Now, I’m generally a positive chap, able to see the positives in most situations. I’m also a lucky so-and-so, doing something I love for a living, working in the purposeful world of sport, seeing athletes succeed, creating breakthroughs, being part of strong teams; but if I reflect on my time in sport I can’t get away from the fact that my career has pivoted on a handful of difficult situations. These instances were ones that caused frustration and consternation, and frankly weren’t on the job description – everyone I know in sport, work and life has them. As someone who prides themselves on working effectively with others, when I found a relationship tricky to work with, it was like my strength had turned into a weakness. For me, working with coaches, who have diametrically opposed philosophies on training; athletes I did not like; dealing with egotistic fellow sports scientists and medics were all part of my experience of working in performance sport that I never thought would be part of the day-to-day, cut-and-thrust.
Such ‘difficulties’ can often leave you questioning yourself, being unfulfilled in your role and frustrated that you are not having the performance impact you know you can achieve. NB I have worked with some brilliant coaches, elite athletes and a range of sports science professionals and practitioners who have been a joy in creating true performance focus, but it is the former that can seemingly sap your energy and momentum in developing performance. I believe you have three choices in these situations;
1. Shut up and put up with it
3. Try and change it
There is a 4th option – Moan like hell to anyone who will listen and fail to do anything positive about it (This is related to 1 but instead of shutting up you become toxic).
For me these options were brought to bear in several situations, but I’ll give you one example…
It was probably mid-day, 1st Jan 2009 Steve and I were sitting down at his dining room table to embark on our now traditional, post New Year’s ‘tea and talk’. We would chat about work, life and everything else but inevitably end up ‘talking shop’ about performance sport. Steve and I have been friends since our undergraduate days at the University of Brighton and have been mutual confidants and mentors to each other since then, spanning our professional careers. The benefit of our friendship was that we could be brutally honest about what we were struggling with and could shed light and add clarity to scenarios we were both faced with. The performance world can be both a rewarding and challenging environment to work in and it can be hard to find a confidant that is both trustworthy and knowledgeable enough to understand this.
“Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.”
At the time, I had a particular frustration with a coach that I had really struggled to connect with. I had prided myself on building good relationships with the National Badminton coaches and spent a long time listening to them and then slowly questioning and influencing their practice. A new coach had joined and had a very rigid, dogmatic and in my opinion unscientific approach to training, “work the players harder and harder”, “more is better”. As a sport where the average rally lengths are 6-10 seconds I had been trying to influence the introduction of higher intensity training rather than the typical increased volume approach and had been making some in-roads in this. However, this was at odds with the coach’s philosophy and I just couldn’t find a way to influence them. This left me hugely frustrated. I was ‘sounding off’ to Steve about how bad everything was and that this coach’s training methods were all wrong when he asked me some insightful questions:
First question – “Has the coach delivered results before?”
The answer was that they had but in my blindness this was just down to the fact that this was in Asia and they could just push athletes hard, safe in the knowledge that there was a sizeable pool of talented athletes waiting in the wings if someone broke down.
Next question – “What one thing could you find about the training that you admire?”
This was a good frame to apply to my thinking, as I had noticed how focused the athletes were in training and although fatigued they had to deliver their skills under this pressure.
Next question – “Have you asked the coach what they are trying to achieve and why they are training in that way?”
Me = “No!” I realised I had made a lot of assumptions about his training methods and although some were true I had never taken the time to see what the philosophy actually was.
It took a great deal of will and discipline on my part not to snipe at the coaching methods when the opportunity arose and slowly we started to have improved conversations. A breakthrough came when away at a tournament, sharing a hotel room with that particular coach. After a long day with some late matches, I was desperate to go to sleep but after making some polite small talk the conversation started to develop and the coach started to talk and open up. We started to talk about the days matches and their squad had suffered some tough losses and although they had all been improving in training this hadn’t converted into match performances. With eyelids ready to drop, I had to seize the opportunity to gain an insight into what the coach wanted to achieve (Performance conversations can happen at any time and often the best ones happen away from the playing/training environment. This particular coach wanted to talk at 2am!!). The conversation developed when I asked whether he thought the players really believed that they could be top 10 players. I could see it resonated with him, his demeanour changed and the conversation rolled. He started describing how he wanted the players to be like soldiers, who had physical toughness and could perform under pressure. I managed to curb my first response which was going to point out my belief that soldiers just follow orders and didn’t really think for themselves and instead I asked him “How can I best support you?”, he looked genuinely relieved. He talked about the honour of being a coach, he talked about the pride he has in his athletes, he talked about how lonely the decision making is – but critically he said I need you to help me get the basics right for the players. He then acknowledged all the good ideas that had been raised by the support team, but he hadn’t feel ready to give them attention until the foundation of skill and basic fitness and focus were at a high enough level. Suddenly I saw the coach in a completely different light. I became more empathic to his role and why he did things the way he did them. I also now had more clarity of what role I could play in supporting him.
Now I can’t say this was the best coach-relationship I ever had, but there was a clear step-change in our relationship when I stopped trying to see the faults and being the ‘sniping’ practitioner. Changing the frame of reference, finding out what was successful, asking questions to understand why certain decisions were made; were all things I could do proactively to make the situation better – but all the while keeping my own values and maintaining my focus on improving the athletes.
My reference scale for sports science practitioners has Yoda at one end and Albert Einstein at the other end. One, the quintessential essence of craft knowledge (Yoda), the other (Einstein) the epitome of science using hard facts, first principles and data. The question I often ask is if Yoda and Einstein symbolise a sliding scale where do you need to be, to be an effective practitioner, at any given moment, with any given athlete/coach, on a particular part of their career timeline? As you might have guessed, many think you should be somewhere in the middle and in the majority of cases they are probably right, but it really depends what environment and circumstance you are in and who you are working with. I am a big believer in being the right person, at the right time and in the right place and therefore if you are more of an Einstein practitioner there are certain performance environments, sports, coaches or athlete that may need these skills more (performance = reliable data x acted upon2*). Conversely, there are other sports, coaches or athletes that may need much more of a Yoda style (much needed a Yoda style is). The key here is to be self-aware to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie and what environments you might thrive in.
Many of us have been plunged into this thing we called ‘high performance’ and we’ve had to rely on our wits to deal with the ups and downs in order to make a go of it. We weren’t the first, nor will we be the last, to have such issues but by far the most powerful vehicle to unlocking problems is to reflect and share your challenges with others. To do so you need to find someone who you can trust. This can sometimes be hard within the teams and organisations you work with as ‘office’ politics can sometimes get in the way. Steve and I were lucky as we view the world differently, we can see the opposing strengths in each other but our relationship is built on a foundation of unwavering trust. Once, you have found that person you can trust, you need to be brutally honest with each other. A good mentor/confidant will help you realise what might be an overtly emotional response and will help you to get to the ‘nub’ of the issue. This will ultimately enable you to become more self-aware which will ultimately help you become a better professional.
Andy Allford has worked exclusively in sport performance for the past 20 years in both coaching and leadership roles in Higher Education and for the English Institute of Sport. Andy is currently Associate Director of Sport, Health and Well-being at King’s College London.
*Damn this blog, there is no superscript option – please forgive me you sticklers