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Solving The Performance Culture Dilemma: Embracing Meaningful Talent Development

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

We are seeing a major shift in the way organisations and their leaders understand and approach developing their people. In elite sport there is a growing recognition that an all-encompassing drive for performance optimisation has led to unacceptable, and in some cases horrific, side-effects. Some of the most successful athletes in the world have been open about the terrible toll it has taken on their mental health, and how they are left feeling bereft, even while standing on the podium hearing their national anthem. Unsatisfied, unfulfilled employees the world over are resigning in record numbers, leaving companies reeling and unable to fill the gaps. Younger generations are far more conscious of the role they play in society, and are choosing their career paths based on this sense of purpose. Where it used to be more than enough to offer a high salary or the shot at Olympic glory and expect to keep ambitious, talented people engaged and committed, now that just doesn’t cut it.

There is a simple way to encapsulate what needs to replace that old, transactional model. We must strive to create meaningful talent development environments and journeys. That doesn’t mean that we can forget all about offering competitive salaries or routes up the hierarchy, but those must be just elements of a much broader and deeper whole.

So, what does meaningful talent development look like? Cath Bishop describes in her fantastic and thought-provoking book, The Long Win, how we can redefine our concept of success to be far more sustainable and founded on what truly leads to more fulfillment and long-lasting happiness. She introduces us to the three C’s of Clarity, Constant Learning and Connection which contribute to this better understanding of success. In short, she is pointing us to a more meaningful approach to sport, business, education, and life.

My own journey, from professional athlete to Performance Director and then Director of Mentoring at the charity, The True Athlete Project, has given me some unique insights into both how we can define meaningful talent development and also how we can bring it to life - and crucially, how it can be a competitive advantage. Far from being a distraction from a performance and results focus, this approach only contributes to those traditional bottom lines. You only need imagine the cumulative impact of retaining a higher percentage of those talented employees or athletes over 3, 5, 10 years, to find evidence for the potential performance improvements on the table here.

In my view there are four foundational aspects of meaningful talent development in sport:

  1. A long-term approach to developing the whole person, not just high-performers

  2. Supporting the athlete/coach/staff member to thrive in their sporting and home lives

  3. A strong focus on the most meaningful aspects of the individual’s journey - personal growth and development, building relationships, impactful experiences and opportunities to authentically contribute to something bigger than themselves.

  4. Creating a connection to sport’s wider, positive role in solving societal problems

Now, here’s the kicker. Competition and performance are the vehicles by which we can achieve these aspects, but should not be the end goal in themselves. There is a wonderful quote in the book, Corporate Rebels - Making work more fun, which I think offers a useful analogy from the business world-

”Profit is important of course. It funds the pursuit of purpose, but should be the means, not the end. Profit for a company is like oxygen for a human. Necessary to stay alive, but not the reason for living.”

Striving for high performance and achieving results is, similarly, like oxygen for elite sport. Without them elite sport would not exist - we would be left only with participation sport - but they cannot be the purpose of elite sport. The purpose must be something of greater substance, more impactful and longer lasting. At The True Athlete Project, we have defined our own view on the higher purpose of sport itself:

To create a more compassionate, vibrant and peaceful world”. But for the individuals involved in sport, the purpose could be encapsulated by those four aspects of meaningful talent development listed above.

For any leaders reading this, you are probably already wondering - ‘so what does this look like in practice?’

To answer this, I will start with three headlines and then I will describe examples from my own experiences of trying to put these headlines into action. These examples are all specific to elite sporting environments and so if you operate in a different sphere, you will need to bring your context translator with you.

  • Offer an experience that makes the individual want to stay longer in the system

  • Develop people’s abilities/capacities that will help them in the long-run, not just for the short-term wins

  • Help people see and connect with what is truly meaningful about their journey

Offer an experience that makes the individual want to stay longer in the system

To provide environments and systems that people want to stay longer in, we need to be thinking in terms of Self-Determination Theory - the current gold standard of motivation theory. Help your people experience autonomy, competence and connectedness to as large a degree as possible and both they and you will reap the benefits.

Furthermore, as The Corporate Rebels point to, you really can try and make things fun without sacrificing any bottom line success.

And finally, ensure that people have the necessary support - physically, technically, psychologically. I have often been bemused by how often I come across well funded teams in both sport and business, who offer team members next to no support in key areas, especially mentally-emotionally.

When I began as the Performance Director of a national federation, among the very first actions I undertook was to make significant changes to the national squad training camps. Traditionally they were obligatory to attend and the structure always followed the same pattern: warm-up, footwork, sparring - repeated twice a day for two or three days.

