Organisations & Institutes vs Performance Staff (Part 2): Changing The System ItselfFeb 09, 2023
The Story So Far
In part 1 of this series the focus was on how on an individual level, we need to actively engage in understanding what support we need as a man or woman, before developing technical skills for our role.
Our past experiences lay down operating systems that influence our present, and our individual work is to learn where we need to detangle ourselves. Part of this is to bring light on our deeply tied attachment to roles & identities within our life.
Without checking ourselves, many of us are led by an out-of-date operating system of what it is to be a man (or woman). Leaving us susceptible to solely gauging our "success" on what others perceive as successful.
If we don’t do the work on ourselves, we will continue to do things every day that prevent ourselves and other people from giving their truth and their best.
This is the real work we have to do to ensure we are doing our part to nurture the optimal environments we seek where the performance staff's (all staff) well-being thrives whilst being respected and valued.
Organisations & Institutes: People First, or Profit First?
- What is the honest goal of organisations & Institutes?
- To develop people first?
- Or to create a machine that pumps out the most world-class athletes that win medals, at expense of people?
The English Institute of Sport (EIS) is an organisation I am grateful to have worked for. For many reasons, I learnt the most from them as a practitioner.
At the time the EIS was considered the gold standard of working environments. Yet I found this environment very challenging to be within.
I struggled heavily with anxiety, imposter syndrome and just being in my own skin when I was at the EIS. I would freeze internally when we spoke as a department about philosophies or programming rationale.
This limited me significantly in learning and developing myself. I compared myself to those whom I perceived as highly successful, which continued my spiral of anxiety and limiting beliefs that flooded my waking day.
My point is:
- How much better could I have been as a practitioner if I’d had the support structure in place to work with my imposter syndrome and anxiety?
- What could I have added to the development of my EIS colleagues in enhancing their development if I hadn’t felt such low self-esteem in myself?
- And how many other practitioners felt or do feel the same as this today, preventing them from giving their truth and their best?
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
“While we scrounge around for a new squat technique to try to uncover a 0.01 per cent improvement in an athlete, I believe there are multiple percentage points of talent sitting dormant within our head coaches.” - Cody Royle
It’s been 10 years since I left the EIS, and I’m sure things have moved on and evolved since my time there. When looking from the position now of an outsider, their value system still sounds solid:
“We understand that to continue to compete at the highest levels not only requires world-class athletes and world-class coaching, but also world-class support services. It is these support services that the EIS specialises in.”
Furthermore, their website continues:
“We strongly believe in investing in our people and their wellbeing and this is reflected in the extensive suite of employee benefits we offer.”
These sound noble values. However, the reality for practitioners on the ground doesn’t always support these statements. My research (>140 men interviewed so far) includes many practitioners across disciplines from institutes and organisations, including the EIS.
A practitioner said:
“We are continually concerned about having athletes with narrowly limited identities, but look around and show me a staff member who isn’t at risk of burnout and isn’t being exploited for their passion and identity.”
Other current and former staff have shared with me the very personal and challenging emotional situations they’ve encountered. From imposter syndrome and anxiety all the way to hiding significant alcohol abuse to numb their struggles and loneliness at the end of each working day.
A similar world-class environment is the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS). In recent times they have developed a Coach Wellbeing Hub with the aim of:
“The Coach Wellbeing Hub has been designed to support and empower our HP coaching community to manage their personal well-being by equipping them with the support, knowledge, and personal development opportunities to navigate their personal and professional lives as they coach.”
It compromises 3 sections:
Specifically, the well-being toolkit is the only place I’ve found that actively describes developing skills to understand and manage emotions. A huge step!
Yet these all require staff to reach out, and in the case of the welling toolkit, it’s delivered on request from HP-funded NSO Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement Managers.
Evidence from Mckinsey shows that despite organisations investing in better mental health schemes, employees still struggle with well-being at work.
They found 59% reported at least one mental-health challenge. This led to them being 4x more likely to say they intend to leave, 3x more likely to report low job satisfaction, and 2x more likely to have low engagement at work.
Furthermore, it's all well and good putting systems in place, but if the head coach or performance director isn’t walking the walk in their own life, this will mean nothing.
"I was asked to do a presentation on my day off. When I told my line manager he looked at me and laughed “we don’t have days off here.” It was said in jest, but I have a feeling this was truth coming through.”
