By Carmen Bott
Before reading this article, I want you to close your eyes, sit still, and relax. I want you to imagine the most amazing high-performance sport program you can. Conjure up imagery of every detail and every aspect. With your eyes closed, take your time looking around—what do you see?
Labs? Testing? Grandiose facilities?
Make a list. Think, also, about some of the common phrases and slogans you’ve heard:
- At our High-Performance Summer Camp, we strive to help athletes reach their true potential
- Our High-Performance Program is the best in the country!
- Join our High-Performance Team and apply now
- Cutting edge programs
- Ground-breaking methods
Is high performance a spacious training environment with shiny new equipment? Does it include a coaching staff wearing matching Polo shirts, all moving about the facility to collect data using sophisticated computer tech? Is it about extensive laboratory testing or predictions of Olympic medals?
Or, is high-performance something else?
What Exactly Is High Performance?
If I were to ask you to define the term, could you? Is it even a definable and measurable construct? Is it something we can all picture and agree on?
Now, imagine you’re an athlete or a new practitioner seeking to be part of a high-performance program. Would you know what to look for? Would you be aware of the common denominators shared between all high-performance programs? And would you be able to identify what is missing?
My point is, the world of high-performance programs and high-performance sport are not clearly defined. Meaning we have no current checklist that neatly outlines what a high-performance program is (or is not); however, it seems everyone is offering this type of service.
Since the term itself is unclear, I decided to pretend I was a prospective athlete looking for a high-performance program using nothing but a handy internet search engine. During my non-scholarly Google crusade, I came across several definitions of high performance:
“High-performance sport or elite sport is sport at the highest level of competition… where the emphasis is on winning prestigious competitions” (Wikipedia, 2019).
High-performance sport overlaps with professional sport but is not the same; for example, the English football league system and Minor League Baseball include lower divisions whose teams’ members are full-time professionals. On the other hand, elite competitors at the Olympic Games or World Games in some minority sports may be part-time or rely on government grants. Likewise, student athletes, especially in college sports, are often high performance despite being amateurs (Wikipedia, 2019).
Clear as mud right? Okay, googling further:
In high-performance sport, “Administratively, National governing bodies for a particular sport often have separate administrative units for supporting elite athletes and for administering mass competitions. National Olympic Committees are often concerned with the funding of athletes likely to win Olympic medals. National Training Centers and Sports academies have also popped up with the goal of developing and nurturing promising young athletes. Such institutes may set goals in terms of national ranking on the Olympic medal table” (Wikipedia, 2019).
Thanks, Wikipedia, but this does little to help the prospective athlete or budding practitioner—or anyone else for that matter—seek and ultimately find a high-performance program to help them reach their respective goals. Perhaps many people think that the realms of high-performance sport are untouchable and reserved for only the very elite (whatever that means) and that it requires a state-of-the-art facility and a testing laboratory to do any real, valuable work.High-performance programs are about the attitude of people running it & their drive to do what's necessary to develop the athletes, says @carmenbott. Click To Tweet
In reality, high-performance programs are about culture. And culture is more about the attitude of people working for the athletes and the drive they demonstrate to do what is necessary to foster the athlete’s development. Notice I did not use the adjective elite. Since there is no current definition of a high-performance program that offers a “bells and whistles” insight, I’ll take a stab at honing in on the level of professionalism, service, and drive necessary to live up to that title. As an athlete or a practitioner, these are the qualities you should shop for.
I want to share this insight with athletes, their parents, and potential practitioners looking to join a high-performance team of professionals. Having coached in several different environments that were all deemed high-performance, I found some environments were much better than others. And from this lens, I’d like to share my view on the key targets of a high-performance culture that all high-performance sport programs should embody.
Target 1: Consistency
High-performance culture must be about the consistency of service delivery. Every single day, each staff member must show up with the same level of vigor, drive, and patience they did the day before. A staff that can perform and deliver—no matter the circumstances—sets a level of modeling for the athlete that is imperative. Energy and focus must not fluctuate.
Target 2: Growth Mindset
A high-performance culture is about a growth mindset. We can improve every day. Complacency and procrastination have no place in a high-performance environment. High-performance team members must admit their knowledge gaps and demonstrate their resourcefulness by doing daily research for the betterment of their professional development. It might involve looking up an answer to a question, seeking a new drill to improve a motor skill or a consulting with another professional. Get better every day.