I made these camps optional, and made it my mission to create experiences that would make anyone who didn’t attend feel like they had really missed out. I wanted to offer something that I knew the athletes would never get in their home clubs. I brought in instructors in Aikido, Tai Chi, yoga and mindfulness, and held talks and workshops from a range of different speakers. We held a camp on an air force base, tried out their obstacle course, were given a tour of the rescue helicopters and got a low flyover from two fighter jets.

A typical camp would consist of training and activities differentiated by age-group and gender, and including up to a dozen different extra-curricular offerings, including for the athlete’s personal coaches to draw them into the fold. We didn’t slack off from the hard work either, but just mixed it up with a whole lot of other things to challenge, inspire and excite the athletes.

In terms of giving athletes the necessary support - perhaps the greatest joy of my professional life has been in creating and growing the mentoring programme at The True Athlete Project. Mentoring is absolutely unmatched in its potential for developing people - and incredibly, that goes equally for both mentor and mentee.

Our programme matches elite athlete mentors (current or retired) with young, aspiring athletes and leads them both through a year-long transformational journey of learning and growth. I can think of no better way to show how valuable mentoring can be in supporting athletes in the most meaningful ways than through the words of a mentee and mentor from our programme.

Mentee -

“After this year I feel I have found my passion and love for sport again, reconnecting with why I started competing and why I love it so much. There was always someone I could reach out to in the highs and lows of my year, it was truly a year where I have found myself and the athlete and person I want to be.”

Mentor -

“The curriculum, conversations and perspectives that I have been a part of and gained over the past year have genuinely changed my life and improved my performances in my sport - I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to understand my identity as more than that of just an athlete.”

Our 2023 cohort comprises 30 pairs of athletes, across 35 different sports and 12 nationalities. Mentoring provides a method by which we can support a large number of young athletes in a highly personalised and cost-effective way, and that also greatly benefits the mentor.

I also now run mentoring programmes in the corporate sector, through another wonderful mentoring organisation, KMP + House of Mentoring, and have seen its tremendous effect mirrored in a large range of different companies and settings.

Develop people’s abilities/capacities that will help them in the long-run, not just for the short-term wins

This harks back to the central theme of developing the whole person, to thrive in life generally, as opposed to the more meagre, transactional approach of developing just those parts of them that will directly impact the role they have in the organisation.

I heard from world-class rowing coach of the Canadian Olympic gold-winning womens 8, Michelle Darvill, that during the covid isolation period she introduced a running coach to work with the women. Not because it was particularly necessary for their training, but because she knew that being able to run properly and injury-free would mean they were more likely to stay physically active long after their athletic careers had culminated. (That anecdote was one small part of an incredible story about that team’s Olympic journey, that I describe in detail in this blog piece).

From my entire time as an athlete, what I have found to be most useful and impactful in my life today, both professionally and socially, is the mental training I did. I notice it and am grateful for it every single day, and it has even heavily influenced the content of the work that I do today, including in my role as a team and leadership coach and consultant. It is shocking that still so few sports teams or corporate teams truly prioritise the mental training and support of their people. It is no secret just how much of performance is mental, and yet we spent 95% of our efforts training the physical, technical, strategic or tactical. The truth is that by properly addressing the psychological and emotional realms, we can significantly boost the performance of our people and teams, but also help the individuals thrive overall. It should be among the highest priorities of leaders, to ensure that this side is well covered.

In my Performance Director role, I allocated a substantial amount of our very limited budget to bring in a sport psychologist. I wanted him to be involved at all levels - so he ran workshops for the junior athletes, had monthly 1-1’s with the senior elites, and was part of my leadership team together with the two head coaches. I wanted to normalise mental training from the very start of an athletes journey, and I was inspired by the concept of the PIE (Psychologically Informed Environment).

Another angle within this topic of development for lifelong benefit relates to responsibility. We do people a disservice when we take too many decisions on their behalf. Part of what makes sport such fertile ground for human development, is that it provides so many opportunities for athletes to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, when so much else in life gets decided for them. They can take responsibility for their own development and learning, for their equipment, for their attitude, or for the wellbeing of their teammates, as a few examples. British Fencing has a model they call ‘the athlete’s journey from student to CEO’, whereby they promote the increasing level of responsibility of fencers as they move through the ranks, becoming more independent and eventually ending up in the role of CEO, where they are the ones leading the support team around them.

As leaders we should always be searching for the opportunities to give responsibility to our people. One small way I have found to do that is through a strong focus on 1-1 review and debrief sessions with athletes. Be it watching game video, debriefing a season or simply an informal catch-up, I place myself in the role of the coach, asking questions, drawing out their reflections, areas of interest and especially their own choice of path and directionthat they want to move in. Linking back to the autonomy of Self-Determination Theory, this has proven to be a powerful approach to creating high levels of motivation while keeping the responsibility on their side of the table.

