Complexity to clarity, part 2: Operational building blocks
The idea behind an integrated performance support team (discussed in part one of this series) is to provide specialised expertise across various domains that affect sports performance, supporting the coach and athlete in the training and competition process. Adding more people to the environment brings its own challenges, though, and risks introducing unwanted complexity. Reflecting on teams that I’ve worked in that have functioned extremely well, and those that didn’t, this post is a summary of five key elements that should be considered in order to provide operational clarity.
1. Performance support philosophy
Setting the philosophy around the role of performance support staff is important to lay the foundation for the working relationship with the coach and athlete. The mantra of being an “athlete centred, coach driven” programme is common in elite sport systems. The strength of this philosophy is that it puts the athlete’s health and performance as the core objective and empowers the coach to lead decision making based on information and guidance of the performance support team. However, it can be a challenge for the coach to manage multiple sources of information and weigh up advice in order to arrive at the best possible decision. It is not uncommon for “turf wars” to play out between support staff when there are conflicting views. So, while a clear philosophy is required, this alone is not sufficient for team cohesion and must be supported by further structural elements.
2. Leadership structure
One of the ways to sustain the performance support philosophy is to establish a model for the interaction of practitioners and determine a leadership structure. In recent years, there has been a move towards a “holacracy” – a flat structure for a self-managed team, where domain experts emerge to lead in various scenarios – as opposed to a traditional hierarchical structure. In the past, the multidisciplinary team was typically led by the most experienced medical professional and tended to drive a “health vs performance” debate, instead of recognising the interconnectedness of these elements. Although there may still be an appointed performance support team lead, their role in a holacracy-type structure is not to dictate in decision-making but rather to facilitate integration of collective knowledge and empower all members of the team to lead at the appropriate times. Ideally, this individual should be able to understand all perspectives without being biased towards a single domain, and “speak the language” of all coaching, medical and sport science disciplines.
3. Communication strategy
It should go without saying that good communication between team members is vital. The ideal mode and frequency will vary from team to team and situation to situation. Regardless of these variations, a strategy to manage scheduled and unscheduled communication channels is necessary, particularly when some team members may not see each other face-to-face on a regular basis. Consideration should also be given to storage and sharing of information, including training programmes, performance data, medical reports, and any other relevant documentation. An often overlooked part of the strategy is how to communicate when situations don’t go according to plan – when performance levels are lower than expected or when injuries occur. It’s important to prepare for these upfront so that there isn’t panic or contradiction amongst the team when it matters. Another vital consideration is how the athlete is involved in communication with the performance support team. There are many possible approaches and it should be customised to each environment but the key is that the athlete must always receive clear and consistent messaging and should feel supported in asking questions and contributing to discussions that inform decision making.
4. Athlete ownership
One of the mistakes I’ve witnessed in systems I’ve been involved in are cases where athletes are viewed as being a “receiver of services” provided by the performance support team. The role of the athlete can potentially range along a spectrum from being a completely passive participant – simply receiving a service and following instructions – to being fully involved in every process and final decision-making. Neither of these two extremes are usually ideal but, wherever on the spectrum the athlete lies, it is essential that they take ownership of their role and buy in to the integrated performance team structure and function. The athlete’s level of involvement will vary based on individual preferences – some athletes enjoy seeing measurement data and reports while others work best with less detailed information. I’ve also observed how this may change over the course of an athlete’s career – a younger athlete will defer more to the coach and performance support team but take on more ownership as they progress through the senior ranks and as a professional athlete.
A successful system needs to be able to honestly assess its performance in order to grow and improve. Accountability is needed, firstly, on an individual level, where each member of the integrated performance support team, as well as the coach and athlete at the centre of programme, must be able to answer for their actions and choices. This requires a clear definition of individual roles and objectives and being able to demonstrate how these objectives were met. Once this is in place, the team must also assess whether they are achieving their collective objectives. Care should be taken to not align these objectives exclusively to the outcome of a competition or match - where factors outside of the team's control can affect the result. Instead, the performance of the integrated team should be assessed by how well they execute the process of providing integrated and cohesive support.
Conclusion: operational clarity
These five elements – the performance support philosophy, leadership structure, communication strategy, athlete ownership and individual and team accountability – are key to providing operational clarity within an integrated performance support team. However, their successful implementation relies on a number of interpersonal characteristics of the team, which I’ll discuss in part three of this blog series.
Sporer, B. and Windt, J. Integrated performance support: facilitating effective and collaborative performance teams. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 2018;52:1014-15.
Jordan, M., et al. Monitoring the return to sport transition after ACL injury: An alpine skiing case study. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. 2020;2:12.