In the last article I discussed what I saw were the drivers to success at the highest levels of sport. I did so at the individual level, discussing the traits and behaviours that were obvious to me. In this discussion I will try to identify what I have observed to drive success at a slightly higher level, that is at the team or country level. I am sure I will miss some areas, but I hope that it gives some insight into the foundations that may be required to elevate our success in the long term across the collective, whether this be at a sporting level or the level of the Olympic team in its entirety.
Australia had one of its most successful Olympics, finishing sixth on the medal table with 17 gold medals and 46 medals overall. With a population our size we have once again performed extremely well given the talent pool that we have to choose from. And for those who have been following the discussions around success at a country level there is invariably the talk about financial investment in sport. It is true, Australia invests a significant amount of money in sport. And this is for a few reasons, but I truly believe the main one is that we love sport. We are a sporting nation, it is in our DNA as a country, and this showed in the level of interest and support from the broader public but also the way in which the team conducted itself in Tokyo. There are four areas that I observed to be important drivers of performance when it comes to being successful at the Olympics. They include Culture, Leadership, Investment/Support and Planning.
Lets start with Culture.
- “The standard you walk past is the standard you accept”. On the first day that I was in the village I noticed a meeting occurring out the front of the Australian building. It was a reasonably large group gathered around a number of tables. As I got closer I could hear the voice of the person conducting the meeting. It was Rohan Taylor the head coach of the Australian Swimming team. I must admit that I sneakily sat close enough so that I could listen to what was being said. It was the last few days of the swimming program and their success was immense to say the least. From what I was told the swimmers generally kept to themselves in the village and what I saw provided me with the feeling that this was a very tight knit operation. I could hear him imploring the team to stay on task, to finish the job and most of all he demanded that they support and push each other as a team. Impressed would be underselling the feeling that I had listening to this. The performance of the Australian Swimming team at the Olympics was beyond even their expectations, 9 gold medals and 20 medals in total, they provided more than half of Australia’s gold medal tally. It was clear to me that this was no accident. I make no secrets about the fact that I have become a huge Melbourne Storm fan. But I started following the Storm for very different reasons to the general punter. After reading an article about the coaching of Craig Bellamy and the management that he shared with Frank Ponnisi (Storm Footy Manager) I was engrossed by what they had created. It is a culture of success and I wanted to know ad understand more about it. So for the last 3 years I have been following them closely. Having spoken with staff that have worked with the Storm the reports about the culture of the club underlie their success. They are immensely hard working. In fact an interview with Ponnissi highlighted that they recruit players based on their willingness to work hard and pursue constant improvement. Cultures of success don’t happen by accident, they are carefully designed, curated and flourish under their own evolution. And this was more than evident in the meeting that I saw as I observed the Australian Swimming team. So why is culture so important in success in elite sport? It creates a shared value structure that underlies behaviour. Each and every time you consider a thought, action or behaviour you have a system of values to reflect this against, in common vernacular it needs to pass the sniff test. If you encounter a scenario that is daunting, is scary, difficult, you have thoughts, behaviours and a collective ideal to fall against. Not only does it removing much of the consideration time, but it provides you with a blueprint to steer you in the right direction when you are unsure. Setting a culture of elite performance leads to success because it provides belief in your process and the shared behaviours that lead to such success. In turn this belief fosters confidence in the group and strengthens the faith within the culture that has been created. In this way it can create a positive feedback loop that enhances performance beyond the sum of its parts. This is often why good cultures are infectious and inspiring to be around. However these feedback loops are also the reason why a dysfunctional culture spirals and destroys the morale of a group so quickly.
- Leadership clearly goes hand in hand with setting a culture of success. But true leadership is about empowering people within a setting to achieve their best. At many levels leadership is seen as vision and is directive in nature, however from what I saw during my time in Tokyo the greatest leadership appeared to come from demonstrating the behaviours that you want to see in the world. Particularly during my time in Narita I was able to observe behaviours from both athletes and coaches that I believe demonstrate the clearest forms of leadership. At least to me true leadership is holding steadfast in your pursuit of your goals, both for yourselves and others in the face of adversity. And this was everywhere during this holding camp. The number of examples that I saw of athletes actively choosing to carry out behaviours that mirrored their goals were endless. Not only did this inspire others to follow suit, but it set standards. As I mentioned above, the standards you walk past are the standards that you accept. The other example of leadership that I have seen everywhere throughout this experience is that of officials, support staff and coaches in selflessly encouraging and assisting others to be at their best. I say this because it is clear that leadership in performance settings is not always about advancing others. With egos and rewards associated with success at Olympic level it is easy to see those who are acting on their own behalf. This is clearly the opposite of leadership, and I saw my fair share of these instances across the trip. Thankfully they were few and far between. The other observation that clear carries across both culture and leadership is fostering an environment in which people at all levels of environment are empowered to influence the environment. As I suggested in the examples of athletes demonstrating behaviours of clear leadership, under strong leadership their influence on the entire group is not only accepted but encouraged and championed. The clearest example that I saw with this in Athletics team was the empowerment by the team staff to encourage the team members to attend the events and support fellow athletes. As many of you know the stadium was relatively empty. The only people who could enter the stadium were coaches, team officials and athletes. Australia was by far the most united and vocal group of supporters in the stadium. I can honestly say that it was an extremely proud moment to be associated with the Australian Team, when cheers of Aussie, Aussie, Aussie went up during events. The support of these groups of athletes, many of which had finished their events for the competition, was the envy of every team. And it must be said that the encouragement by the team leadership to provide this support is a subtle but strong display of leadership. Without this I do not believe the achievements of the Australian Athletics Team would have been as good as it was.
