My niche in coaching is with leaders of talent or performance programmes, especially those in sport. My background and experience is such that I have come to understand and experience the issues facing those leaders intricately well and from multiple angles. I was a world-class athlete for 10 years, competing in two Olympic Games (London 2012 & Rio 2016), followed by becoming the Performance Director of a national federation for 5 years up until 2022, and alongside this, to this date, have been working as a consultant and running programmes with athletes, coaches and leaders from every type of sport, through The True Athlete Project and as an independent consultant. This gives me a unique insight into what challenges are being faced in talent and performance environments – from the perspective of an athlete going through the system, the leader of the system, and as an neutral outsider having conversations with people at all levels of the sporting system.
It strikes me that this is a uniquely challenging period for those who are leading these environments.
We are seeing come to light many of the unintended, yet harmful, consequences of the rapid professionalism of sport since the 1990’s. Younger generations of athletes and staff want different things from their lives, and have differing priorities than previous generations. And sport is still beholden to wider cultural trends, including around deteriorating mental health and wellbeing, social media use and abuse, and financial and geopolitical turbulence. All this combines to make the job of the Performance / Talent Director especially fraught, complex and demanding.
Much of this is well beyond of the scope of the individual’s locus of control, and so my focus when working with leaders is on the interpersonal and environmental/cultural aspects of their job. Here are the top 5 challenges that I see facing these leaders, within the scope of their control, along with where I see the solutions lying.
1. How to create a healthy, sustainable high-performance environment
In recent years there has come to light a plethora of cases of harmful performance cultures, whereby athletes and staff suffer from mental, physical, emotional or even sexual abuse, often where that abuse had become a built-in and accepted part of the performance system. The sheer number and global nature of these cases shows that this is a problem with elite sport culture itself, not just involving a number of bad actors. It is clear to all involved that the highest priority, and a moral and ethical imperative, is to protect participants in these environments from all abuse. The majority of Olympic sports are funded with public money, so this adds a financial imperative to treat people ethically. But it is also these cultures that have been delivering the medals that fans and nations are so proud of.
It is clear that we must forge a new culture of elite sport, one that is healthier, more compassionate and overall more sustainable, but we must do that while also retaining the performance advantage over our competitors. For many performance leaders, both in sport and in other industries, this is a central concern. They are committed to creating environments where people thrive, but equally are under immense pressure to make sure that results are improving, or at least don’t drop. The problem here is that often our approaches for how to get the best results have traditionally not been those that treat people particularly well. UK Sport are now urging the sports they fund to focus on ‘Winning Well’, and many of the sport leaders I have spoken to are aligned with that sentiment, but just don’t know what that looks like in practice and in a way that upholds performance standards.
Where the solution lies:
So, we need to find new, more sustainable and healthy ways to create peak performance. My experience shows me, beyond any doubt that, in fact, you can expect the absolute best out of people when they truly are flourishing in all areas of life. That’s to say that creating a healthier, more humane and positive environment will lead to even better results than previously.
This begins with a coherent leadership philosophy which all coaches and staff are bought into, and which has the wellbeing and thriving of individuals in the system at its heart. The level of challenge in performance sport is consistently sky-high, so athletes and staff need to be equally consistently supported so they have the tools and bandwidth to face that challenge. This can be around psychology, performance lifestyle, physiotherapy, or simply developmental / personal conversations with their team leaders. There must be an acceptance of the whole person – the complexities and baggage that come with that and the fact that they have lives outside of sport which also deserve their time and attention. Ultimately we should be striving to create psychologically informed environments, whereby the practices and culture are underpinned by our latest understanding of human psychology, motivation and thriving.
2. Younger generations want and expect different things from their lives
This is a wider cultural phenomenon that impacts sport as much as anywhere, the fact that younger generations are facing some very different challenges, and therefore have very different demands for their lives. Young people arrive with different expectations for their working conditions than previous generations. They are impatient to make an impact in the world and are driven more by connection to a higher purpose than by the traditional rewards. The traditional approach of gritting your teeth and just getting on with the job through thick and thin holds diminishing sway with young people today. In fact, traditional notions of mental toughness and resilience are being proven to be misguided, as the high-profile examples of Simone Biles and Ben Stokes have recently shown. This can manifest in performance pathways as athletes being impatient about their progress in the sport, and seemingly unwilling to invest the months and years it takes to reach the top. There are undoubtedly higher instances of mental health issues, especially anxiety and depression, among young athletes, just as with those not in sport. Athletes also now want more from their lives outside of sport, being less willing to focus 100% on sport, and more likely to cultivate other interests and passions away from sport, or to follow a dual-career pathway. They want to contribute and make a difference to the world, which also takes time and energy. All of this can be seen to distract or lead athletes away from the path of athletic progress.