Target 3: Calculated Risk-Taking
A high-performance culture is about calculated risk-taking. Sometimes a risk needs to be taken. Meaning, there is going to be doubt about a training method, or a taper, or even a training schedule. We cannot predict every outcome, and sometimes we are faced with uncertain circumstances. These are times to be brave. And to put the eggs in one basket and confidently face the storm. At worst, we’ll learn from our errors. We instill this in our athletes, do we not? Well, again we must practice what we preach. This does not mean we are whimsical or emotional in our decision-making; it means sometimes we risk a negative outcome. And such is life.
Target 4: Collaboration
A high-performance culture is about collaboration. Barriers to this often include fear and ego. If you approach another professional and express an opinion and they are not open to discussion, don’t take it personally and don’t bother “going in the ditch.” Not everyone is ready for you and new ideas. You need to know this and instead seek those who are not afraid of debate. Debate and collaboration are the same in my mind. We can disagree and approach problems very differently from one another but still arrive at a similar end point.Collaboration means we can disagree & approach problems very differently from one another & still arrive at a similar end point, says @carmenbott. Click To Tweet
True collaboration is about knowing the strengths of those around you and putting your ego aside when you need to ask for help. Collaboration, though, works best when two or more individuals have a similar value system and work ethic. If you find people just want to milk you for your knowledge, find a new colleague. That’s not reciprocity, and it’s not about the athlete.
Target 5: Frequent Communication
A high-performance culture is about frequent communication with athletes. Very little is new in sport science in terms of training methodology. However, we can be innovative about how we deliver programming. With so many accessible platforms for athletes, it’s easier and faster to communicate than ever before.
Besides the face-to-face communication during training sessions, it’s important to touch base with athletes regularly and ask for their feedback: text, instant message, phone, or video chat. Athlete feedback should be the basis of our decision-making, and we won’t know how athletes are feeling or experiencing the training until we ask. Having a close relationship with athletes is not unprofessional. Trust must be built, and it’s through open channels of communication where we can be foster it even further.
Target 6: Aligning Core Values
A high-performance culture is about aligning core values. In the world of sport, the performance team is large with many moving parts: sports medicine, physiology, psychology, statistics and analytics, strength and conditioning, the board, coaching staff, and more—and at the center of it all is the athlete. Each team member must be aligned in core values, and this needs to be clearly defined and communicated from the outset.Each performance team member must be aligned in core values, which need to be clearly defined and communicated from the outset, says @carmenbott. Click To Tweet
I’ll take this further and suggest a written document of standard operating procedures, a code of professional conduct, and a communication stream. Each member must be selfless and in it for the athlete’s benefit, not for their glory. Having said that, all team members should be recognized and appreciated for their work; praise and acknowledgment are important.
Target 7: Basis in Science
High-performance culture revolves around science and the scientific method. All team members must make choices based on what the body of evidence suggests as best practice. A high-performance program is not about the latest fitness trend or nutritional supplement. It’s also not about the general population. Athletes are special, and we must make informed choices for them based on scientific evidence. It’s okay to be cutting edge and innovative, but the evidence still must be founded upon rigor. Meaning, science that applies to an untrained soccer mom does not mesh well with an NFL superstar. Not. The. Same.
Target 8: Modeling
A high-performance culture is about modeling. Each team member must be living and breathing excellence. I am not saying perfection, but it’s important that we show our athletes that we, too, are executing a high-performance lifestyle. We’re eating well. We’re sleeping well. We’re communicating well. We’re engaging in self-care. We’re not allowing ourselves to burn out. We are healthy, fit, and strong, and have a relentless appetite for good hard work. Plus, we are fun to be around!Without a foundation of high-performance culture and solid teamwork of caring individuals, the extras lack significance, says @carmenbott. Click To Tweet
High performance is not about anything tangible, is it? It’s about the culture of a team, agency, or organization made up of amazing humans who, on a daily basis, are role models for athletes and who place the athlete at the center of all their decision-making. The shiny hubcaps are the fancy facilities and world-class laboratories. Without a foundation of high-performance culture and solid teamwork of caring individuals, the extras lack significance.