Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The 15 keys to running a great Sports Federation...

2008 Olympic Champion Steve Hooker at the World Athletics Center in Phoenix, AZ
Last week, I posted a question on Twitter that asked what the primary role of an National Governing Body (NGB) should be?  Is it to drive elite performance?  Is it to encourage grassroots participation?  Development of young athletes? 

Through Twitter as well as a few email conversations, a few experienced colleagues came up with the following: 

  • provide leadership for the sport through the development and implementation of a vision and strategic plan
  • provide the highest quality services on a timely, consistent and regular basis
  • ensure long-term stability with the continued development and progression of not only their athletes but their coaches and service providers as well. 
  • exposure and promotion of participation, especially at the grassroots level
  • provide long-term financial security and viability
  • facilitate progression through access to competition, coaching and training support

Pretty good answers, I think.  But where does elite performance come in?  Very few of those whom I polled actually mentioned it at all!  Surprised me - as if you ask the same question of an athlete, I guarantee that performance will be at the top of the list.  

So I did...

I asked a bunch of the folk that I am currently working with down here in Arizona...

...representing six countries’ NGBs, and pretty much all to a man voiced elite performance as the number one priority.    The disconnect occurs when asked if they are getting what they need from their NGBs, few are happy.  Most feel that elite performance has little to do with their NGB’s mandates.  My discussion with Donovan Bailey a couple of weeks ago highlighted his feelings on his former NGB - an opinion I know is shared by many!

“The biggest problem in Canada - and I see it all the time - is someone gets a job, and they spend all their time guarding against their job, and doing stupid things and making dumb decisions, because they’re guarding against their job.  Not for the good of the athletes, not for the sport, and not for the good of the country...”
- Donovan Bailey

So I was curious.  If elite performance is not actually the mandate of an NGB, then what is it?  To find out, I went to a few of these organization’s websites, where clearly their Mission Statements spell out their primary responsibilities as:

  • to drive up performance and raise standards
  • to create, nurture and support World and Olympic champions
  • to enable athletes to achieve sustained competitive excellence
  • to drive competitive excellence
  • to ensure world-level performance
  • to foster competitive achievement


So what’s the deal?  

NGBs’ mandates are clearly all about elite performance.  

Athletes’ goals are clearly all about elite performance.  

So why the constant friction between athlete and Federation?

I have fought on both sides of the 'battle' - as coach of athletes working external to the system, and within the system for the Federation having to deal with disgruntled athletes who feel they have been hard done by.

I have worked with athletes who have competed for over a dozen Federations.  And I have worked for half a dozen Federations myself - in 3 different countries.  And - as usual - I have some thoughts...

So today I present to you - 

The top seven things an NGB can do to win back the respect of its athletes, and in the process perhaps help the athletes in achieving their goals, making it a happy and healthy future for all:

1. Understand the meaning of the word ‘performance’ 

If you are about performance, then you must understand what performance is about.  If it is your primary mandate, then it’s pretty essential you know what it means.  To aid in building an effective performance pathway, hire a sport science statistician to identify trends, and to do an on-going critical analysis of performance.  Understand what performance means not just in words and mission, but in terms of numbers.  To run a profitable company, you need to have a good accountant - to run a successful sport Federation, you need to understand the numbers and statistics of performance.

"In business, words are words; explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality".
- Harold Geneen

2. Say what you do and do what you say

The basics. Communicate your vision consistently to your members, athletes, coaches, and support staff.  Clarity and consistency is key.

3. Identify key influential athletes - listen to their concerns

Do not direct your attention to the athletes who complain the most.  All this will do is ensure that the rest of the athletes complain more often, in a constant battle for your attention. Involve your athletes in decision-making processes.  Ask.  Discuss.  Don’t demand. Respect their voices.  Their opinions.  Involving the athletes in the decision-making process promotes ‘ownership’.  Bringing them into the fold makes them feel respected.  Needed.  

4. Recognise that all athletes are different
They all have different needs.  Though you cannot please them all, you need to understand that there is no ‘one size fits all’  in elite performance.  They all require different strategies.  In partnership with them, you must be creative in forming these. Often, your best athletes will decide to work ‘external’ to the Federation.  Often preferring their own ‘support teams’, they choose to seek greater control over their own careers.  This is not a bad thing.  Support them through this process, and be inclusive of their teams.  There is still much you can do for them, and much they expect from you.  Be creative.

5. Be an elitist

It is not wrong to be an elitist.  You operate in elite sport.  Don’t hide from this.  And don’t apologize for it.  You want elite performance?  Then cater to your elite athletes.  Not all athletes have equal rights to their opinions.    And not all athletes deserve to be given elite treatment.  It seems that many of you feel that being ‘elite’ gives one an unfair advantage - that all skills, and all opinions are created equal.  They are not.  Being an elite athlete requires tremendous amounts of dedication, discipline, desire, skill, and effort.  Less dedicated and less talented athletes will cry elitism.  They will say its unfair.  Don’t listen to them.  You wouldn’t want a resident med student operating on your mother’s heart.  You don’t want a lazy, untalented, and undisciplined athlete representing your Federation. 

