How to Support a Champion is a book about my reflections on the major moments in my career of 25 years long, working with elite sports performers. If you work in sports science or aspire to have a sport science job in the future, it might be worth a read.
Here is the preface…
“He who works with his hands is a labourer.
He who works with his hands and his head is a craftsman.
He who works with his hands and his head and his heart is an artist.”
Francis of Assisi
I often hear myself and others saying, “There aren’t any books telling you how to work with elite athletes.” Well, this book is a contribution to invalidating that statement and sentiment. However, this book isn’t a point by point guide of what you need to ‘do’ to be an effective practitioner. Applied practice is too complicated for a step by step manual. Instead, this book shares with you the intensity, the challenges, the complexities, the strains, the insecurities, the regrets, the mistakes and the lucky scrapes as well as the fierce ambitions, the hopes, the breakthroughs, the sense of purpose, the joys, the fun, the wonder and the grandeur of being an applied practitioner. I have written this book as a part of my ‘call to arms’ for us all to do more to develop and celebrate the art of applying knowledge.
If you are a scientist, maybe a sport scientist, botanist, chemist, oceanographer, meteorologist, or from a different field, an architect, military officer, web developer, graphic designer, air traffic controller, optometrist, speech therapist, audiologist, medic, actor, singer, clergy, teacher or even a writer, whatever your occupation you are a practitioner – ‘a person engaged in the practice of a profession’. I’ll take it as a given that you have a good knowledge base. I expect you will have done the reading and researching and have the certificate to prove it.
Throughout my career I have been struck by the curiosity as to how some people are effective and others are not. Why is that some practitioners are brilliant, others mediocre and some awful? Why is it when you meet some practitioners they drain all your happiness away and others brighten up your life? Why is it when given an interesting project to work on, some practitioners just go off and do their own thing and others pull together in a team for a collective effort? Why is it when presented with a problem or a question, some practitioners become innovative, sparky and creative, whereas others just try to hit different problems with the same hammer? When presented with an outcome, why do some practitioners point the finger of blame and others reflect and accept responsibility? Why do some practitioners just mess with other people’s business and others just make life easier? The difference might be explained by a practitioner’s personality, but I think the major difference comes from whether or not someone has learnt and adapted from their experiences.
If you fail to learn from your experiences, you won’t progress in your understanding. If you fail to adapt from your learning, your skills will remain static. If you fail to learn or adapt, your ability to effect change and influence the world around you will be limited. All too commonly the educational system is stuck in teach-recite or research-write up, two-dimensional methods of training – so how will practitioners of the future ever be suitably trained to work if there is so little ‘DO’ in their courses from which they can learn and adapt? Even out there in the big bad world practitioners are often afraid to confront the brutal facts of their own performance by self-reflecting or giving and receiving feedback from and to others – so how will existing practitioners ever learn and adapt higher level abilities?
I have made thousands of mistakes throughout my career, but I am lucky; I work in the unforgiving, unrelenting and performance focused world of elite high performance sport. In that world if you don’t learn and adapt from every instance, encounter, experience, mistake or failure, there is every chance you will be spat out of the system. Pursuing an ambitious goal, such as a World or Olympic medal is an environment allergic to poor practitioner skills. On the other hand, if you take the opportunity and make the room to self-reflect, develop, hone, iterate, polish, cultivate, rehearse, nurture and refine your skills, words and behaviours, you will be on the road to being an artisanal practitioner.
This book shares with you the pivotal practitioner lessons I have learnt throughout my career working with some of the world’s greatest athletes. The first six chapters describe moments where I was required to learn and adapt my practice quickly in order to survive let alone thrive. I have had the utter, utter privilege of working with over a thousand athletes and over a hundred different coaches. The first six chapters focus on six different cases, followed by a further two chapters which address two important concepts (Part 2 of the preface will include the chapter outlines… coming soon…)
I have chosen to use a mix of story telling (which I have devotedly reproduced from my note keeping) and reflective observation throughout the book with the hope they will amplify, illuminate and punctuate the circumstances encountered and lessons learnt throughout my career as a practitioner and leader.
The accounts contain a smattering of technical science, but owing to the dearth of material addressing the area, I make no apologies for focussing on the craft skills of supporting, working and developing others. I hope you can soak up the accounts and reflect on how you would have worked with the situations and visualise yourself developing in a similar way.
The book closes with some final thoughts from myself, the coaches and athletes, accentuating the need for us to cherish, care for and craft the application of knowledge.
I hope you enjoy the book. If you do not read any further, please just get out there, learn, adapt and bring your knowledge to life.
The first chapter describes my work with the legendary rower Sir Steve Redgrave in the final flurry of his career as he headed towards his tumultuous fifth and final Olympic gold medal at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. Steve is one of the most intensely focused sports people of all time, completely intolerant of second place and second best. Chapter One describes how I had the challenge of making a connection with him and what he taught me along the way.
Chapter Two recounts the seemingly impossible challenge that Martin McElroy, the coach, threw down to me to help transform a group of rowers unable to make a final, through to becoming Olympic Men’s 8+ Champions in 2000. The collective spirit of working to a team goal where everyone is pulling in the same direction, both literally and metaphorically, was a compelling objective but ultimately questioned what drove me.
Chapter Three documents my work with the coach Mark Rowland and middle distance runners Hayley Tullett and Mike East who were dissatisfied by the plateau they had hit. They laid down their expectations of the type of support they needed and how I needed to step up to establish an evidence base that they could use. Their torrent of critical thinking would forever change the way I worked.
Chapter Four details my support to the dynamic duo of coach Toni Minichello and heptathlete Jessica Ennis-Hill, as she rose from fledgling junior to 2012 Olympic Champion to the present day. The complexities of the heptathlon demanded the most versatile, flexible and imaginative applied practice for me to be able to make any practical recommendations. Some of the avenues of possibility we explored and pursued were completely unexpected, but if we hadn’t followed our flow of reasoning and decision making, we would have still been stuck at square one.
Chapter Five describes my support work with a rival heptathlete Kelly Sotherton. Normal scientific support involves the outcome of advising others, but what if the athlete thinks you can do more than that? What if they want you to author their training? In this chapter I detail what comes with stepping across the Rubicon into coaching.
Chapter Six describes my work with monumental rowers Sir Matthew Pinsent and James Cracknell, in their goal of winning two World titles in as many hours. I retell the story of how an observation turned into a thought, which turned into a conversation precipitating more than I could have imagined.
Chapters Seven and Eight are slightly different. Drawing on an array of case experiences I highlight and explain two crucial concepts necessary to understand and grasp in order to succeed in high performance. In Chapter Seven I embroil and attempt to untangle the balancing act of progressing an athlete, along with the uplifting highs and deflating lows that come with pursuing a challenging goal. In chapter Eight I highlight a foundation philosophy of supporting others with altruistic behaviours. I address the dichotomous pull of satisfying your own ambitions whilst serving those of others and draw on the origins of human technology to illustrate that a variety of applied practice approaches are necessary to move forward the boundaries of endeavour.
In Chapter Nine I wrap all of the themes up into one place; three for each chapter, provide you with my top tips and suggested further reading or viewing for you to pursue.