- Investment and Support
- One of the things that has come out of these games particularly for the athletes in the track and field team is an understanding of how popular the sport is during the Olympics. Adding to that the engagement that many of the athletes have had particularly following their interviews shows that the broader public respects and is interested in their stories as people as well as athletes. What has become apparent is that the majority of the broader public were shocked to learn that many of our top Olympic athletes are working, part or full time and do not receive a significant amount of financial support from the government sport programs or sponsorship. Now the reality in Australian Olympic Sports is that you are unlikely to make a significant amount of money from your sport unless you are truly in the top few athletes in your event. With this in mind it is clear that the countries that are able to support this and the athletes within the Australian Olympic setting that are able to navigate the financial side of the sport are at an advantage. In order for Australia to continue to improve this situation it is clear that we need to get better in this area. Whether it be with continued discussions at government level, partnerships with the corporate and private sector (many of you will have seen the partnership Gina Reinhardt has with swimming) and better planning around athlete supported working arrangements. An example of this is a number of members of the athletics team having full time, but very supportive workplaces. Is it difficult to work and be a high level athlete? The answer is undoubtedly yes. But it is clearly very possible and likely very beneficial for the athletes as people. The biggest thing that needs to be done is that there is room for increased engagement of sports and Olympic programs to foster these relationships that provide the opportunity to have career and sport progression occurring simultaneously. Now this is my bias coming in again, but a similar approach is needed for coaches at this level. Many of who have full time jobs outside of sport. Again it is no surprise that coaches that are supported financially or are in a stable financial position continue to produce high level results consistently.
- It may seem obvious that planning and active foresight are important in long term, large scale success. But there were so many examples of planning failures that occurred. Thankfully most of those that I observed occurred in other countries decision making. The most noticeable example of this for me was that of the American Athletics Team. Following their Olympic Trials there was a lot of noise about how well they would do at the Olympics. It is clear that their performance was underwhelming and if it were not for the last few days of competition then it would have been a complete disaster. And it was not a surprise to me that some of the success came right at the end of the championships. The biggest planning failure that I saw in the whole championships was the decision to bring in the USA team only a few days out from the start of the competition. The time difference from the US to Asia is particularly difficult for jet lag, so the lack of holding camp and acclimatization time was an enormous factor that was planned extremely poorly. I truly feel sorry for many of the athletes that were brought in late, many of whom would have liked to come in weeks in advance, only to have sub par performance that were very likely to have been avoidable. On the more positive end of planning, it appears that the coaches, physiology and medical teams of the Australian Walk and Marathon got it extremely right with the planning around heat management and pacing. If you were taking a close look at the results, Australia performed extremely well compared with previous championships in both Walks and Marathons, but ore importantly was the way in which those results were achieved. Many athletes appeared to go out as though it was a cool winters day. The conditions in Japan were extremely oppressive for distance events, 30+ degrees and 80% humidity is not easy when going for a leisurely stroll let alone a marathon. So to see nearly all of the Australian athletes perform at or very close to their personal bests, highlights that the careful race planning and heat training and management were extremely successful in seeing the Australian athletes consistently improving their position at each time point. Planning is not a sexy area but it is so important if you want to execute when it matters the most. Now this planning is at a more microscopic level, so it is important to identify the planning required at the macroscopic. More than ever with the announcement of Brisbane as the host city for the 2032 games, Australia is in a position whereby if we can start to implement some of these strategies we have the time and the opportunity to maximize on the talent that we have. As I spoke about in the section on culture, we love sport, and we are extremely successful given our modest population, but if we want to put our best foot forward, looking to the future requires our ability to put strategies in place sooner rather than later that will ensure the success of Tokyo games flourishes into ongoing and constantly improving future international achievement.