On 20 and 21 March 2018, ~180 delegates, partners and speakers gathered at the Emirates Stadium, London for the second Supporting Champions Conference. Which, once again, had an unadulterated focus on finding a better way to create remarkable performance and the speakers and delegate discussions did exactly that. Speakers included leading lights from sports science, coaching, athletes, ballet
In amongst the speakers, we heard from delegates who had spent their careers working the frontline of elite sport, but were inspired by the honesty of the talks to develop their own personal performance to a new level. We heard from coaches you felt isolated and alone in their work, that have a renewed sense of connection and resolve to better support their athletes. We heard from businesses who’d had enough of sitting alongside more CEOs, CFOs etc., who came along to learn from performance sport, and were comparing notes with a headteacher, a coach, a psychologist and an athlete about performing under pressure. We heard from the former-Olympic medallist who is at the end of their athletic career and felt inspired by the event to transition to the next phase as a leader in sport.
And we heard from the start-up consultant – who had picked up their first bit of work! Nice!
There were so many other stories about the connections made between attendees at the conference, that we could have let the conversations run continuously throughout the two days. But the discussions were punctuated by the discussions and boy did they punctuate!
Supporting Champions Conference
I set the scene exploring the methods that have helped nearly every Olympic, Paralympic sport, but beyond many football and rugby clubs, and increasingly businesses, schools and charity plan performance, by defining a winning performance and asking what determines performance? I explored the need to understand and craft the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of what we do just as much as developing a sophisticated understanding of ‘what’ we do.
“It ain’t what we do, it’s the way that we do it”
First up Tony Strudwick from Man Utd., gave a passionate account (you could see why he has motivated the fitness of so many top footballers, such was his infectious enthusiasm), urging us to find ways to create winning moments. Tony explored two football games, one against Bayern Munich, when a series of errors built against the team – taking away their winning moment. Secondly, penalty-by-penalty he took us through the Champions league final against Chelsea in 2008 showing how preparation and bravery put pressure on their opponents leading to creating that winning moment. He philosophised about the need to keep it simple in the pursuit of excellence and not to lose core principles such as intuition, culturing the environment to shape the ambitions and drive of staff and players alike! It was a powerful start to the conference from a seasoned leader in performance.
“At the top level, it’s about managing risk”
Next up was Peter Vint, Former US Olympic Committee Director, who took us through his work in understanding and developing the numbers and analytics behind America’s successful competitive performances. But this wasn’t a session where he was pouring over data and algorithms, Peter shared the journey of setting sail down this path, the resistance, the traditions, the tactics of working with people to make this happen. Peter is a man who knows his numbers but gave a compelling account of how that is not enough…no matter how much you know you have to work with the people to bring it alive!
“To build analytical capability you need to get everyone on the same page, heading in the same direction”
Supporting Champions Conference
Andy Jones, Professor of Physiology at University of Exeter and consultant to the Nike Breaking 2 marathon project led on from a video of Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile, Andy talked with pure clarity about how these landmarks have driven human performance. Andy shared the depths of the technical knowhow necessary to understand athletic performance, but importantly unveiled the level of sophistication and nous needed if you want to reach for an ambitious goal.
“As humans we are fascinated with barriers”
The afternoon continued with a panel discussion with Tony, Peter and Andy. We explored what the key trends were that have shaped the rise in performance over the last twenty years and looked forward to anticipate what might be coming up in the years ahead. Tony talked about the need to manage the consistency of messages as teams get bigger and more inputs are being sought. Peter talked about how performance is multi-dimensional, and as we are all looking for a number to focus on, we should not forget the athlete/customer in all of this. Andy talked about the challenge for coaches is not just working with athletes on a one-to-one basis, but now needing to lead a team and harness the resources around them.
The finale of day one was hearing from legendary triathlete Chrissie Wellington. Chrissie gave a stirring campaign for us to leave our “mark on the world, for all the right reasons”. Chrissie talked about making and taking opportunity, taking risks and living a life without regrets – ultimately finding your passion.
“It was my perfect race because I overcame imperfections perfectly”
Chrissie spoke with such conviction and powerful purpose that everyone I spoke to afterwards were truly roused by her story, drive and determination, her aim to do good on this earth – all while having a smile on her face. What a way to end day one!
