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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

The Coach is Always Right

How great are tablets!!!

If someone had told me 15 years I could be sat in a coffee shop and blog while watching the world go by I would probably have said

“BLOG what on earth are you talking about?!?!”

And more recently i would have equated blogging to being a nerd……but now I say EMBRACE THAT INNER NERD

Anyway……i digress

When I started swimming in Templemore at the age of 10 my mum took me and my sister to every practice, she sat and watched and listened to every word (probably to make sure that I didnt miss behave)

One of the greatest lessons that that she taught me, was that my teachers and coaches are always right…even when they are wrong. I know for certain that there were times that she felt like I was not being treated fairly, and I suspect that that hurt her.

The impressive thing about my mum was that I never heard her talk negatively about any of my coaches or teachers. She kept up to speed on what was going on and what was being said, but never voiced her negative thoughts, that would have certainly influenced how I viewed my swimming and my role in the team. She was teaching me a respect for authority that I have never forgetten.

Now i did witness some parents who took a different route and looked for any and every opportunity to jump down a coaches throat, when something didn’t go perfectly for their child. It seemed like those poor kids just went from team to team every year in search of the “perfect” coach. The problem is, there is no such thing.

I believe that today, there is very little respect given to the coaches and teachers of youth sport. Parents are quick to defend their kds and voice their disapproval during the car ride home after training or meets or at the dinner table. How can we expect our young athletes to return to training and not mirror the attitudes their parents have taught them?

If parents show disrespect to the decisions that are being made in their kids lives, why should they then respect any authority figure?

The long term problem is that these young athletes may not learn to cope with setbacks and the truth is, life at times will have setbacks! How parents  handle those disappointments can set their kids up for success if the teaching opportunity is recognised.

The last point is this…

Coaches and teachers have studied and spent time gaining experience in their chosen field and as parents you must learn to trust that what the coach does is for the best of each and every young athlete under their tutilage. Coaches will largely have a better understanding of the long term development of athletes then parents. You may not understand why certain decisions are made but you dont need to understand, you need to trust that the coach knows best.

Youth sports clubs must always be coach driven, athlete centred and supported by parents/friends/family etc when parents start to dictate and thinking it is about them then we have a problem…

Just a short 1 today.

till next time

posted by Peter

Creating a High Performing Centre (part 2)


“We are that which we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit”


Really when I talk about building a High Performing Program what I am talking about is developing a Talent Hotbed. Now, I don’t like the word talent. I tell my athletes that, when someone tells them they are talented, to reply that actually the work incredibly hard.

But hard work cant be the only ingredient, we all know of athletes who work their backsides off but for some reason it just doesnt happen for them. We put it down to a lack of ‘talent’ and lament that if only we could find that unique talent that also worked hard then we would really have something.

But is that really the case?

Maybe its not that our athletes with potential dont work hard enough or dont have enough talent, maybe its that they dont work smart enough!

So maybe when developing this talent hotbed or high performing centre my focus needs to shift from ‘how much’ & ‘how hard’ to just ‘how’. We need to develop an environment where athletes are allowed and indeed encouraged to practice effectively. Where there is no fear of failure because it is through failure that we learn to do better.

Often when we see someone practicing effectively we describe it using words like willpower or concentration or focus. These words however don’t do justice to what is happening, they don’t quite go far enough. They don’t capture the steep learning curve we are witnessing.

I have often told swimmers that

‘only perfect practice makes perfection’

BUT what is perfect practice?
Daniel Coyle in his book the talent code calls it DEEP PRACTICE
In that book he gives the following example of how to experience this for yourself

take a few minutes to look at the following lists

A                                   B

Leaf / Tree                   Bread / B_tter

Sweet / Sour               Music / L_rics

Movie / Actress          Phone / B_ok

Petrol / Engine            S_oe / Sock

Turkey / Stuffing         Pen / P_per

Fruit / Vegetable         Tele_ision / Radio

Computer / Chip          Lunch / Din_er

Chair / Sofa                  Beer / Win_

Now, cover the lists and try to recall as many of the pairings  as you can.

Which column did you remember the most from?

If you are like most people it wont even be close, they remember more from column B, the words that contain the fragments. Studies have shown that you are 3 times more likely to recall pairs from column B than from column A. Its as if for those few seconds your memory skills suddenly improved.

Your IQ didn’t increase, you didn’t feel any differently but when you looked at the fragmented words something subtle happened, you stopped, stumbled, struggled then figured it out. You experienced a microsecond of struggle and that made all the difference.

You didn’t practice harder, you practiced DEEPER

Perfect practice is built on a paradox
struggling in certain targetted ways, operating at the edge of your ability, where you make mistakes, makes you better. Experiences where you are forced to make errors and correct them end up making you swift and graceful without you realising it.

You can read more about this here

So the trick in developing a Talent Hotbed is to provide the athletes with the right stimulus at the right time, allow them to fail – repeatedly – without fear, encourage then to learn from each failure, to operate at the extreme of their ability.

The trick should be to set goals just beyond present ability level of the group, to

target the struggle

. There is an optional gap between what the athlete is currently capable of  and what they are trying to do –  find that sweet spot learning takes off!!

So what does all this mean for me as a club coach?

If I want to develop thus High Performing Centre then I am going to have to start educating swimmers, and (more importantly) parents, to teach them that it is ok to make mistakes when those mistakes are treated as an opportunity to learn.

So does this idea fly in the face of the LTAD Model? I don’t believe so, in fact, I believe that when we hit that sweet spot we are more in line with the LTAD than ever before.

Think about it the 1st stage of the LTAD is FUNdamentals – the clue is right there in capitals, a relaxed environment where learning the basics is fun. Right from our earliest days we learn by failing when we learnt to walk we fell every time and did our parents shout at us for failing? Of course not they encouraged us.