This is one of the major problems I come across. Highly skilled performance staff feel they can't truly admit they need or want help, especially when the figure front is someone with a track record of failed relationships, and is an absent parent because they believe in an all-in mentality.
There is a case to say that organisations are solely interested in the positive marketing and goodwill that comes with saying they're people first. And it’s fair to say that their actions rarely match their words, especially when things get tough.
From my perspective, the bottom line is if those in positions of influence within these institutions and organisations aren't simultaneously looking at themselves through the lens of the development of a man/woman, their awareness of this side of things will be significantly limited.
It’s all well and good flying the well-being flag on a company website, but it needs to be embodied by everyone from top down for it to be effective. This involves the performance staff taking full responsibility for their own experience of life, and for the organisations to provide an environment that nurtures well-being at its core.
Solution A - Right Under Our Nose
If organisations are stating their values to be people first, then I feel that they need to bake this support into the environment. So staff have dedicated support coaches whose sole responsibility is to be the coach for the coaches/performance staff, as part of the day-to-day MDT.
I had a great conversation recently with Martin Dighton from UK Coaching. He provides that service with much of his work guiding the man or woman in their life before they even touch on the technical elements of their job. This results in them being fundamentally happier, which in turn enables them to be better coaches.
This echoes the growing amount of experienced former coaches providing support to coaches still in the heat of performance sport, including Cody Royle, Josh Fletcher and of course myself Richard Husseiny here at men behind sport.
We don’t need fancy innovation because the answer is in a raw form right under our noses. Performance lifestyle practitioners already exist within most elite organisations that serve athletes. It’s the most aligned service that is needed not just for athletes, but for support staff as well.
An example is the #More2Me campaign at the EIS:
“The #More2Me campaign is designed to encourage elite athletes to develop a more-rounded identity which reflects them as a person, as well as a performer. It aims to prompt athletes to consider their lives outside of and beyond sport, whilst they are still competing – promoting life alongside sport, not after!”
Imagine the work environment this would create if this support was available to every member of the performance staff team. The campaign continues to say:
“Performance Lifestyle works with a person-first approach to provide an individual coaching and mentoring service to all World Class Programme (WCP) athletes. Our aim is to support athlete well-being and to encourage and facilitate their personal and professional development alongside their competitive sporting careers as they move on to, through and beyond the WCP.”
Do you see how this service is incorporating both professional and personal aspects to the athlete?
If this is considered an essential part of coaching and mentoring services to world-class athletes, how on earth is this not a part of any institute or organisation's employee package?
After all, the evidence shows that the proportion of coaches and performance staff reporting mental health symptoms at a level that would warrant professional treatment was approximately 40%. This rate is similar to that previously observed in a comparable elite athlete sample (35%).
The answer is likely to be multifaceted, including those in influential positions not experiencing, valuing or walking the walk themselves with regard to personal development and well-being.
This a reminder that culture changes with people, therefore we are all required to do our own inner work to create a wider change.
However, the most potent and defining factor is surely down to cost.
Profit First, People Second.
In the capitalist economy that we live in, the essential feature is the motive to make a profit. Therefore profit will always come before people. It’s not personal, just a symptom of the culture we live in - right now.
This makes it important to look at the cold hard facts. Even more so when we look through the eyes of the organisation:
- How much is your employees’ good life worth for the company?
There are plenty of scientific links between better well-being and better business a.k.a return on investment (ROI). The main point being well-being brings out the best in people at work and at home, which benefits the employer financially including:
- Reduced absences
- Improved productivity and engagement
- Lower turnover
- Better talent attraction
- Improved customer service and leadership
Furthermore, people with excellent well-being are on average 19% more productive than colleagues with poor well-being.
How you measure the productivity of performance support staff is another question. It’s my contention that we want to move away from “producing” vast amounts of data analysis and increase the quality of the interactions between staff and athletes.
One of the many reasons for that is because meeting physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs increase engagement by 2x, energy at work by 2.2x, and loyalty by 3x compared to having no needs met.
There’s THAT word again - spiritual.
But ignore it as an organisation, and you’ll continue this downward spiral of performance staff fulfilment and wellbeing. See part 1 again for more detail on that.
What tends to unite academics, whatever their ROI outcome, is that they rarely go beyond direct costs. Healthcare costs, absence costs, insurance premiums, disability pay etc.