Supporting Champions Conference
Day two began with a perspective from outside of sport – ballet! Greg Retter from Ballet Healthcare at the Royal Opera House, shared his own journey to and within the Royal Ballet. Greg set out the demanding routines and pressure they are all under from which performance (artistic, physical and emotional) culminates. He shared the learning that he has acquired when first working with the company, but also how he has begun to turn the tanker around of accepting measurement, data and ultimately value add to a dancer’s performance and for a director to have more dancers available more often.
“It has to be results driven, demonstrating to the artistic staff and the dancers that we can improve performance and reduce injury rates, which translates to performance on stage”
Next to speak was James Morton of Liverpool John Moores University and Team Sky, who shared the philosophies of working in one of the most refined and develop performance teams on earth. While James showed a slick montage of the ‘marginal gains’ approach of exploring the depths of understanding and performance, it was two key messages that stood out for me, 1) let’s not forget the value of science in creating breakthroughs; and 2) the powerful words of his leader Sir David Brailsford, “I believe in you” and how empowering and motivating they are in driving you to search for more.
“I believe in you”
Supporting Champions Conference
Next with a quick rearrangement of the furniture, I interviewed Conor O’Shea, the coach of the Italian Rugby team, fresh from the six nations campaign. Conor shared how he was working with an emerging nation, against a backdrop of low physical educational culture in Italian schools, but was empowering young talent to shine. He offered delegates a typically honest and open view of how you create a winning mind-set, whilst the team is NOT winning. His focus was on identify and celebrating ‘little-wins’, within a game, rather than focussing on the score board. Conor shared insights about leading at Harlequins RFC and how even after ‘bloodgate’ it was an open-goal to talk culture, it still required the difficult discussions to establish the values and purpose behind a winning environment.
“Walk the square. Now when we’re travelling, I won’t sit in my hotel room, I won’t sit in the team meeting room, I will sit in the lobby and if I see a player, I will ask them if they’d like a chat!”
The afternoon kicked off with Bryan English, Head of Performance at Middlesbrough FC. Bryan tackled why he felt as professionals sometimes we are central and integral and other times we are peripheral. Bryan discussed a number of cases he found himself either but equally effective, and others where he wasn’t as effective. Bryan shared some of the core principles of being mindful and attentive in listening and not pre-judging with the patients/players needs, the sensibility of every given situation, getting your head up out of your own needs and role to the wider needs of the group. A powerfully open and vulnerable account from one of the best in the business.
“If you have just one member of the team that says, “I wouldn’t bother with that”, it can ruin the whole team strategy”
Last, by no-means least was the great hockey player Kate Richardson-Walsh, taking us into injury time and the final whistle. As a leader Kate shows a blend of the inner-steel, drive and determination that you’d expect, but what is disarmingly authentic about her is a visible empathy, warmth and heart that you can only imagine is hugely inspiring for her troops. I found myself watching her speak thinking, “I would follow her”. Kate shared the vision, values and behaviours curated by the team, here are some;
  • We respect each other
  • It’s ok to listen
  • I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine
  • We stand in this bubble together
  • We stamp out fires early
  • We share the load
  • We are one team
It was moving stuff indeed.
“It was about all being leaders in the team. It was understanding about our differences and diversity and using that as a strength”
Supporting Champions Conference
The environment and community we are trying to build with Supporting Champions is one of a truly honest and authentic account of what it takes. The speakers role modelled that with heartfelt appeals, sharing mistakes, candid messages of who they are, what their lifes mission is, how they hope, bounce-back and strive forward. They showcased this blend alongside the tangibles of measurement, the know-how, the clever cool stuff that can create a breakthrough – but unapologetically at Supporting Champions we value the blend, the complexity and the inter-relatedness. Overwhelmingly I had a sense of thanks to the speakers and delegates for embracing, respecting and celebrating these ambiguities, but more importantly for entering into the discussion, the sharing and the ‘me too’ moments as we connected around one key concept of striving to find a better way to create remarkable performance. My goosebumps were exhausted by the end of the two days – until next year!

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