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Mind the gaps: An opinion piece about future needs in high performance

The inexorable rise in elite sport has done wonders for the soul in many ways. Who doesn’t appreciate the resilience of Sergio Garcia or the artistry of Marta? Who doesn’t enjoy the dizzying radiance of Simone Biles or the longevity of Roger Federer?
The last few decades have seen sport stretch its arms out of the amateur chrysalis and has flown upward over more and more landmarks. It has evolved quickly and with it our expectations. The main reasons would be, first allowing athletes to pursue their sport as a profession. So too the infrastructure of providing coaches and managers to support athlete ambitions. The rise in science, medicine and technology has got everyone talking about ‘marginal gains’ and few can argue against these factors creating progress and sustained success of many teams.
Mind The Gaps
However, recent events have been less than inspirational. Mystery packages, allegations of bullying and sexism, deplorable instances of abuse of young adults in sport – have cast a shadow over the many highlights in recent years. They are lines we all need to stay vigilant of staying the right side of. That said sport is tough. Training is hard. Athletes have to push their minds and bodily tissues beyond what it can do, under any normal circumstance for them to stand a chance in competition. No one denies this, but a ‘win at all costs’ is unjustifiable.
“The future belongs to those who prepare for it today.”
Malcolm X
But just imagine for a minute that these recent cases are the only ones in a largely respectable, but aggressively, progressive high performance world. Imagine that these are the isolated few – then we need to tune into these cases, draw the lessons out and make fundamental changes to do everything we can to create a sporting system that we are proud of. Why do we need to do this? Because sport is pointless, except for the fact that it gives us pride, it stirs our emotions, gives us goosebumps, makes us feel good and maybe a bit more confident to take on our own challenges. So, sport is a metaphor for our own existence, our values, hopes and dreams. That is why we don’t like it when we feel the pursuit of sport has been sullied by illegal enhancement, misogynistic treatment or clandestine abuse. We don’t like these in sport because these are not things we value in our lives. For those on the inner circle of elite sport I think there is every chance we haven’t done enough to communicate what we are doing, how we are pursuing performance and how we are increasingly having to operate comfortably but carefully in the grey areas.
Sport is wildly different from when I started to earn money from it twenty-one years ago. It will undoubtedly be different in twenty-one years time. So where do we go from here? We must look back to cherish the good, learn from the mistakes and oversights and look forward with the vigilance to better support and develop the people in sport. I present three vital areas, that I believe the high-performance sporting system, across the world needs to get a better grip on.
Support Staff Standards
Sports scientists, sports medics, sports technologists, we need a system of assuring higher standards, defendable work and quality assurance. We need a system that we can be proud of, that we all sign up to, maintain and co-support. From science practitioners, there tends to be a glib attitude to professional body accreditation. The other, well-regulated professions, such as physiotherapy and medicine have general and thorough statutes in place, but they can lack sensitivity to high-performance needs. At the same time, there is little appetite from governments to enforce more regulation. I believe it is up to the current cohort of professionals to drive the legitimacy of the professions! There would have been a time that, doctors, physiotherapists, surveyors would have said “I don’t need accreditation”, “My clients don’t care if I have accreditation or not” but under mounting complexity, self-protection and diligence – a collection of individuals banded together to improve assurance for the greater good. We need to do the same.
Mind The Gaps
  • Practicing scientist: You need to get with the programme and apply for accreditation – you need to do it for your protection, the future of your profession and because we owe it to athletes that we can provide a basic assurance of competence and quality. There is a need for us to all pull in the same direction to gather a critical mass of accredited professionals, so that anyone looking in sees that accreditation is essential
  • Professional bodies such as NSCA, BASES, IOC – you need to make sure your accreditation frameworks are rigorous, contemporary and slick. There should be a requirement for professionals to reflect, keep notes, store data appropriately and routinely (e.g. every five years) be required to share your work with a group of fellow professionals, for review and critique. Ultimately, the bottom-line of any mal-practice claim would be to reasonably satisfy a panel of your peers. So why wouldn’t we do that anyway, (plus it would be blooming interesting)
  • Academics – you need to pull your socks up and begin to prioritise professional skills. It is no longer acceptable for you to assemble courses based on what you get research funding for. You need to teach the vocational skills of working out in-the-field. If you can’t do it then contract some people who can. There is a growing gulf between what is taught and what is required, so this needs to be narrowed and done so soon. You are part of the sphere of high-performance sport and you can ignore it no longer. Otherwise you are selling (literally) students a dream that you are doing little to help towards. There is a need to prepare graduates to be work ready upon graduation, after a Bachelors or Masters level degree. My observations alone would say most graduates need two to three years post-graduation, to develop their skills. This should be much shorter, if not eliminated altogether.
