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What's Next in Elite Sport
Three movements we predict in the next decade
This past week, I (Alex) had the privilege of speaking to leaders in elite Canadian sport about "what's next" in the world of sport. The task was to answer the question: how does sport get better?
Here are the 3 ideas I presented:
#1: We'll begin to see wellness as a foundation of performance.
Historically, sport has tried to cast mental health aside and focus almost exclusively on peak performance. As a result, athletes who struggled with their mental health were reluctant to seek support, and their performance suffered. The emphasis on heroic individualism superseded the need for support, with the end result being poorer performance.
In the decade to come, I think we'll see this paradigm flip.
We're already starting to see the research that suggests there is in fact an intersection between wellness and performance, and that there is a core set of 7 factors that can help athletes feel and perform better.
That's just the beginning.
The field of sport psychology is exploding right now, and outside of sport, performance psychology is booming. There will always be an emphasis on things like better performance, increased productivity, and better engagement - but what the rise of the presence of performance psychology suggests is that people are beginning to figure out what many psychologists have known all along.
People can't perform their best if they're not well.
#2: Emphasis on the Environment
Our understanding of talent has evolved, from thinking of talent as innate to talent as developed to talent as situated.
This means that talent has a lot more to do with what the environment can facilitate than some inborn characteristics the athlete possesses (or doesn't).
As our understanding of talent evolves, we'll begin to appreciate the outsized impact the environment has on our behavior and our performance. In turn, a real emphasis on culture - beyond motivational posters and big words posted in hallways - will emerge from the leaders in sport, showcasing that an emphasis on the athlete experience beyond just performance leads to a better product on the field.
This is actually a blessing in disguise for many sports professionals. While we can't always predict who will be the next big phenom, we can create an environment that attracts the best players and gets the most out of the players we have. Rather than focusing on the "silver bullet" in the form of a draft pick or massive transfer signing, the programs of the future will focus on creating a culture that facilitates belonging.
#3: We'll take care of our coaches and support staff.
Just like athletes can't perform if they're not well, those supporting the athletes behind the scenes - coaches, strength coaches, athletic trainers, psychologists, physicians, and more - can't provide the best care if they're overworked and underpaid.
The first programs that aim to fix this will have a massive first-mover advantage. They'll attract the best talent, that talent will feel valued and supported, and as a result, that talent will deliver superior results.
The list of stressors facing our support staff professionals is astounding, but there are some simple steps we can take to address it, beginning with facilitating better work-life integration. As the culture of work more broadly evolves from "work as the center of the human experience" to "work is an adjunct to what it means to be human", cutting-edge sports organizations will not resist but instead, embrace and facilitate this cultural shift.
The best organizations will do that by increasing support staff compensation, recognition, and appreciation.
Competitive advantage is about adaptation.
While certainly not exhaustive, this list can help you and your organization begin to identify and execute things that will make being a part of your program more appealing.
We can begin by asking the hard questions: why are we resistant to work-life integration? What is the fear behind letting people explore more of that balance? What are the beliefs underlying the pressure to squeeze as much out of people as we can?
We can then take some small steps to facilitate progress. What would it look like to show up tomorrow and do just 1 thing to move the culture in a positive direction?
Finally, we can embrace change as inevitable. Rather than resisting the overwhelming tide pushing toward a holistically healthier world, the best organizations will lean in and bring that reality to life for their employees and team. In turn, they'll get what they're really after anyway: people that are invested and care, that want to win, that compete well consistently and perform to their full potential.
What do you think is next in your performance domain? What are you doing to make sure your organization is realizing that progress?
Which of these ideas do you agree with? Which do you resist?