The High Performance Ecosystem: Part 5 Innovation & Research
Derek Panchuk - Chiron Performance
Marc Portus - Praxis Performance Group
In the final instalment of our series on the high performance ecosystem we’ll address one of the more challenging aspects of successful HP programs – research and innovation.
Many HP programs are so caught up in the here-and-now that research and innovation are often afterthoughts. But, if you’ve got you’re planning in place, have a healthy pool of participants that are making their way through your pathway, and invested resources to create a world-class daily training environment, then it makes sense to start looking at where there are opportunities to establish an advantage over your competitors and to take a deep dive into the big questions that are limiting performance. Innovation and research initiatives are often one of the hardest things to get off the ground in a high performance sports system and many question if it’s really needed. If you’re thinking about long-term, sustained success, however, then taking the time to identify where opportunities for R&D and innovation lie and investing the appropriate resources (people and money) to get initiatives off the ground is well worth it. In this article we’ll take a look at barriers to research, development, and innovation and how to overcome those barriers so that your organisation can reap the benefits now and in the future.
What’s the difference between Innovation and R&D?
Innovation and R&D are often used synonymously but, in fact, refer to two different, but related, concepts. Research and development commonly refers to activities that involve the creation of new knowledge whereas, innovation involves the implementation of knowledge to create more effective processes and products. A great way to think about the distinction between the two is:
“where R&D turns money into knowledge, innovation is the process of creating business out of this knowledge”
R&D typically sits at the front end of the innovation cycle and can be broken down into three main categories: 1) basic research – experimental or theoretical work aimed at acquiring new knowledge without any specific application in mind, 2) applied research – acquiring new knowledge with a specific application or outcome in mind, and 3) experimental development – using existing knowledge to systematically create new products or processes (e.g., prototyping). Innovation tends to be far-less specific and can simply involve changing an existing process to lead to better performance outcomes. When we consider timescales, innovation tends to return dividends in the shorter-term while R&D tends to be future-oriented.
A great example of how innovation and research come together can be seen in the evolution of Catapult Sports, one of the world’s leading performance tracking technology companies. The company was born out of a collaboration between the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and a Cooperative Research Centre – a large group of researchers focused on emerging sensor technology. The group sought to research and develop wearable technology that allowed scientists at the AIS to monitor athlete performance outside of the lab. After developing a number of athlete tracking platforms for the Athens Olympics in 2004, Catapult was formed in 2006, and has gone on to become a commercial success.
Where’s the best return?
So should your organisation focus on R&D, innovation, or both? In a system where winning now is important and HP managers, coaches, and staff tend to be on short-term contracts, concentrating on innovation and it’s quicker returns is the logical start, but each component of R&D and innovation has an important role in a high performance system. A great framework to help conceptualise the relationship between the goals of the two is McKinsey’s Three Horizons of Growth.
The first horizon refers to your core business and making sure that you’re getting the day-to-day right. As we’ve mentioned throughout this series, having good processes in place and getting the fundamentals right will go a long way to ensuring sustainable success – this tends to fall under the business as usual but will involve a bit of innovation. The second horizon is where you start to look at nurturing emerging opportunities or taking the activities you’re already doing and looking at extending and improving them – we’d call this the innovation space. The third horizon is where you’re starting to explore ‘next practice’ and adding elements that don’t necessarily exist today – this is the research and development piece. These are ideas that are unproven and may not provide an immediate return on investment but could give you a leg up on your competitors if you’re chasing the right leads (we discuss how you can do this in the next section). It’s hard to argue that any one of the 3 horizons is better than the others and investment across all three will ensure that you’re competitive today while looking at areas that can give you a winning edge.
Developing your Research and Innovation Strategy
As we mentioned last week in our DTE article, innovation and research will constantly be entertained when there is a strong daily training environment. We even contend that it is a key performance indicator for a healthy daily training environment. However, it is important that there is a strategic agenda guiding innovation and research efforts to ensure the sports limited resources are used effectively and focussed on the prioritised agenda. That’s not to say that sports can’t take a more agile approach to seize emergent opportunities to innovate but, given the vast majority of sports are notoriously under-resourced, it is often better to ensure the fundamentals of the pathway and the key DTE’s are sound rather than prioritising an agile innovation agenda. If the fundamentals are right and the staff are high calibre, the research and innovation priorities will emerge anyway.
To set the agenda for research and innovation, the better resourced sports and agencies tend to use a research advisory committee comprising members of the sport/agency and invited researchers in key areas, typically from academia and/or institutes of sport. Some sports are more structured than others, with regular application processes and sometimes even grant review and funding processes. For example, the National Rugby League in Australia has a research agenda and committee that runs on a yearly schedule to facilitate partnerships and greater research capacity for that sport. At an international federation level the International Olympic Committee this year named 11 research centres worldwide as IOC research centres for the prevention of injury and protection of athlete health. Given the links between athlete wellbeing and performance it is becoming more common for sports agencies and the better resourced sports to protect their longer term investments in athlete development with investment into research and innovation to continually improve athlete care and preparation strategies. Further, given most challenges around sports and athletes don’t just go away, a sport that doesn’t start thinking about how it will strategically address its recurring injury and performance issues is akin to putting it’s ‘head in the sand’. In many countries a federal agency such as an institute of sport will drive this agenda for the less well-resourced sports in its remit.
