Derek Panchuk* and Marc Portus**
*Chiron Performance ** Praxis Performance Group
In part 4 of our series on high performance ecosystems, we’ll be looking at the importance of creating high quality daily training environments.
In previous weeks, we’ve looked at how creating a solid and sustainable talent pool can contribute to the long-term success of a sporting organisation and why a pathway that nurtures and develops athletes at all stages of their career will help you identify athletes to compete at the highest levels. This week we’re going to explore the pointy end – the daily training environment. Developing and identifying the athletes who will make-up your elite/representative squads and teams is no small feat. Significant resources are required to get athletes to the point that they’re ready to move to the biggest stage and, once they’re there, it takes significant resources (people, time, money, technology, etc.) to create an environment that will allow them to be successful, and sustain that success, over the long term. Many components contribute to high performing teams in elite sport but who you’ve got supporting your teams and what you do on a day-to-day basis are critical for ensuring that athletes are put in the best position to succeed. Get these right and chances are your organisation will start heading in the direction you want!
The team behind the team – support services
The support team is a critical component of the high performance daily training environment. Ideally, it’s headed up by a progressive, insightful, and knowledgeable head coach and/or high performance director who breeds a culture of trust, holistic athlete care, and diversity. The members of the service team or support staff will vary considerably depending on the nature of the sport. The core of a support team is typically focussed on providing services to athletes directly, namely some type of specialist/assistant coach(es), strength and conditioning coach(es), physiotherapists and one or more performance analysts. Dietitians, sports physicians and performance psychologists can also feature in the core-service provider team but are often used on a project or consultancy basis as a second tier of service expertise where required. In sports that have a heavy equipment focus, such as sailing, rowing or cycling, there will likely be support team members with expertise in technology and engineering, perhaps only a part-time basis, but often full-time at the elite levels in Olympic or World Cup campaigns for example. Other expertise is often used too, such as biomechanists, physiologists and skill acquisition specialists. This latter suite of providers historically have been utilised in developed sporting systems by relying on government funded institutes of sport or consultants from academia.
Regardless of the makeup and the sport, leaders and service providers should acquaint themselves with the years of study conducted by Google to understand what differentiated their high performing teams from the rest, many of those team performance principles are applicable to the service team, or any work group for that matter. For example, psychological safety is identified as one of the critical features of high performing teams.
These service teams can vary in their impact and what they deliver, partly due to the nature of the athletes and sports they are working in, but also how they function themselves as the team behind the team. In his influential book on business leadership Jim Collins, demonstrated how great business organisations get the right people on board the bus and it’s no different in sport. High quality support teams will strive to find holistic solutions using multiple perspectives, rather than adopting a singular focus. This can be instilled through a case management approach that has been used in the healthcare industry for more than 100 years. Its defined by the coordination of complex-fragmented services to meet the demands of the client, while controlling the costs of services. The support staff team co-develop athlete support services, identify and agree the priorities, and co-deliver the support in a prioritised, coordinated fashion.
Members of the support team (e.g., S&C coaches, biomechanists, physiotherapists, skill acquisition specialists) have unique perspectives and these should be shared, critiqued, debated and solutions agreed for each athlete. For example, the S&C coach needs to understand any dietary challenges the athlete has before embarking on an intense strength training block, the coach needs to be aware of injury risk from the medical staff before embarking on a focussed skill development emphasis, and the whole support team need to understand the goals and aspirations of the athlete and coach for the short-, medium- and long-term. High quality daily training environments employ this method through regular case management-style meetings where the athlete list is the agenda. However, it takes time, discipline and a commitment from all concerned. The risk is the agenda gets hijacked with other ‘priorities’ and the athlete focus of the team gets lost in administrivia. We’ve seen some top Olympic campaigns not quite deliver on their performance goals due to this type of scenario.
A healthy DTE KPI
One key indicator of a high functioning performance services team is where agendas and partnerships develop around creating new knowledge and innovations. This should happen when service teams spend time with each other trying to develop unique solutions to address their athlete’s performance and health needs. A lot of trial and error will occur, but they should seek continuous improvement and frequently test their ideas and paradigms with other professionals in the team. At some point they collectively realise that their resource base (usually expertise and time) is too limited and they seek to improve their lot through research and/or innovation programs through external experts in other sectors of the industry. This leads into next week’s article about research and innovation so we won’t steal too much of our own thunder, but suffice to say that, if your service team hasn’t got time to do anything other than prepare for today’s or tomorrow’s training session, chances are they are existing in a mediocre daily training environment. The best ones seek out different expertise niches to deliver knowledge, solve recurring issues and help them do their job better.
The Individual Athlete Plan – The Osama Bin Laden of modern sport
Getting the team heading in the same direction is important and one vehicle that has been widely used is the Individual Athlete Plan (IAP) or the Athlete Performance Plan (APP). We liken these to Osama Bin Laden before his ultimate demise – often talked about but rarely seen. Or perhaps we should say rarely seen done well! The basic premise of an IAP is to have an athlete owned ‘performance passport’. It’s a document that outlines what the athletes goals, ambitions, priorities and areas for development are. It’s co-developed by the athlete and coach(es) with significant input from service team providers. The plan is a living document that evolves as the athlete’s challenges and opportunities change over time and should be understood and shared across the athlete’s service team. Its particularly useful where an athlete may move between multiple organisations/teams and daily training environments, such as a club, state squad, national training centre, and an elite squad such as the national team. The information is confidential but is shared by all service providers involved with the athlete at any one time to ensure continuous, best practice services are provided. Sounds good in principle but it takes a lot of work, buy-in, and continuous commitment from all involved. It can and is often done poorly, usually where a sport is resource poor, hasn’t or won’t prioritise. This one takes time and the right environment and expectations need to be set by the leadership for it to work. If it does work, it’s a powerful tool, much like Osama.
