Before you read on, think of something that frustrates you, preferably something that really frustrates you (not someone, some-thing), keep it in your mind, now read on…
It had been brewing for maybe a decade, hanging there in the back of my mind, nagging away at me whenever my brain had a chance. It tended to ‘pop up’ when my mind was quiet, but it almost certainly reared it’s head in the minutes, hours, days after an intense experience at work. I had lived with this growing knowledge for a while, but I hadn’t acted, I had just put up with an accumulation of anecdotal observations, shared realisations with colleagues and my own intuition – that…
“Sports science education and development fails to fully equip you to work in elite sport”.
There it is folks, in black and white. I know what will be happening as you read this. The educators will be thinking, “Yeah, but hang on a minute…” and the professionals out there will be saying “You’re damn right.” But it wasn’t until I had the dreadful experience of seeing my realisation live out for other people – and by that I mean being in the position of managing the awful event of someone losing their job as a consequence of their perceived, actual or displayed lack of professional competence – that I fully resolved to try to do something about it.
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” Barack Obama
First, some background context. In the period between 2005 and 2009 (the first half of the build up to the London Games) sports had a long hard think about what science and medicine services they needed. This meant that it found it’s place in the budget alongside all other elements of a high performance programme; a coach, a new boat, an administrator, a warm weather training progamme. But sports considered not only ‘what’ they were investing in but more importantly it gave them a chance to review ‘who’ they were investing in!
The crunch point came in the post-games period and anyone who had a question mark against their post, was served redundancy notice (including myself). This wasn’t the finest hour of the British system, it put about 80 people’s careers in jeopardy and made them all feel disenchanted, devalued and their professional identity undermined. A proportion of them were pretty safe, they just didn’t know it. A proportion thought, “Bugger this for a game athletic soldiers!” and found gainful employment elsewhere, mainly in careers that offer more stability. Another select group were put into the ‘firing’ line where it was touch-and-go as to whether they would keep their jobs. There were a lot meetings in 2008-09, meetings with HR, meetings with sports to discuss their decision making and meetings with staff to see how they were coping. The critical issue was that when the decisions came out, they weren’t justified by reasons to do with a lack of clinical or technical skill, they weren’t due to the lack of knowledge – they were all too frequently about the lack of emotional intelligence and craft skills of working with others!
Very briefly, as a support practitioner, the key relationships are with a coach, athlete and other practitioners in a multi-disciplinary team. Therefore, you have to be able to project yourself and dance along various tightropes:
- Team worker but independent
- Inter-personal but intra-personal
- Humble but assertive
- Deferential but assured
- Patient but persistent
- Modest but motivated
- Tolerant but critical
- Open-minded but discerning
Suffice to say this is difficult when it comes to working in the high-pressured environment of elite sport, dealing with extreme physical types and focussed psychological states, working with holistic, adapting, peaking, maturing beings.
At first I just moaned about the scrutiny we were all under. I moaned about it to the Mrs, to my boss, to colleagues inside and outside our system. This helped, only to get it off my chest, but I was spiralling into being a contagious negative voice! Essentially, I was resisting change. It wasn’t until, I heard a question from within the many conversations with Ken van Someren (my boss at the time), that I couldn’t deny, couldn’t dodge, but more importantly motivated me.
“What can you do to make the situation better, Steve?”
I was up and running, refocussed and switched from negative to positive! Firstly, I resolved to focus on supporting the staff that remained in post, in particular aspiring to be as frank as possible with them about them and what they needed to do to be better at their jobs. This shaped much more truthful and open professional development meetings and programmes of support. This helped to work with current staff, but I noticed the flow of new recruits were getting tripped up by the same issues – because they were blissfully unaware of the demands ahead.
So I began to share the lessons with others outside the system, to raise awareness and request change. I was commonly asked to present about technical topics, but over the years I phased in much more craft focussed content and the response was always positive. In 2012 I started to blog to share some perspectives with the hope of leaving a trail for anyone who was interested to refer to whenever they needed. The response tended to be ‘At last, someone has said what needs to be said”. I then felt a strong need for a forum for sharing the demands, insights and tools to thrive in high performance so in 2013 I developed (along with all of the exceptional Heads of Service) the EIS’ skills4performance course which we found to be a transformational training experience. Throughout, professionals (young and old) would say;
- “Why are you training us on our behaviours?”
- “That’s actually quite useful!”
- “I am quite angry that I have spent £35,000 on an education and no-one has ever told us this!
- Thank you, I now feel better equipped to make progress in my career”
In 2014 (for the BASES Student Conference) I first entitled a presentation ‘How to Support a Champion: The realities of working with elite athletes”. Again I was overwhelmed by the response – mainly of gratitude from aspiring and existing professionals alike. Buoyed, I wrote a ‘Letter to the 15000′ which was aimed at students entering into sports science education – but (if it wasn’t obvious) it was aimed equally at the course designers, the lecturers and anyone responsible for professional development in the field – to take more responsibility for addressing the area of craft skill development.
During 2015, I continued to voice my thoughts, urge others to do more and I did a lot of thinking, but I started to make notes on my journey. I met up with my close friend and fellow ‘Supporting Champion’ Andy Allford over the New Year period and we discussed the need in the industry. We talked and talked, wrote things down and sketched things out. The I opened up Word and began to form my journey into the lessons learned from the intense and varied experiences I have had. Critically, I wanted to share the mistakes, the difficulties, the realisations and the lessons learned along the way. I wrote it with the hope of helping others, whether they are nearing the end of their career and are looking for closure; in the middle of their career wondering where next; or aspiring practitioners looking at this glitzy thing we call ‘high performance’ and trying to visualise themselves in it.
Sports science education did not fully equip me for working in elite sport, yet I was one of the lucky ones having been taught by some pioneers in applied sports science – such as Peter keen, Jo Doust, Steve Bull, Chris Shambrook. Without them showing me it was possible I almost certainly wouldn’t have taken up the challenge, gained some experiences and adapted my skills. But fundamentally I was untrained to deal with the situations I encountered. I was taught to know stuff, not to know how to use it, or be skilled and artful in bringing my knowledge to life for someone else. Further still, throughout my career, I would have benefitted from more direct feedback, stretching, challenging experiential skill development. This has to be the way forward for the industry.
How to Support a Champion is my rallying cry, a call to action that we must all do more, (those aspiring for a job in sports performance and those working in sports science jobs already), to better equip each other, our colleagues, our friends. Why? Because the future demands it, the profession, the industry needs it! For sport to remain relevant, for science to remain relevant and for discovery to remain relevant we need a different type of conversation, one that gets to the heart of the issues, an honesty that is intuitive, sharing that is immersive and stories that are inspirational.
I hope you can all be part of that conversation and help create the change we need**
*I maintain this also applies to working successfully with any client with any need.
**Or indeed the thing that frustrated you at the beginning of this blog!