.  And ten years ago. And twenty years ago...

It’s a process.  It takes time.  And we must be patient.  

The real problems arise when the sport governing bodies are complicit to these doping acts.  There are numerous cases of athletes being ‘protected’ - either by their IGBs, their NGBs, or perhaps even their national anti-doping organizations (either through bribery or otherwise).  Examples of this are obvious with a little study of some Eastern European National Championships, for example.  When all these organizations decide that drug-free sport is indeed the number one goal for amateur sport.  When fairness rules the roost over money.  Then will we see real change.  Real progression.  But we’re on the right road.  Blood tests and Biological Passports are the beginning.  Relying on after-the-fact evidence from either witnesses or newer technologies is the way forward.  The Lance case is huge in this regard.  The first time the public at large has heard of an athlete getting caught without actually failing a test.

But I digress...

My friend Dr Jason Ross, in his excellent blog TrainOutPain, recently wrote on the perils of doping, and - referring to a recent Forbes Magazine article called ‘Why it’s time to legalize steroids in pro sports (which, by the way, I thought was terrible.  A very poorly written article by some dude who clearly does not understand the issue at all...shame on a supposedly reputable magazine for posting this drivel) - concluded that he would be all for legalizing its use: “Let them go at it.  We would start to witness what the peak of the human condition could achieve.  Great physical performances.  Or perhaps, it would just be legal, and not much would actually be different.  It depends on how cynical you are I guess.  I fall on the scale of either super cynical or on a true believing day just very cynical.”

Sorry Jay - I couldn’t disagree more.  Jason’s a super-smart dude, and I agree totally with much of the rest of his blog-post; but this statement totally misses the point: by legalizing doping in sport, you are not creating a more level playing field - as is the oft-repeated statement.  Instead, you punish those who would prefer to compete clean.  

Tucker identifies three reasons why the ‘level playing field axiom’ is bogus:
  1. The athlete who is willing to take the most risk - who is perhaps able to afford the most, and best drugs - will obviously have an advantage over those who do not.
  2. Drugs affect different people in vastly different ways.  Just because anabolics worked well for Ben Johnson, does not mean they will work well for you.
  3. It’s dishonest!  Tucker cites the example of Bernie Madoff - the Wall Street trader who stole millions from his clients.  He argues ‘If every single investment banker on Wall Street was dishonest and committing fraud, does that mean that none are in the wrong?  Are Madoff and Stanford less guilty because fraud is widespread?  If a student cheats on an exam to get into University, is that condoned as long as he's not the only one cheating?

International cycling was a laughing stock just a few years ago.  It was clear to even the most casual observer that many/most/all competitors were doping.  But, with recent improvements in drug-testing procedures (EPO blood testing - introduced in 2002 - and Biological Passports - introduced in 2007 - being the main two that have affected cycling), we now see a much cleaner sport; one where the non-cheating athlete will feel he has an opportunity to actually compete.  And perhaps even to win.

And isn’t THAT the point?