Creating a high performance environment is deemed the utopia of sport and business. Fostering this kind of environment however is notoriously difficult and takes a considerable amount of time and energy to do. The culture of a sport team or club can often be seen as very philosophical. However it is much broader than that. Many cultures within sports teams are highly practical, solid and real. There are often many challenges that are faced when working in high performance environments for example communication problems, coach and athlete conflict, interference from managers, owners, or executive boards, media reports and financial pressures. The world of elite sport therefore becomes ever more political, ruthless and fast-paced where results become the main focus. The talent within these teams is often very high where athletes and coaches are exceptional at what they do, they are confident in themselves and their abilities but are often sceptical about new or different approaches.
In sport we see that the coach is often the most influential significant other in the sporting experience (Pensfaard & Roberts, 2002). The climate that the coach creates via their interpersonal style can be extremely influential to motivation and behaviour. Creating a motivating and high performance environment can deliver impact on the performance of athletes. Elite athletes often expect the coach to create the motivational climate and support a preference for mastery in skills. Many athletes also suggest that they expect performance to perceive performance as a lower concern which in turn improves task cohesion and collective efficacy (the ability to deliver a desired effect).
There are eight main themes that can help improve high performing climates or environments. These are; (1) the ciritcal turning point, (2) flexibility and evolution, (3) dual management, (4) better people make better teams, (5) responsibility, (6) leadership, (7) expectation of excellence, and (8) team cohesion.
1 – The critical turning point
A team has just lost an important game, they are about to be relegated. The athletes organise a social event which become anti-social. The coaches are appalled by what has happened. This is an example of a critical turning point albeit an extreme one. These turning points are often ignored and not capitalised on. They can be key to changing a performance culture. They give you a reason to change and can create buy in from players on the team. However they are not necessarily needed for a culture change but they can help.
2 – Flexibility and Evolution
Developing a high performance environment is an evolving work in progress. Coaching styles can be dynamic and evolving also. Coaches can change from being directive, authoritarian, collaborative of consensus driven coach. Coaches should also be emotionally intelligent and aware. Team talks can often be a waste of time. Before a competition athletes need and want their time.
3 – Dual management
Allowing for players/ team members to have an input on the management of a team can develop ownership. Dual managing the team can create a performance culture. That is input from a committee of players and a committee of coaches and directors. You then create on and off- field leadership teams. Training sessions can be organised by the on-field leaders in the team. Meetings involving all members would focus directly on the sport and success, social events are organised informally. Everything is decided by the dual management team. Ownership is key!
4 – ‘Better people make better team’
A lot of performance can depend upon those connections you have with people, fans, parents, coaches, competitors. Sport is a noble endeavour, you may be competing again someone but you can still respect them. The behaviour of an athlete reflects upon everyone around them. If you are a pleasant person you make connections. You build a reputation, if you do things the right way it could mean the difference between a sponsorship deal or not. It may be the point of the coach to select on behaviour as well as ability. This then breeds a culture of getting better. You know you have to be sharp or intelligent to get selected for teams or events. This is crucial for personal development.
5 – Responsibility
Empowering you athletes, expecting ownership over their training, their failure and their success can breed a performance culture. This is about delivering autonomy supportive coaching and implementing a mastery climate. An autonomy supportive climate is one that provides athletes with a choice in training, one where a rational is provided and their feelings are acknowledged. Opportunities should be given for athlete to show initiative and independent work is useful in developing responsibility for their training. Athletes are then given feedback on the competence which is non-controlling in nature.
Transformational leadership involves coaching building relationships with the players. This emphasises their personal, emotional and inspirational exchanges. The goal here is to develop athletes to their fullest potential. Coaches can do a variety of things to help with leadership in a high performance environment; (1) provide a vision for the future, (2) support the athletes to achieve the vision, (3) provide challenge to achieve the vision (with high expectations), (4) consider individuals, (5) intellectually stimulate the athletes, (6) foster acceptance of group goals, and (7) use appropriate role modelling.
7 – Expect Excellence
I feel this is the most under used technique in many sport situations currently, especially at schools where winning has been almost ruled out due to the ‘it’s the taking part that counts’ culture that we have. However expecting excellence is a real way to improve the performance culture within a team. Giving personal meaning to the situation, being the best and honouring history and legacy can all foster high performance and expectations of excellence! ‘Try to be the best in the world everyday’ Having a clear focus on strengths and working to improve those strengths should come first, only when strengths have been identified and made the best they could possibly be should weaknesses be worked on.
8 – Team cohesion
Having a team that gets on well and works towards a common goal can be a god send. On the flip side having a team with in fighting and bickering can be a coach’s worst nightmare. Having a non-hierarchical structure within coaching and leadership can help. Coaching teams should be on the same level. Having a coaching team that is accountable and responsible will drive the team better. Also keeping it fresh is a good way to promote team cohesion. Roughly every 7 or 8 weeks something should be different. That may be the way you approach a competition, the way you review your performance, the coaches that the team has for a short while (A fresh pair of eyes can change and add something for a short while). Taking a different approach fosters a high performance culture.
To create a high performing environment it is important to involve athletes in leadership roles, adopt a mindful and transformational mind set and learn how to be emotionally intelligent. Time constraints and resources are clearly influential in all of these suggestions and will influence greatly the practicality of implementing any of the 8 recommendations made.
Adapted from Hodge, K., Henry, G., & Smith W. (2014) A case study of excellence in elite sport: motivation climate in a world champion team. The Sport Psychologist, 28:60-74.