Continual coach development
Systems around the world need to prioritise and invest in coaches. I believe this area has the greatest potential performance gain for any of the twenty or so global systems I have had the chance to work with over the last twenty years. The profession of coaching has been professionalised in many quarters but I would say it has been taken for granted overall and as such being a coach lacks the standing it so richly deserves. Education and development has generally been neglected on a widespread basis and lacks focussed and sustained professional development. Coaches are sports true leaders, teachers and mentors and they should be cherished, upheld and regarded in high esteem. Yes, this probably means improving the pay and professionalism of the role. Except for the top level, especially in pro’ sport the pay is good, but not in the same way that it is across the board in countries such as US and Germany. Most coaches I know do their job for the love of it, but that doesn’t mean the conditions should be poor. Professionalisation of coaches also means underpinning the role with meaningful training so that there is a minimum expertise across all sports. UEFA have a pro-license and it is mandated as a minimum level to operate in the top leagues. This doesn’t prevent individuality or a ‘special’ method or philosophy, it simply means that coaches are equipped to make better decisions on a daily basis. Professional development programmes for coaches should encompass;
Mind The Gaps
  • Technical understanding of the psychology, physiology, nutrition, movement mechanics, technical, tactical, statistics etc and the application of this knowledge
  • Blended with the technical aspects, should be the self-awareness, management, leadership, communication, teamworking, innovation, pressure performance, planning, ethics, mentoring etc. These are to ensure effectiveness and to ensure coaches know who to ‘do things the right way’.
  • To achieve the top badges, coaches should be required to produce a case-study of an athlete or team that should be reviewed, questioned and critiqued by a peer-group of experienced coaches.
Step forward the national bodies to take greater care and ownership of the coaches that act as the life blood of sports. Step forward coaches to prioritise time to develop deeper skill and collectively bolster the profession.
Nurture the whole athlete
Athletes are our bastions, they sweat and toil away to get better at what they do. They stand on the start lines nerves at boiling point, hoping to win, fully prepared they might not! Along the journey, they might get coaching, support services, some even have a driver! But how much are they nurtured not just as athletes but as people? The answer is not enough. It’s no longer enough to wait for ‘debris collection’ at the end of a career. As the expectations go up, I propose a form of athlete development programme that sits alongside all high performance programmes aimed at helping the athlete balance the demands of life and sport (performance lifestyle in some countries), but is complemented by more focus on progressing their skills to be self-reliant, understand their privileged place in society, to give-back to their community, inspire and mentor the next generation of athletes, to undertake study or vocational training interwoven with their own personal leadership and managerial development.
Athletes represent us! They should receive more support to do so beyond their training and performances.
Why bother?
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? It also sounds expensive. It all sounds like a bit of a bother. Well I think you’re right, but the ragged end of an alternative existence as a system that starts to free-wheel, is scientists and medics taking unnecessary risks with athlete health when the gains are unknown; coaches who are charged with caring for precious talent without a clue about how to develop them, making it up as they go along and playing with someone’s dreams; and athletes who grow-up increasingly spoon-fed, lacking independence of thought about what is best for them. Athletes would go through their sports careers unable to maximise the valuable lessons learned from sport, unable to build a future for themselves, when their body slows down, regardless of whether they have won at the top level or not. Certainly, these ideas will require change, it will require prioritisation and more collaboration. It will require creativity and entrepreneurial spirit to drive forward. It will require resilience, when there is resistance to change and it will require champions to beat the drum for a better way. But then these are the same skills we require of our athletes – and that is why we love sport because if it was easy we wouldn’t be interested.
If you are doing all of this already, then you are doing an amazing job. We need you to share how you have done it. How did you find the time to prioritise professional accreditation when you’re required to support athletes? How did you prioritise coach education and development when you have so many competing demands in your sport? How did you support your athletes to take greater ownership for their performance and build a future for themselves? Share your story with others and let us know how you did it.
Take home messages for us all;
– As the world becomes more complex and changeable, don’t compromise on standards
– Invest in your leaders, they hold a wide and ranging influence, let’s make sure its positive
– Develop your people, so they are better equipped for today and tomorrow. You will be proud you invested in your greatest asset

If you’re a sports scientist and have found this blog helpful I wonder if you’d find our applied pro practitioner course useful to help you raise your practice, hone your craft, focus on what matters and make impact for your clients;

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