Barriers and Solutions to Driving Research & Innovation
Timelines for innovation and research. As we’ve highlighted previously, one of the of the big problems that sports have with investing in research and innovation is that the timescale for returns often outlives the contracts of coaches, practitioners, and administrators. Why would they invest their time and money in a process that they are not likely to see the benefits of? It’s a fair point but also a fairly narrow-minded view that has the potential to end up costing those groups in the long run. Using the Three Horizons is an effective way to guide your research and innovation strategy; ensuring you’ve got projects that feed into all three horizons will allow you to cover off on short-, medium- and long-term returns.
Having good lines of communication between the researchers and the end-user (i.e., coaches and athletes) can also ensure that the value of the work and progress towards goals is being felt. For the users, this means getting involved in shaping and guiding the project and asking questions along the way. It’s easy to just let the researchers come in and collect their data but most researchers are more than willing to take on input from users to help make the work more meaningful and impactful. Asking questions will also help you understand what you’ve signed up for and gain insight into what the benefits might be. Bringing together the collective knowledge of coaches, athletes, and researchers can yield better results for everyone. For researchers, it’s important to provide feedback throughout the process. Sure, it might take you a while to complete the project, but the insight you’re getting from the project generally starts as soon as you get going. If you can provide a constant drip of information to the coaches, athletes, and administrators you’re more likely to keep them interested and make them feel like the time they’ve invested was worth it.
Having the right people for the job. It is highly unlikely that the solutions and evolutions to a sport’s injury and performance challenges are sitting within the sport itself, so mutually beneficial partnerships with industry, academia, and other agencies can be productive. Even for the wealthiest agencies and sports, partnerships are critical for successful research and innovation programs but, as with so many initiatives we’ve discussed through the HP ecosystem series, they take time and a strong commitment to collaboration to be successful. A common failure point for these partnerships is where one party predominantly harnesses the value being realised, leaving the other wondering what happened. A classic example is an academic team of researchers gets research publications as key outputs and KPI’s for them, but the sport doesn’t really see any practical outcomes or changes in the way they do their business.
One tactic to eliminate this issue is to embed PhD students into the sport or agency context so the researcher develops a deeper understanding of the sport, the athletes, coaches and support staff as they conduct their mutually agreed series of studies. Key factors for success are the right type of student, often being mentally nimble enough to conduct their PhD and successfully operate in the rough and tumble of the DTE has been challenging for some. Having a key ‘sponsor’ of the research from the sport is paramount, this can be in the form of an associate supervisor if appropriate, but at least someone who works in the sport, has credibility and is invested in the outcomes of the research. This maximises the chances the research will stay relevant and that key findings can be appropriately applied for the betterment of the sport. Too often quality research is undertaken but no practical changes in the sport take place. In this scenario the sporting and research worlds are in parallel universes which rarely results in evolving evidence based practice for a sport. This has led to further study into research translation in sport, much of it from Canada.
Timescales and getting the right people on board underscore the more fundamental issue of the relevance of the research. Too often researchers come up with great ideas that are theoretically significant but lack any sort of practical significance for the organisations that they want to work with. As research translation is becoming a prevalent issue for academics it is becoming more and more important for researchers to understand the groups they’re working with and the issues that they face. Spending time understanding the needs and issues that organisations face can improve the outcomes for sport and ensure that research has an impact. In many ways, we’d encourage researchers to take a design thinking approach to the work that they do with sports. Go to training sessions, talk with coaches and athletes, get behind the scenes on gameday or at a competition. You’ll get a better understanding of the little things that athletes have to deal with and some of the potential reasons why your ideas might not take off in the ‘real-world’. This will also help shape research questions that bridge the theoretical and applied domains.
To finish off this series we thought we’d speculate on a couple areas of research and innovation that we think offer a competitive advantage to forward thinking sports organisations.
Smart Technology 2.0. There’s a lot of so-called smart technology in the sporting domain but most technology simply measures performance without providing any real insight. The next wave of technology will move beyond measurement and provide individual, actionable insight by leveraging machine learning and analytics. Imagine technology that can provide personalised feedback based on your own performances over time rather than relying on generic group averages.
Augmented Reality. While virtual reality is getting a lot of attention lately, and it has a lot of exciting applications, augmented reality (AR) has the potential to revolutionise the way athletes train. While the hardware still has a long way to go, AR can open up some amazing possibilities. At some point it might be possible for athletes to compete against any opponent in history during a training session – rather than running a 100 m race to finish training, a sprinter could line up against Usain Bolt and Justin Gaitlin.
Markerless Motion Tracking. Alibaba and Intel have promised that they will provide markerless motion tracking for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. What this means is that, rather than relying on expensive, multicamera, laboratory-based tracking systems, researchers will be able assess athletes technical performances during competition. While there are plenty of hurdles regarding the validity and reliability of such systems, the ability to understand how athletes behave during competition will open new avenues for preparing athletes for competition.
Evidence-Based Athlete Development Systems. Physical preparation has been the dominant theme of sport science for the past 30 years but there is growing interest in the other domains that make up the field. The easiest innovation for sporting organisations to harness will be to look at the likes of biomechanics, skill acquisition, and performance analysis for opportunities to address issues of technical and tactical skill performance and create training systems that optimise their development. Organisations spend significant resources looking for incremental gains when they haven’t got the basics in place to support optimal development. Taking a hard look at what the big issues are can provide significant returns.
And that wraps up our series on the high performance ecosystem. We hope we’ve given you opportunities to reflect on your organisation – the things you’re doing well and what you could improve. Feel free to get in touch if there is anything you’d like to discuss about the HP ecosystem series.We'll keep blogging about a series of topics on high performance sport and athlete development so be sure to sign up at the Praxis site here and also check out Chiron Performance for the latest best and next practice in skill acquisition.
Marc and Derek.