Where the solution lies:
I see much of this as ostensibly a positive thing. In line with people flourishing in all areas of their life, having strong ambitions both in and out of sport can be a hugely positive thing. However, in a world of unlimited choice and on-demand everything at your fingertips, sport offers young people a vital and increasingly rare opportunity for developing discipline and learning to deal with setbacks in a safe and healthy way. Sport can be an antidote to many modern ailments, such as attention deficit and social media addiction. But we must recognise that we still need to adjust our environments to take account for the needs and wishes of the people coming into them. There must be space for exploring other aspects of life, of having a life outside of sport. Young athletes want to know that there is purpose and meaning in what they are doing, so we need to make explicit for them the truly meaningful parts of sport – the personal development and growth, the relationships they foster, the unique experiences they have, the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves – not just the chance to stand on the top step of the podium.
86% of world-class athletes want to use their platform to make a difference to society while they are still competing. In my role at The True Athlete Project, I lead the Powered by Purpose programme for UK Sport, which trains funded athletes to become effective, responsible social changemakers. Anecdotally, we have seen a substantial number of the participants in this programme go on to make personal best results immediately after taking part.
We need not shy away from allowing athletes to express themselves fully, but rather encourage it along with a healthy understanding of the requirements of the sport for them to reach their potential.
3. Ensuring the wellbeing of coaches and support staff
In the workplace we are witnessing a stress and burnout epidemic, and there are similar trends among sport coaches and support staff. Sport offers a way for people to turn their passion into a paying job, and people feel privileged when they manage to make a career doing what they love in sport. But as I was told by one leader at a top European football club that is working consciously on the wellbeing of their coaches and staff, “Passion burns bright, but it still burns.” A career in sport can be all-consuming, with antisocial work hours, often huge amounts of travel (time away from family, friends and life outside sport), and comes with all sorts of responsibilities and pressures. Pay is usually meagre until you make it to the very top of the pyramid, and appreciation can be scarce. All this builds the picture for why 200,000 coaches resign each year in the UK alone, and many support staff are struggling to find balance in their roles.
For a leader in this space, it is critical to have a coaching and support team that is able to function at or close to optimal levels. The job is a complex one, and highly interpersonal, and that requires a high degree of presence and awareness, both of which go out the window when a person is struggling mentally or physically. One head coach put it succinctly when he told me “When I work more and am stressed and tired, I see less”. That’s a huge problem. We obviously want our coaches to see more, not less. For that we need to safeguard them from constant, high levels of stress and anxiety and to prevent them from burnout. Everyone loses if a coach has to take time off to recover from stress of burnout, but probably far more pressing is when they aren’t looking after themselves and are showing up at just 70% or 60% their optimal each day.
Finally, I must add that the performance / talent direcotr’s own wellbeing is equally at risk due to all of what goes above.
Where the solution lies:
At its heart, this is a cultural issue. The predominant culture of elite sport is to stay longer, do more hours, work harder. That is how young coaches and staff feel they will be noticed and will rise through the ranks, and how established coaches believe they will create performance advantages. So, if we really believe that quality beats quantity in this respect, and that the wellbeing of our people is paramount, then we need to create a culture that emphasises setting boundaries, recovering well (just as we expect from our athletes), and not overburdening ourselves or working for appearance’s sake. The culture will set the tone for how people relate to each other around this, and how people’s perceived value rises and falls within an organisation, which will drive the desired behaviours.
Secondarily, we can do a much better job of supporting the individuals to take better care of themselves – Providing knowledge about best practices within wellbeing and mental health protection, and creating spaces for people to open up and share what they are currently struggling with. I am currently supporting one project at a professional football club that involves these types of initiatives, and the response has been hugely enthusiastic from those taking part. There is a real thirst for this conscious approach to helping people thrive at work.
There is a welcome move to raise awareness of the need for more support for coaches and staff within performance environments. Cody Royle is a ‘coach to head coaches’ and is an authority in the space, who has written a number of fantastic books on the subject of coach wellbeing and mental health, including ‘The Tough Stuff’, and more recently ‘Second Set of Eyes’.
4. Retaining talent – both athletes and coaches/staff
As I’ve highlighted already about the complex situations around athletes and coaches/staff, we are seeing far more talented people leaving the sporting system in search of a healthier, more balanced or financially viable life. Many athletes are just scraping by while seeing their friends get a solid footing in the world of work. Then there are high profile examples of athletes who have made it to the pinnacle of their sport, before turning round and wondering if it was all worth it. That’s not a very conducive recipe for retaining all our best talents. The investment of the ‘village’ to produce one talented athlete is such that if they drop out of sport, it represents a great loss to the system as a whole. We lose their potential as an individual athlete but also the impact that they will have on those around them, especially those coming up behind them. As Performance Director in Denmark, I worked with a team that I knew had the potential to achieve something never seen before in the sport in this country, but the mission was over before it really started when three quarters of the players decided to pursue their careers outside of sport, seeing that there were no long-term financial prospects for them in sport. This ravaged both the potential for results for the sport and impoverished the generation that could have grown up behind them.
