Complexity to clarity, part 3: The people factor
An integrated performance support team and the coach and athlete(s) that they work with require clarity on their operational procedures in order to be effective. Every component of those operations is underpinned by the ability of a group of experts to work as a team, often in high pressure situations and sometimes under external scrutiny from fans, media, sponsors and other sources. At the start of my career, I don’t think I fully appreciated the importance of interpersonal skills for sport scientists, but I’ve since realised that these are fundamental in making any of your technical expertise useful. This post is about the interpersonal traits that I believe are key to unlocking a well-functioning integrated performance support team.
Understand that, for the athlete(s) you’re supporting, the personal and professional stakes are high. The coach that leads the programme might have been involved in their sport for a cumulative number of hours that you, as a practitioner coming into their environment, may never reach in your lifetime. If you are going to be able to make any meaningful impact on performance, it is essential that they are able to trust you. The only way to establish this relationship is to spend time in their world. Observe and listen, building not only your understanding of the scientific aspects of the sport but also of the culture, personalities, and team dynamics. This process will inevitably stimulate questions in your domain of expertise, and the conversations that arise with coaching staff and other members of the support team will form a vital part of building a trusting relationship.
2. Common language
A mismatch in terminology between scientific, medical and coaching domains is a common obstacle to understanding one another and so it’s vital that a common language be established in order to work together. The initial relationship-building period is an opportunity to listen to the language that coaches and athletes use when communicating with each other. When I started working in rowing – a sport I was completely unfamiliar with – it was an unexpected advantage that the video I was collecting for biomechanical analysis contained audio of the verbal cues that coaches were giving to the athletes. During subsequent video review sessions I could then ask coaches what they meant by certain phrases and align it with terminology that I was familiar with. From there on, we could communicate using a common language with words and phrases that had the same meaning for everyone.
Maximising the value of all discussions (not only between coach and practitioner but across the whole integrated performance team) demands that everyone is open to listening to another person’s views. Team members should approach interactions with curiosity – a desire to learn. They also need to be willing to have their ideas questioned, which works best when there is a base of trust and common language described above. With a full understanding of varying perspectives on the issue being discussed, each specialist practitioner will be better positioned to align their expert input with the wider context. Getting this component right is something that differentiates performance support teams that only operate as a group of independent specialists (looking at the elephant from separate perspectives) from those that function as a fully integrated team and reap the benefit of their collective knowledge.
4. Shared mission
When a group of experts in different domains works together, conflicting opinions are likely unavoidable, even when good interpersonal relationships are in place. The best way to resolve them is to bring everyone back to thinking about the ultimate goal of the athlete/team. If, from the outset, there is a clear, shared mission, whenever there are differing views amongst team members, decisions can be made that best align to that mission. There may be different elements within the mission that change the priorities at different times – for example, a short-term qualifying target for a major event compared to long-term performance goals over a four-year cycle. This will affect decisions on when or how to intervene through training, technical, equipment, dietary modifications, etc., as well as the management of injury- or other health-related risks. Regardless, the recognition of a shared mission, and shared accountability for decisions that are made, will reduce the potential of ‘turf wars’ amongst the team.
5. The right people
These interpersonal traits are fairly demanding, and not everyone will be willing and/or able to operate in this way. Sometimes, the person with the best technical expertise in their domain may not be the best person for the job if they are unable to work appropriately within the integrated team, and having the wrong people involved can disrupt the whole environment. Using an analogy from the world of business*, if you have the right people on the bus, take the wrong people off it, and put those right people in the right seats, they will be able to figure out the best route to your destination. So, as a leader, choose your ‘who’ before prescribing ‘what’ they should do.
An integrated performance support team, with strong operational building blocks in place, can help to bring clarity to the complex world of sports performance. However, without the right people, the impact that scientific and medical support can potentially make will inevitably be compromised. So, it is the people factor that will ultimately determine the team’s contribution to performance.
*Collins, J. (2001) “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Leap and Others Don’t”.