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Changing Without Failing: cultural and leadership challenges the UK Olympic teams must overcome


Changing Without Failing: The cultural and leadership challenges the UK Olympic and Paralympic teams must overcome

by John Steele

Chairman, English Institute of Sport

The first year of any Olympic and Paralympic cycle always involves a high level of reflection and review, but 2017 has felt even more intense as the system considers lessons from Rio, funding challenges, cultural issues and the art of the possible in relation to Tokyo. The air waves seemed to have been jammed by a high level of discontent concerning revelations of unacceptable behaviour or perceived unjust funding decisions. But what is the current reality of where the high performance system finds itself today?

I recently proudly chaired the English Institute of Sports annual conference, and also attended the UK Sport Performance Conference. These “get togethers” of Athletes, Performance Directors, Coaches, Practitioners and leaders are always good gauges of pressure levels within the system, and a sense check of how people are feeling. As expected, I found the usual focus on how to build on the last three cycles of unprecedented success.

The signs are good for PyeongChang and Tokyo, with the ability for Olympic and Paralympic, winter and summer to achieve great things on the world stage. Olympic sports indicators look strong at this stage: highlights have included Max Whitlock retaining his World Gymnastics Pommel title and becoming the first ever Briton to win back-to-back golds. Britain also broke new ground in winning five medals for the first time at the World Taekwondo Championships, a best ever result for GB; and finished second in the medal table at the Swimming World Championships, the team’s best ever placing.

In Paralympic sports new ground is also being broken with Dimitri Coutya becoming a double world champion in Wheelchair Fencing; the Para Athletics team exceeding their target in winning 39 medals, including 18 golds, at their highly successful home World Championships.

Many believe that the unprecedented success of the winter games in Sochi 2014 will be surpassed in PyeongChang early next year. At the EIS we are keeping a careful eye on the fortunes of Elise Christi, a shining light amongst the team of five short track speed skaters.
There was also a healthy recognition that medals and winning, absent for so long in our national culture, are only part of the story. How we win, what we will not do to win and why winning is important, are placed at the heart of the collective mission. UK Sports vision is not just to stack up a big pile of medals, but to “inspire a nation”.
When we witness all the characteristics required to win in sport, dedication, courage, ingenuity, team work – to name but a few – it is truly inspirational. But using high performance sport as a vehicle to deliver inspiration, and in turn positive social impact, is a double-edged sword. Just as it can inspire it can disillusion.

The impact of an heroic achievement can be as negative as it is positive, if with time we learn that cheating, doping, bullying or any unacceptable behaviours were part of creating that success. This is why the current focus on cultural health is so important.

If we believe some of what we read in the media there is a problem of epidemic proportions, that will bring high performance sport to its knees. Do not get me wrong, there is an absolute need for robust investigative journalism to challenge not just sport, but culture within all of society, but there is also a need to ensure we are looking objectively at the size and nature of the issues. UK Sport have put in place a series of cultural health checks, for individual sports and the system as a whole. One incident of bullying or unacceptable behaviour is one too many, but this data will give us some indication of the comparative scale of our challenge, and where to focus our collective efforts.

The vast majority of people I talk to within the system hold a strong belief that we need to do everything in our power to eliminate all unacceptable behaviour. Athlete representation and freedom to challenge those in authority is at the heart of our ability to do this. Currently an athlete can be faced with having to challenge the very person that has the power to realise or prevent their sporting dreams, and often they are unwilling to do this. There is a real need to develop a more subtle and nuanced process for anonymous challenge which is a step before full whistle blowing. There is a pattern developing in some of the recent investigations where lack of “on the record” evidence from athletes has resulted in some skewed report findings. This in turn creates bad feeling with those athletes, and before we know it the involvement of lawyers and the media create a complexity that helps no one.

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When we talk about the system in relation to performance we rightly describe it as athlete focused. When we talk about it in terms of well-being we should describe it as people focused. Athlete wellbeing does not rank above coach, practitioner or any other individual working within the system; our duty of care to them all is equal. That means we must consider everyone in our drive to improve and shape our cultural health.

One athletes unacceptable coaching behaviour can be craved by another athlete as what is needed to push the boundaries for success. We must support and develop our coaches and practitioners to recognise individual differences, and help them adapt their approach to a changing talent cohort. Today all athletes expectations are not the same as athletes of 10 years ago. We should perhaps also recognise that not all athlete behaviour is above criticism. If we fail to support our coaches and practitioners in the right way, we will inevitably see a reluctance to push and go to new places in training, which is so necessary for performance success.

Beyond the training and competition environment we see a growing tendency to apply management solutions to leadership challenges. Of course we need good evidence and data to make the right decisions, and healthy governance is essential. The reality is that audit and process might monitor, but it will never change cultural characteristics. Strong, courageous leadership is needed for that. Stamping out unacceptable behaviour when it is seen and role modelling desired ways of working.

It has been a tough year for many CEOs, and I detect amongst some a battle weariness brought on by ever increasing demands of process and governance. These are often necessary tasks, but I know many are looking forward to releasing more time to do less virtual leadership and have more face to face interaction with coaches and athletes, engaging first hand with the heart- beat of their businesses.

Another message that has emerged loud and clear from these conferences has been the need to understand the value of “the system.” As part of our high performance system the Institute provides athlete support in various guises, from athlete health services to performance innovation. This central resource has never been so strong or impactful. A central bank of knowledge, expertise and talent not only quality assures athlete services but provides very significant economies of scale. In an environment where resources will become increasingly challenging this is essential. Over the last three cycles we have developed a system where strong partnerships between the EIS, UK Sport and national governing bodies seek to deliver optimum athlete support. The success of our system is now the envy of many international competitors, and it is hugely important that we maintain the right emphasis on each component part, whilst at the same time evolving our thinking.

I mentioned current reality earlier. For me this would be summarised by an excitement that the Great British public still wants to see sporting success at the Olympics and Paralympics, and the system is still producing opportunity for this to happen at individual and organisational level. This is no easy feat on its own, but to also review and improve cultural health, protect and develop a finely balanced system, and cope with uncertain financial resource at the same time, combine to give us our greatest challenge yet.

Only 12 years ago we would look to the southern hemisphere for best practice and talent to change the stranglehold of mediocrity on our system. Now they look to us. How was current success built, what do we know, what do we do, how do we do it? As a nation we often seem at our most vulnerable when we are succeeding. It is our international competitors that will be looking on with the most interest at how we respond to challenges now presenting themselves. They will hope that we implode, tearing ourselves apart with internal witch hunts and soul searching, taking our eye off the proverbial goal of performance excellence. They will hope that we have grown complacent about what it takes to win and have forgotten how easily we could destroy what has been so difficult to build. This simply will not happen. Now is the time for us to collectively rise to our hardest challenge yet, starting this year in PyeongChang and the Gold Coast.

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