What goes uncalculated is “trickier” to value:
- Team Effectiveness
- Talent Attraction
Maybe team effectiveness can be calculated if we see it through a fresh lens.
Solution B - Organisational Coherence (Change within the system)
Team effectiveness is an exciting area to look at. But it’s important to highlight what we’ve got completely backwards with regard to leadership development, health and well-being.
It’s backward because we’ve typically come at it through psychology and cognition—our minds and brains.
The average person living in the 21st century operates mainly from the neck up. Heads on sticks. Stuck in their head.
We lean heavily on our psychology and neglect our biology. This to me is crazy, after all, we're in the business of high-performance psychology AND biology! This leaves our rational minds spinning like hamster wheels trying to keep pace with our always-on digital lifestyles.
There’s a whole host of habits and behaviours that have led to a steady decline in our overall health and well-being. Convenience diets and poor sleep due to long hours in a gym or on a field, and hours behind a screen analysing data, leaving very little energy to move our bodies enough.
You could say we’ve become deconditioned zoo animals.
Neurophysiology Trumps Cognition
It turns out that the secret to harnessing our team's effectiveness and potential may have been hiding in plain sight all along. It just exists below the radar of our rational minds.
A powerful example of this is from research at ESADE, which is a top-notch business school in Barcelona ranked by the Wall Street Journal as the best in the world. Their slogan is “Do Good. Do Better,” and they pride themselves on social impact and innovative leadership.
That’s why they took an interest in prospecting for emergent leaders among the institution’s MBA students.
They defined an emergent leader as:
“The way members of a group respond to someone vs someone who is appointed to a leadership position.”
The students were instructed to gather around a table and solve complex case studies. They were hooked up to machines gathering biometric data. A panel of professors would watch the data and pick the emergent leaders from the group.
The results seemed counter-intuitive.
The emergent leader wasn’t the one who talked the most or loudest. It wasn’t even necessarily who had the highest IQ.
But what the researchers did find was resonance. The data showed how well the students responded to each other. It also revealed the actual level of coherence in the individual themselves.
The alignment and organization of the biometric data within an individual had a direct correlation with emergent leadership.
This pattern can be understood through an observation made by Galileo centuries ago. He observed that grandfather clocks on a wall would synchronize according to the longest pendulum.
So the MBA student with the “longest physiological pendulum” acted as a metronome for bringing others into coherence. Entraining their brains to change other people’s minds. Just like clockwork.
The implications of these findings go beyond mere biohacking. They show us that what’s happening under the hood of our bodies and brains has a direct impact on our behaviour and well-being. Before we can even consciously access thoughts and feelings.
It points to a simple and profound insight. We can increase the amount of agency we have over the way we show up in life, our team's well-being and the way we perform together.
Lessons From Navy SEALs
The U.S. Navy SEALs aren't made up of the strongest, toughest, or smartest candidates. They all possess something much deeper. It’s their ability as individuals to utilise the heart’s unique ability to help create a state known as coherence, which translates into group coherence.
Remember the pendulum analogy above.
Coherence is an optimal state marked by smooth, or balanced heart rhythms and the harmonious function of the body’s mental, emotional and physical systems.
As individuals’ levels of coherence increase, so too do energy levels, mental clarity and the ability to perform – under routine or unusual or charged conditions.
The U.S. Navy has teamed up with HeartMath Institute, which is teaching personnel how to use its science-based tools and technology to self-regulate their emotions and build energy and resilience, whether they are awaiting deployment or are in theater.
Coherence training emphasizes a take-charge attitude in service members. As their adeptness at using the technique increases and they are able to shift into coherence on command, confidence levels for successful mission outcomes are enhanced.
Unit leaders receive mentor training to help reinforce self-regulation and resilience-building skills. Mentors are responsible for establishing a culture in which self-regulation and energy management are valued. Daily encouragement and reminders to practice are essential to personal and mission success.
Service members who take charge of their mental, emotional and physical energy experience a host of benefits, including increased:
- Overall Well-Being
- Mental clarity for decision-making
- Emotional awareness
- Sensitivity to relational issues
- Ability to maintain composure in challenging situations
The tools and techniques also have been shown to reduce:
- Generalized stress
- Physical symptoms of stress
Imagine the performance lifestyle "coaches supporting the coaches" were skilled in this and delivering it as part of the normal culture in performance support staff.