I see clubs paying lip service to following a Long Term Athlete Development plan but then not following through with it all the way. We do this 1st stage ok (and I think that we can still do it better) but then (in my experience) we rush and push and hurry young swimmers along and if they can’t keep up we discard them (figuritivly speaking)

At a 2 day conference last month Graham Wardell said something that stuck with me. He said as coaches we have a tendency to coach to the top of our squad. Now he used it in a slightly different context….
We see a pattern in swimming of a lot of junior females and very few senior females in our squads. He suggested that this could be because as juniors they tend to be at the front of their lanes as they physically develop earlier then as the males develop the girls naturally get passed. If we as coaches coach to the top we stop coaching the girls when this happens……no surprise that they quit.

I am starting to believe that the same principle happens to groups in general without a gender bias.  If we coach to the top of the squad, the younger swimmers are working at a level that exceeds their sweet spot simply to keep up, their skills disappear, they learn bad habits and these then get engrained.  The result? Fit athletes without the skills to transition from junior to senior sport.

Not to put to fine a point on it as coaches we are doing a fairly poor job

This statement was not especially well received I must admit (possibly because I said it exactly like that) in fact the response was “speak for yourself”
The sad thing is – I was speaking about myself

In Ulster, historically, we move our athletes through too quickly and they miss out on key stages in their development. This results in us having fairly fast 11 & 12 year olds who grow into ok 15 & 16 year olds and we have huge problems retaining any athlete beyond that age.

I for 1 am tired of meteocrity.

I was told (and have told others) if you want to be a successful coach you have to leave Northern Ireland. Why? Isn’t that just accepting that we can’t do it right here?

Well I like that as a challenge.


Building a High Performing Program

STEP ONE : – providing a safe environment for all squads where failure is seen as a positive step to learning.

posted by Peter

The Zen of Martial Arts

Not so much a blog today as a plagerism

Thanks to Mike Gustafson who postes this originally the full article is here.

A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of s martial artist. When he arrived at the dojo, he was given an audience by the Sensei.

“What do you wish from me?” the master asked.

“I wish to be your student and become the finest kareteka in the land,” the boy replied.

“How long must I study?”

“Ten years at least,” the master answered.

“Ten years is a long time,” said the boy. “What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?”

“Twenty years,” replied the master.

“Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?”

“Thirty years,” was the master’s reply.

“How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” the boy asked.

“The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the Way.”

Sometimes, we get so fixated on goal times and far away swim championships that we forget to be in the present. This doesn’t just happen with age group swimmers. It can happen with collegiate and professional swimmers, too. And when we’re focusing on a far-away destination, what we’re really doing is not putting all our efforts and focus on the journey itself. When we have one eye looking down the road, we only have one eye focused on the practice at hand.

It’s great to have goal times. Goals are very much needed throughout the swimming journey. Goal times get you out of bed in the morning, they motivate you, they make you feel inspired, and they give you something to shoot for.

But when you obsess too much about goal times, they can be a negative motivator. They can feel like a burden, or an obstacle, or extra amounts of pressure – and this isn’t what you want. You don’t want to be scared by a goal. Because you’re not actually scared by the goal itself, but scared about what happens if you don’t reach that goal. You become scared of failure. 

Unfortunately, here’s the thing: Everyone fails. Everyone experiences failure. Everyone gets knocked down, doesn’t reach a goal, misses a championship final, or loses a race. Even Michael Phelps. What matters isn’t the failure, but how you react to it – both after and before the race itself. If you are scared about failing, you will never truly feel confident on the blocks.

You need to try to let go of that fear of failure. Everyone fails. What matters more is getting back up, focusing on the journey, and not on the destination.

When you place all your focus on the journey – having a great practice, nailing a start, a turn, or just trying your best in every practice to improve one small thing – you begin to focus less on the destination and more on the journey. You begin to accept that you will occasionally fail – and failure is OK. You will feel less scared about not reaching a goal time or not reaching Zones, because you know that swimming is a long road filled with failure. It will happen. What matters is that you not be scared by it, but instead, just do the best you can every moment.

Swimming can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be. You’re so young, and you have a lot of swimming ahead of you. Swimming is a life-long journey with little baby steps and accomplishments along the way.

Goals can bring extra pressure. It’s true that tons of pressure can make diamonds. But it also can suffocate the fun. I know many swimmers who burned out throughout the swimming journey because they were no longer having fun, because they were feeling lots of pressure to succeed. But what defines “success” anyway? Some people define success about placements and times, and others define success about having fun, enjoying the sport, and enjoying your time with the sport. I tend to view success as the latter.

If you’re feeling too much pressure, take a few steps, breathe, and try to focus on the journey. I will tell you the truth: It won’t be the end of the world if you don’t make Zones. Sure, it will be disappointing, but it shouldn’t ruin your love for the sport, and it shouldn’t make you feel as though everything you’ve done – all those 10,000 yard practices you do – are worthless. Peter Vanderkaay, when he was your age, didn’t even qualify for high school states. Imagine if he didn’t qualify for states and then thought of himself as a failure. Maybe he wouldn’t have become the Olympic swimmer he is today.

But he did become one. Swimming is a long, long journey, and while goal-setting can be good, if you’re experiencing so much pressure that you’re scared about the journey, press the reset button and focus both eyes on the journey itself. 

Remember the anecdote from above: When you focus on the destination, you aren’t using both eyes to see the way there.

Breathe. Smile. Keep working hard, and keep having fun, and you’ll get to where you need to go, wherever that may be

Hope you enjoyed that as much as i did


Adventures in Swimming

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