What does a good training environment look like?
A great team and a well-articulated plan are important but, at some point, the rubber is going to need to hit the road and you’re going to need to live out that vision and plan on a daily basis. Often organisations will have nice looking documents and plans but things fall down in the execution. In every sport practice time is at a premium, and making sure that you’re getting the most out of that time by ensuring that the coach and team are well-supported and equipped with the capability to deliver is essential. We’ve seen a lot of different training environments and the one’s that consistently deliver the best results seem to have these characteristics embedded throughout:
1. A developmental focus. High performance training environments recognise when there should be a focus on development and when it should be on performance. Unfortunately, they underestimate the amount of time and planning that goes into the process. Not all practices are created equal and opportunities for improvement are often left on the table. As we stressed above, coaches, athletes, and support staff should all be on the same page when it comes to understanding the athlete’s goals and their collective efforts should be devoted to the elements that are the highest priority. A good development plan is worth it’s weight in gold and leads to better outcomes for athletes. These plans should be individualised but also contribute to broader goals in team settings. You also need to ensure that your service team has mechanisms in place to track and monitor progress towards the goals. More often than not, development occurs on an ad hoc basis making strategic development of skills and capacities difficult. Tracking progress with strategic development time built into the plan will help you and your team maintain its focus.
Workload monitoring is one of the hottest areas in sport science at the moment – although aspects of it are coming under scrutiny recently amidst the suggestion that workload monitoring is something coaches already implicitly do. We would argue that, by embedding strong learning/development principles into practice and taking a more detailed approach to tracking progress (e.g., assessing cognitive aspects as well as physical), coaches could create practices that emphasize quality over quantity – effectively mitigating issues associated simply looking at workload through the lens of injury prevention.
2. Well-designed practices. The most effective training practices are those that are informed by the demands of competition. This isn’t to say that you need to re-create competition in every one of your training sessions (otherwise we’d just compete) but you should use competition, and how your athletes perform in competition, to guide what you’re doing in training. In the skill acquisition world, the concept of representative task design is a dominant theme at the moment. It stresses the importance of creating practice tasks that maintain the key information and actions from the competitive environment. This means taking a reverse engineering approach to training design – understanding the context in which skills are performed in the game, preparing the athlete to handle the physical and mental demands of competition, designing activities that train skills in context, and continually challenging your athletes by introducing pressure. This requires clear leadership from the coach with input and support from the entire service team.
3. Meaningful interactions. Most coaches and practitioners we’ve worked with have amazing relationships with their athletes. One of the biggest challenges for coaches and practitioners, is to find ways to interact with athletes that guides their development but doesn’t spoon feed them all the answers. This comes down to knowing how to effectively use instructions and demonstrations and how to provide feedback. Good coach-player-service team interactions lead to better engagement from athletes while they are developing, better retention and understanding, and the ability to adapt to different situations. Ultimately, taking time to reflect on how you’re communicating as a team and ensuring the athlete is able to comprehend this communication will provide a foundation for success.
4. Athlete ownership. High quality training environments give the athlete opportunities to take ownership for their development. Ownership doesn’t mean that the athletes have free reign. It means that the coach creates an environment where the athlete is given some responsibility, autonomy, and choice in their developmental process. Most coaches want athletes who are able to act independently, are flexible and adaptable, and are good problem solvers and decision makers. If the practice environment doesn’t allow athletes to develop these skills, as is the case in many ‘traditional’ environments, then it isn’t reasonable to expect them to demonstrate them when put under the pressure of competition. This requires coaches and practitioners to shift their mindset and consider themselves as facilitators rather than directors, abandoning one-size-fits-all approaches to skill development, and giving responsibility to the players. This is challenging for the traditional old school view of the coach as a “hero”, taking the journey from “hero” to “host” is one that should be considered when leading the modern DTE.
5. Using technology to support decision-making. At the elite level, many organisations have access to technology to support their athlete’s development. Athlete monitoring systems (AMS), GPS and other wearables are commonplace in many sporting environments. Technology, when used right, can provide amazing insight into performance that even the most experienced coaches can miss. It can also underpin decisions about athlete availability and be used to spur skill development when principles of learning and feedback are incorporated into a well-thought out plan. But, unfortunately, this technology isn’t often used well. Sport is a copycat industry and organisations will often acquire technology in order to keep up with their competitors. To avoid technology that collects dust or is seen as a toy rather than a tool, it is important that you ensure you acquire technology that is used to solve a specific problem as opposed to finding problems to solve for a certain piece of technology. You also need to ensure that you have the right people in place to use the technology and, more importantly, interpret the data to provide actionable insight – there’s a big difference between the data and insight. A clearly articulated technology implementation process can go a long way to ensuring that you get the most out of the money you invest in technology.
Ultimately, a high-quality daily training environment will lead you on the road to success when underpinned by strong leadership and the right support team. Sport organisations need to recognise that investing in development of coaches and staff can pay huge dividends in the long-run.
Next week, in the final instalment of our High Performance Ecosystem series, we’ll look at how innovation and R&D can help you gain a competitive edge in the short- and long-term.
Till next week
Derek and Marc.