If it’s embodied by U.S. Navy culture, it can be embodied by performance sport culture.
The research in this space is incredible and will challenge your assumptions of what human beings are capable of. One of the leading people in this space doing truly profound work at the cutting edge is Dr Joe Dispenzer.
Solution C - Changing the System Itself
We can't separate our professional life from our personal life, because that's the current model & it's broken. The system needs changing. Hence why this conversation is happening at all.
This may not be a popular opinion, and I am happy to accept that. But if the real goal is to develop people first and to be leading within the world-class sport environment, the powers that be within these organisations must continually review the landscape in which “their people” are working.
Just as we as practitioners perform a needs analysis to enhance the impact we can have with the sports and athletes we work with on the ground.
This is not about pushing blame onto others, it’s about opening up a dialogue on how we can grow these elite environments into ground-breaking work environments.
An example of this is NextJump, whose motto is:
“Do the little things that allow others to do the great things that they are meant to do. We don’t believe in adding “bodies” to our team – we look to find the right people that are looking to improve themselves and use that knowledge to help others. People development is at the heart of everything we do.”
“Better Me + Better You = Better Us”
They are an everyone culture that has become a deliberately developmental organisation (DDO). They help transform employees into leaders and leaders into coaches. It started as a social movement, but the problem grew so big, it became a business for them.
NextJump is one of two companies globally recognized by Harvard as a DDO, an organization which puts learning at the heart of its corporate culture and strategy.
They do this by focusing on 4 elements:
- Communication within the team - breaking organisational silence
People don’t speak up - for fear of being wrong and looking stupid, for rejection of their idea, for fear of retribution. People not speaking up also leads to accidents, missed opportunities and wasted energy.
- Growing the team - training decision-making & judgment
Decentralised decision-making is required for teams to navigate the growing uncertainty in the world successfully. Autonomy, not the common authority-led performance coaching structure.
- Develop feedback that’s truthful & authentic that gives real awareness to individuals about themselves and their work
Giving truth and seeking it is hard - it requires putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation for judgement. Especially between peers, there is a culture of niceness / inauthentic kindness meaning that the truth rarely comes out. Leading to 95% of people thinking they’re self-aware whereas in reality, only 10-15% are – causing all sorts of frustration and distrust.
- Teams and individuals burning out… because they haven’t grown
Studies from Harvard Business Review have shown the leading cause of burnout is not the number of hours worked, but the lack of growth people experience. Stagnation leads people to being unhappy in their current situation and often leaving their organisations in the hope of change. Investing in teams' growth and development is the top way to retain talent.
An organisation's challenge is to create an environment that allows performance staff to satisfy their core needs:
- Belonging, relatedness, or connectedness.
- Autonomy: a sense of control in one's life.
- Mastery or Competence.
- Genuine self-esteem, not dependent on achievement, attainment, acquisition, or valuation by others.
- Trust: a sense of having the personal and social resources needed to sustain one through life.
- Purpose, Meaning, Transcendence: knowing oneself as part of something larger than isolated, self-centred concerns, whether that something is overtly spiritual or simply universal/humanistic, or, given our evolutionary origins, Nature
A major contributing factor to why performance staff too often get to a breaking point is because they are either unaware of these, or the work environment in the organisations are requiring them to live and work out of alignment with them continually.
What we currently call high-performance environments, but the reality is we do things every day that prevent other people from giving us their truth and their best.
However, when teamed with others we know and trust, able to rely upon each other to navigate uncertainty and give us the truth about our blind spots, operating in high-performance sport is no longer such a daunting and costly task.
- Develop an adapted performance lifestyle support system solely for performance support staff.
- Enable them to build a culture in which self-regulation and energy management are valued as a cornerstone to day-to-day living.
- Deliver development that encompasses not only upskilling technical criteria but also one evenly focussed on enhancing open and authentic feedback, optimising decision-making, leading to more autonomy within the staff, which will result in fewer feelings of stagnation and burnout due to more growth opportunities as a whole person.
- And the kicker is that all of this will ultimately benefit the athletes we work with!
All of these takeaways are exactly why I created The Lost to Liberted Blueprint. It dives deep into all of these areas, offering senior performance staff powerful skills to free themselves from improving athletes at the expense of their health & happiness!
So they can find their personal freedom within sport or create their own exit strategy to stop living to work and start living their life.