At the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008, team GB saw off with 47 medals, 19 of which were gold. The media were happy, the public got their open bus tour and there were more Cycling Olympic champions than space in your short term memory! A successful games to be sure. From a personal perspective I have always found the post-games period difficult. I think athletes find it hard too; to re-motivate, set the new challenge and cope with change. Post-Sydney was a real lull, post-Athens less-so, post-Beijing was hard for a different reason.
One process we anticipated post-Beijing was one of recovery and the need for down-time: readying for the big push toward London. In December 2008 the government announced a change in the funding system. In short, the money that was centrally allocated to providing sports science and medicine through the English Institute of Sport was to be remodelled. Rather than the EIS providing services at its discretion and in negotiation with sports – the sports were given the money instead to be used at their will. It was a subtle change but one that had ramifications for how services are run. The landlords would be paid, the back-room administrators and managers would be put on, but practitioners from across the medical and scientific services would need to be paid for by the sports. We needed buy-in. Many sports baulked at the costs, “Do I invest in a full-time coach or pay 2 days of a doctor’s time?” As the ‘power’ or more appropriately judgment and prioritisation shook down the services against all other components of the world class funding, there were many people who became uncertain about their job security and more meaningfully their worth. Sure enough the axe fell in certain places. Looking back there were remnants of the initial EIS set up that were ‘nice to haves’ rather than priorities. There were also major sporting re-structures, such as in track and field athletics, who withdrew investment from St. Mary’s College, which was formerly (and still is but more off their own steam), a very productive UK Athletics base for endurance, which led to staffing changes.
The most keenly felt affect on the EIS physiology team was the opportunity this presented to sports to review and restructure their services. Many sports felt it was time to reduce investment in the service, or cancel the service for later redevelopment. The need reduced for some sports, some went it alone and others took the opportunity to feedback about the quality of the services. The critical opinion pointed not to inadequate technical competence (by that I refer to the breadth or depth of physiological understanding, grasp of detail and the ability to develop logical-mathematical concepts) but to a lack of emotional, inter-personal and team-working abilities. No particular scrutiny was applied by way of emotional intelligence profiling, it was down to the feeling of a coach, athlete and/or a performance director that had been exposed to a lack of such things as inter-personal skill, altruism, listening skill, empathy, selflessness, self-sacrifice and humility. Technical arrogance was exposed as unsuitable to the support role. As a performance director summed up their need, “we would take 20% less technical ability for just 10% improvement in emotional ability”. The lesson was clear, both then and since, if you want to work in this industry you have to be able to work with people. There is a place for the guru, but it is not on the frontline.
So what has this meant for the EIS moving toward the most important sporting event in our country’s history? In simple terms we have had to change. As for many species, the ones that survive pass on their characteristics (cultural characteristics in this instance, not a chance for breeding!). Our focus as a group has been on developing trust and integration, in order to maximise our unified knowledge, learning and experiences. The technical debate and discussion has centred around performance focussed themes, such as ‘determinants of performance’, ‘adaptation’ and ‘on-the-day physiology’. More importantly, the requirement for physiology team interaction is not only on the ‘what’, but is also to work on the ‘how’. When working with the different types of coaches, the skilled (inter and intra-personally) practitioner will flex their style and communication method to persuade and convince. The craft of ‘how’, is essential in building trust, which serves as a platform for development.
Lastly, we have had to work on ‘who’ works in this arena. Previously, I have made the mistake of focussing on technical prowess. We have now adopted a policy of recruiting upon the basis of a person’s character and willingness to contribute. We are not at the stage of psychometric testing, but we are looking for a simple ability to build rapport, trust, self-awareness and authenticity. We then look for fundamental intelligence and the final filter is the transferable experience. As a general comment, the pool of potential future applied practitioners coming through the University system lack the vocational, inter-personal skills. As an observation, the responsibility must lie with the students to generate their own experiential opportunities. One wouldn’t enrol on a photography course, learn all about the camera, picture composition and development, then never go out and take a picture! In addition though, the pedagogical expertise must be there to challenge and nurture the most employable personal abilities.
So we have been through the mill, undertaken some introspection and rebuilt our systems and services under the knowledge that if a sport does not like the product, they have every right to walk out of your shop and look elsewhere. These are pure market forces and have streamlined, but undoubtedly improved (I could go as far as to say professionalised) the applied physiological support services. We wouldn’t have chosen to have grown up this way. It would have been far more beneficial to have realised these changes before London was awarded the games. However, the games has not only served to galvanise our focus and priorities, it has done so too, for those we support.
In times of change, learners inherit the Earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. Eric HofferThis article was featured in the BASES SES