Where the solution lies:
A Head of Talent in a national sailing federation once said to me that he didn’t just want to offer the best sporting experience to his young sailors, but to offer the best experience that they could find anywhere at that stage in their lives. He knew that he was competing with everything else the world has to offer teenagers and young adults, and he had to show that being in their talent system was more attractive than all of that.
We know that results, money and fame are superficial rewards for the investment in sport, and we can’t control most of that in our world anyway. So we need to focus on the things will show athletes and coaches that they are involved in something truly meaningful and that will benefit them lifelong, not just as long as they are able to perform. Similarly to what has been mentioned before, our focus therefore has to be on the growth and development of the whole person, on fostering a sense of teamwork and collaboration rather than internal competition, and on the contribution that people can make to something bigger. I have come to think about this almost in terms of a spiritual endeavour – bringing the spirit back into team spirit. This is about a search for meaning and purpose, engaging in a deeper communion with each other, and contributing to something greater than the self.
Since 2016 I have been leading mentoring programmes in both sport and business contexts. Mentoring is profound because it offers a transformational experience for both mentor and mentee. I have seen the incredible impact that TAP's athlete mentoring programme has had on young athletes as well as mature and retired athletes. Mentoring brings enhanced perspective, meaning and individualised support to the participants, wherever they find themselves in their journey. This is the kind of initiative that can help people stay longer in sport, and when they do eventually retire, to want to give back to the next generation.
5. Balancing pressure and competing demands from all stakeholders
This is ostensibly the classic leader’s dilemma, whereby we must weigh up and deal with the pressure coming from a wide variety of different stakeholders, all the while staying true to our mission and ourselves. This is both the beauty and the headache of being a leader – it is wildly complex, dynamic and challenging and never boring! Our responsibility as performance and talent leaders is primarily to our athletes, staff and sport itself (in the form of a CEO and board), but move one circle out and we can also be beholden to funders, sponsors, athlete’s parents, supporters, and the wider sport community. At any one point, all of these stakeholders can be pulling in all manner of different directions. Most acute is, of course, when matters are closest to home and to the people in the direct performance environment. There are endless practical, interpersonal and ethical dilemmas that must be solved on a weekly basis, and things have only gotten much harder with the shift towards hyper vigilance of safeguarding and mental health concerns. Alongside all the usual drama, we must also lead the way to an entirely new, healthier and better way of doing elite sport.
In the face of all these competing pressures, it is easy to see how some people can find themselves straying far from their own values and vision for themselves. This is the nub of this problem – how do you navigate this terrain in a way that you can be consistently proud of?
Where the solution lies:
In the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics, I had a profound experience working with my sport psychologist on my core values and how they can help me become the person, athlete and teammate I wanted to be. This process drew me assuredly out of the darkest period of my life. Since then I have been leading hundreds of people through a similar process, and I see the same revelations happening for many of them as I experienced. When dealing with such theoretical, logistical and human complexity as performance and talent leaders do, the essential anchor and grounding point must be our own values. They can act as compass points when making tough decisions; they provide a safe harbour for your sense of self-worth and esteem that is not reliant on the ups and downs of your daily performance in the job, thereby reducing the overall stress and anxiety of leadership; and they bring more clarity and therefore more integrity to how you lead. This last point is absolutely pivotal for leaders – that those around you know what to expect from you, can count on you, and feel they can trust you.
There is research to show that in order to consistently live by our values, those values must be consciously activated at times of crunch decisions. This points to the vital importance of being aware of and working with your values close to hand. This approach is the single most effective way I have come across for leaders to handle these competing complexities and to lead ethically, effectively and while staying true to themselves.
When I interviewed Canadian Olympic gold medallist rower from Tokyo 2021, Andrea Proske, about the incredible, transformative journey her boat went on to win that gold, she talked me through it all in great detail and at the end she revealed that the big secret behind it all was their head coach, Michelle Darvill’s, moral compass.
Cody Royle is doing important work in raising awareness of the unique contexts that head coaches operate within and the impossible challenges they face, and then pointing to the importance of more individualised support for them. I believe that performance and talent directors are in a similar position. It can feel like a lonely place to be, and we can do much more to support and help them lead from a place of reinvention, that is aligned with the goals inherent to the role, and honours the people they are in service to and perhaps more significantly, that honours how they themselves want to lead.