The wonderfully inspiring book, Reinventing Organisations, by Frederic Laloux, emphatically points at this same effect, to be gained from creating self-managing teams:

“Self-management creates enormous motivation and energy. We stop working for a boss and start working to meet our inner standards, which tend to be much higher and more demanding.“

Help people see and connect with what is truly meaningful about their journey

As described above, in the four key aspects of meaningful talent development, the most meaningful parts of an individual’s journey consistently relate to the following:

  • Personal growth and development

  • Building relationships

  • Unique and impactful experiences

  • Opportunities to authentically contribute to something bigger than themselves

We need to be consistently aware of how we can focus on and promote these areas by weaving them into our leadership styles and the systems we create. I have two good examples of how I have worked on this, one from my final year as a Performance Director and a second, ongoing programme.

In the summer of 2021 I organised a very special weekend for nine of our national team members, including a mix of junior and senior athletes. Instead of the usual pre-season preparation, this year I invited them to ‘the birthplace of Denmark’, Kings Jelling, where there are situated two enormous rune stones and where the name Denmark was first written, by Harald Bluetooth.

This historic location was to be the setting for a unique, introspective, and deeply personal journey for these athletes. I wanted them to explore the most meaningful aspects of their career in elite sport, and what it means to them to represent their country. Through this exploration and reflection I was hoping that they would find a deeper well of motivation and a broader perspective on what they were engaged in, that would, in turn, help them perform with more freedom. Accompanied for the weekend by our very own guide from the national museum, we began by visiting the runestones at dusk. I made this short video to showcase what went down that weekend, but it involved a range of activities and discussions to encourage these athletes to go a bit deeper and connect their current endeavours to something bigger than themselves and altogether more meaningful than simply striving for ever better results. Their acceptance, buy-in and enthusiastic response to this trip - one that was ‘out there’ even for me - proved to me that there is an authentic desire for this level of deeper work among athletes.

Which leads us to my second example of this work.

In 2022, The True Athlete Project was chosen by UK Sport as their delivery partner on a pioneering pilot programme, that we called Powered by Purpose. We took a cohort of twenty funded athletes through a six month programme, training them to become responsible, effective and compassionate social changemakers. Some foundational research that UKS had conducted showed that 86% of their funded athletes wanted to use their platform as athletes for positive social impact while they were still active in their sporting careers. Considering the traditionally scathing view of athletes that stuck their neck out of the bubble of their sport, this represented incredible progress, for UKS to actively support their athletes to become advocates and activists for causes that they care about. The pilot was such a success that we have now been re-contracted to continue and to grow the programme over the next few years.

The programme comprises workshops on topics such as ‘Sport and athletes for social change’, ‘Inner exploration’ and ‘Creative problem-solving’, as well as reflective spaces for the athletes to share their stories, 1-1 support from a relevant mentor, and a showcase presentation day for athletes to speak about the causes they have chosen to focus on. The pilot participants said they found great value in meeting and sharing with other, like-minded athletes, and in exploring their own values and sense of purpose in life. And they gained confidence in their ability to make an impact, however small, through the tools and methods that they learnt on the programme. (If you would like to read the impact report from that pilot, then just get in touch).

The scope for this work is truly exciting, with the possibility of connecting athletes across sports to collaborate on projects that are close to their heart. Research from MIT’s Pantheon project has shown that athletes are by far the most memorable members of society when compared to any equivalent demographic group, and in recent years athletes themselves have shown us how serious they are about using that platform for good.

As I look back on my own journey as an athlete, I realise that I went to some extremes to capture what I now can see was a more meaningful approach to sport. I took two, two year breaks from competing, during my time as a senior - the first to focus on university, the second after a rollercoaster of a year that culminated in the London Olympics in 2012. This was my attempt at retaining a sense of autonomy, and proving that I was not defined solely by my athletic identity. I went all-in on meditation, philosophy and psychological training, as I could see clearly that these would help me far beyond the field of play. I felt lucky to be living the life of an athlete, and my motivation was generally sky-high, I think largely because of the meaning I felt it had in my life.

To summarise, we have already entered a new era in terms of what people are willing to dedicate their lives to and for. No longer are superficial factors such as pay, status symbols or medals, enough to sustain long-term commitment, nor will they lead to getting the most out ourselves. If we are serious about countering many of the mental health and lifestyle problems that society currently suffers from, and progressing to healthy performance and work environments, then we must consider things through this lens of meaningful talent development.

Our people don’t just demand it, they deserve it.

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