6. You can’t please everyone.  Don’t try to  

7. It’s not about you
No one goes to the game to watch the referee.  And no one has ever gone to the Olympics to watch the CEO.  Or the Performance Director.  Or the coach.  Or the Chief Medical Officer.  As former athletes yourselves, I know that this instinct is difficult to suppress.  The ex-athlete narcissist in you still expects a crowd to show up and watch you do your job.  This is no longer your reality.  It is their time, it is your job to do all you can to support their dreams right now. They will be forever grateful if you can help deliver this for them. 

...and just in case you thought I was totally anti-Federation:

The top seven things athletes can do to help their Federations to fulfill their goals:

1. Get over yourself
Have you ever heard that winning is a habit?  Well, so is losing.  We all know those athletes who circle the drain in perpetual anxiety and stress - consumed by narcissism and self-preoccupation.  Don't be that athlete.  Focus on winning habits.   Be consistent in your character.  Your commitment. Your discipline

“Some things you have to do every day. Eating seven apples on Saturday night instead of one a day just isn’t going to get the job done.” 
-Jim Rohn

2. Your Federation shares the same goal you have

Believe it or not, they do not want you to fail.  In fact, there is a pretty good chance that they want you to succeed.  And will take almost as much pleasure in your success as you do. 

3. Help them change

Often, the leaders of NGBs are former athletes.  Comfortable with what they did when they were competing, they can become complacent - relying on ‘what worked for them’.  But the world changes.  The sports world changes with it.  Systems change.  Technique changes.  Nobody is super-comfortable with change.  Especially when things have worked out well in the past, as is often the way with the leaders of your Federation.    Your Federation does recognize this, but they are driving a very large takes a while to turn course.  So be patient.  And in the meantime, help your Federation be creative in alternative strategies. 

4. Be independent
Do not rely on your Federation.  Over-reliance on anyone takes the control out of your hands.  Do not expect everything from your Federation.  Take responsibility for your own career.  Use the expertise of your Federation as a guide, but do not rely on it.  Use your own experience.  Your own thoughts to determine the exact path you travel.   Do not blame your Federation if things don’t go your way.  It is your life.  It is your career.  Own it.

5. Support your Federation commercially
Your Federation relies on sponsors. Help them. Tweet about them, and thank them whenever possible in public.  It takes very little  time and effort for you to do this, and it goes a long way.  Often times it's not money that goes into YOUR pockets, but the programs and jobs that sponsor’s money goes to support ensure you have more of what you need.

6. Respect EVERYONE

You know that person in your Federation office you are certain doesn't do anything and should be canned?  Yeh?  Well, he does do something. They all do something.  They do all the things you don't know need to happen in order to run a Federation.

7. Remember that a majority of the people involved in your sport do so for exactly zero money
Almost all are volunteers.  Your Board of Directors are volunteers.  They sit on your Board because they care about your sport.  They are almost exclusively well-meaning and successful in their own fields.  They often do not know a lot about the elite performance end of your sport - so teach them.  Educate them.  They would enjoy nothing more than to share a meal with you as you shared stories about life in sport.  They may even pay for the dinner!

And my final advice?  To both athletes and to Federations?
Suck it up.  You both want the same thing.  Just figure it out and get along.  

*thanks to Matt Jordan, Steve Mesler, and my respondents on Twitter for their input* 

Canadian strength coach Ian Warner, Sr just made a good point to me - the seven things athletes can do?  We can apply these as coaches working outside of a Federation also (or inside for that matter).  Oftentimes, external coaches can serve to enable their athletes in this 'fight' against their Federations.  Don't be that coach.  
Be inclusive. Find ways to work together.    

If you enjoyed this post, please 
share it on Facebook or Twitter...thanks


  1. This is a great topic. Stu you know my journey was an interesting one from the athlete view all the way to the program developer / coach lens. I was never quite talented enough in all areas to crack a World Cup Team let alone an Olympic Team. Deep down I knew that but wasn't willing to just mail it in so easily. Going to school, trying to work just enough to support my skeleton habit, and the sport itself gave me a unique experience that when reading this post had me thinking "damn right!".

    There is only one thing I would add for the prospective athlete at any stage in their development: "Keep in mind the big picture".

    -What will you take out of this experience? (the journey, the people, the competition, the opportunity, the work, what you accomplish personally and publicly)
    -What will be your legacy? Will you forever be seen as a whiner because you didn't get what you felt you wanted or what you felt you deserved?

    Sport is the ultimate litmus test for character and the training ground for success.
    I like how you captured much of that in your keys to running & being part of a sports federation.

    1. thanks Jovan
      great comments....I like your addition a lot. It's missed by too many, for sure.
      Need to add you to my advisory board!

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