Developing a Culture of Success

I’m not really sure where this is gonna fit within the little series of posts I have been making. Maybe it wont fit at all.

But having spent some time reading and gathering some information on how to develop a program in which excellence can become the expected norm. It seems that the root of it can be distilled down to 4 basic building blocks thoough having these blocks in place is not sufficient, the real challenge is the extent to which they are positively influencing athletic performance within the training environment. Does my stated purpose or ambition inspire people, does it challenge them, and does it align the athletes in a way that drives everyone to achieve more?

1. ‘Unreasonable ambition’ Engage everyone behind a goal to become the best possible swimmer they can be. People are at their best when in pursuit of a great goal or challenge; one which excites them and challenges them. A journey of transformation starts with a single minded determination by both coaches and athletes to try and become the best they can possibly be. Although starting with individuals they act as a catalyst to this shift in mindset and it very quickly becomes a shared ambition – the mindset of aiming for excellence is contagious. The genuine pursuit to try and become the best in the world at something that can have a huge impact on the culture in a club. Suddenly every event, every training session, even every meal you eat; is measured against the standard demanded by that aim. If we are to great that culture where success is inevitable the athletes must be challenged every day with goals that they have to stretch to achieve.

2. Create a culture of responsibility

‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood or assign them tasks, but rather teach them to long for the immensity of the sea’ – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

‘My aim as performance director has been to build a team of world experts, and give them responsibility which challenges and allows them to excel’ –  Dave Brailsford, British Cycling

The role of a coach is not too push, but to ‘light a fire’ – to inspire. A subtle but absolutely critical characteristic of the highest performing environments, is that the drive for improvement comes from the athletes. They are being challenged and supported in their pursuit of excellence, but the ‘push’ comes from them. In order to develop a high performing centre we have to created a generation of athletes who are: Ambitious – intent on being the best , and believe they can be Questioning – scientific in their approach to thinking about performance, searching for anything that can give them an edge Disciplined – in their application of what they know they need to do in order to win So where does this inner drive and responsibility for performance come from? So as the coach how do we create thus responsibility? The first step is to create a hunger in every individual to try and become the best in the world in their role, coupled with constant feedback on where they are against that standard. The second is to give individuals much more responsibility. Start to replace the drive from the coach with a shared ambition in the players to win and excel, and a greater responsibility for improving performance. Steve Redgrave said of his coach

‘most coaches gave us detailed instructions for how to conduct the race, with different [rowing] rates for every 10 metres.’ Jürgen’s approach was to give us much more responsibility for working it out ourselves, ‘I want you to lead the race by one boat length at half way, & then open up the lead.’

They did, and they won. However autonomy without clarity of goals or accountability, is a recipe for disappointment. But when combined with a clear focus and accountability, it is the key ingredient to unlocking potential. Unlock potential in people by getting them to challenge themselves to a higher standard, to aim to be the best they can.

3. Turn winning into a science

“Your training plan [strategy] has to excite you. If you don’t think ‘in my hand I have a piece of paper which is like a recipe, a blue print, for winning a gold medal’; then scrap it and start again.

Sir Chris Hoy Trying hard is not enough The desire to win is an essential ingredient for achieving excellence, but it is not enough. The use of sports science to develop a much better understanding of what success depends on is essential to allow us to focus our energies on the areas that will give the greatest returns. There are (at least) three key areas we need to excel at in order to be the best Psychology – mental strength and the ability to stay calm and resourceful under pressure Physiology – power through the stroke, and fitness to maintain that power through the race Technique – effectiveness and efficiency in the application of the power through the stroke to make the swimmer travel faster To gain an edge in psychology high performance centres need to seek out the best available psychologists available. It is my personal belief that when competing at the highest level this is the area swimmers in Ireland need to spend more time on. When it comes to gaining an advantage through technology we are limited as a sport as every races in the same suit. However we should look to using technology within training as possible. Any way swimmers can get immediate feedback on their stroke length stroke rate and pacing has to be benefitial to both the swimmers and the coach. It frees the coach up to spend more time coaching technical aspects of the strokes etc.

“If you want to win at your business – commit yourself to develop a deep understanding of the cause and effect relationship between what you do and the results it produces…”

Jack Welch, GE

4. Focus on ‘speed of learning’ Use feedback and reviews to drive a constant focus on learning and improvement Winning in a highly competitive environment is about hitting a moving target. The best predictor of long term success is not how good you are now, but the learning curve you are on. One of the clearest points of difference to strike you when you spend any time around an elite environment or athlete, is the hunger to learn and improve. It is almost frightening to observe the intensity with which elite level athletes still analyse every race (win or lose), to identify areas for improvement. In the high performing environments in sport, the more an athlete progresses up the performance pathway, the more  time and energy they focus on learning and improvement. The aim of a successful high performing centre is to keep the learning curve steep. This is seems to be in contrast with the attitude of some coaches towards their development in the skills of coaching. While newly qualified coaches may embrace a steep learning curve when they first start out or step up to a new level of responsibility, this tends to flatten out very quickly as they grow confident that they are doing an ‘okay’ job. The ambition to be the best in the world, both from a training group and individual perspective, creates a very powerful hunger and positive pressure to constantly improve. Every event or training session is judged against this standard; and the athletes know that if they rest on their laurels for one minute, the competition will eat up any advantage they have gained. Clarity of focus and insight into what winning depends on. The better you understand what success depends on, the clearer you are on what you need to focus on in order to improve. Finally, and critically, the quality and frequency of feedback athlete’s receive on how they are performing (and improving) in each of the key areas of performance. A High Performing Centre sets a standard that every one understands. The coach encourages an understanding of what world class looks like and every single session is measured against that benchmark. The swimmers start to evaluate their performances alongside this model with limited input from the coach. Again allowing the coach to focus more intently on areas of concern. In order to build the club into a high performing centre the head coach must demand excellence of the teachers and squad coaches . No role has more impact on the performance of an organisation, and creating and expectation of excellence from the coaching team is the most important building block of a performance culture.

5. Whole system teamwork: It is useful to think about two types of teamwork. The first being teamwork between individuals in a clear distinct work team (like athletes on a team). The second being teamwork across traditional boundaries [between teams]. The second of these offers a far greater competitive advantage because it is much harder to create.

“If you could get all the people in an organisation rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time…”  Patrick Lencioni

No one in sport is going to disagree but while we all get the importance of teamwork, it seems harder than it should be to make it happen. Developing teamwork is like trying to produce penicillin; you can not force it to grow, what you have to do is create the right conditions for it to emerge over time. Creating a team is about more than a training squad supporting each other ghrough sessions it is the synergy between the different support functions behind the athletes which is key to their individual development. This includes a wide network of coaches; psychologists, innovative coaches who understand the  mechanics of swimming; strength and conditioning coaches, dieticians etc. who know how to get the best out of the human body; and the swimmers themselves. So what are the key conditions for creating teamwork across an organisation?

1. Unite people with a common goal which trumps any individual interests Ego and self interest are often the enemy of teamwork, but you can’t get rid of ego. The key is to unite people behind a common purpose which is more meaningful than their self interest alone.

2. Engender a sense of collective accountability and responsibility to each other: Ensure people understand why teamwork can make a difference to performance. If we can ensure the athletes understand this and will therefore be willing to invest energy in making it work. Where the interdependency and opportunity for adding value to each other is a bit more subtle, it is up to the leader to make the link with performance more explicit. One idea might be a process of contracting between the athletes and the support staff agreeing a set of behaviours they were happy to be held accountable to. These behaviours covered areas like support of each other, ground rules for no negative talk etc. Getting the athletes to come up with the standards themselves was critical, a key aspect of teamwork is accountability to each other, not just to the leader.

3. Create a culture of open (and openness to) feedback and challenge of each other Swimming is obviously an individual sport and athletes have to balance the difficult dynamic of trainjng together and then competitng againsg each ogher and supporting each other and celebrating each others success as a team. A benefit of in a training squad is that the individuals are in each others face day in day out, and this makes it a lot easier to create an environment of open (and openness to ) feedback and and challenges from each other. The challenge here for HPC is that we have to create opportunities for people to come together, to develop relationships and practice performing together – always with the back drop of an understanding that this is in the name of us all swimming faster.

Not so much of  how to when it come to developing this HPC. Rather a few points that have been buzzing around since reading a lot about what links HPC and what common characteristics they have.

The challenge for me as the Head Coach is how do I change the mentality of the athletes under my direction and their parents and the coaching /teaching staff working in the club.

I think the potential is huge in Ireland and I believe we are just waiting for a group of swimmers to take the bull by the horns make the tough decisions and be the 1st to actually do something about it.  Someone not afraid of saying good enough is not good enough.

Fingers crossed this will be there first step

posted by Peter


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