Accountability - The Holy Grail for 'High Performance' Systems

High performance has become a buzz word that appears constantly in relation to sporting bodies worldwide and organisations associated with sport at all levels. The reason for the inverted commas ('High Performance') in the title is that this term has become so over-used and misused that it has arguably been rendered meaningless. Using the label does not make it so. In this post we discuss the elements that must be present in order for an environment and the practitioners who work in it to merit the title 'high performance'.

A significant degree of accountability must be established
— Phil Coles, Director of Peformance and Medical at San Antonio Spurs

In a guest post for the leadersinsport website Phil Coles, formerly of Liverpool Football Club (and others) and now working with NBA side San Antonio Spurs, recently attempted to define the key constituents of a 'high performance unit'. A link to the full post is available here, but Coles describes that the key objective in leading a high performance unit is ensuring the respective disciplines work together towards the common goal of improving performance. But Coles identifies that there must first be accountability.

No Passengers - Accountable for What?

Delving further into the notion of accountability, there is a need to determine what role each individual service provider providing 'high performance support' is actually playing in the process.

The success of the team as a whole will always be a consideration, but perhaps more importantly, objective markers should be set to monitor the success or otherwise in each of the individual processes introduced
— Phil Coles

Accountable to Whom?

In professional sports, holding each player in the process accountable is somewhat more straightforward given that each member of support staff is recruited and employed by the same organisation. When 'high performance' support is provided by an agency that is external to the sport, there are inevitably issues of ownership and accountability. This situation whereby service providers are employed by another organisation is common with many individual sports in various parts of the world. To some extent this is a consequence of the fact that these sports do not boast the resources of professional teams. Another factor is the way funding for these sports is allocated by government agencies.

In some instances, this means that the coach or whoever is ostensibly leading the 'high performance unit' is bound by constraints whereby the only funded support available is via the national or regional institute system. Clearly this can be a major obstacle, given that the providers involved ultimately serve a different master.

If members of the support team are not directly employed by and therefore accountable to the sport then clearly it becomes more difficult to ensure that everybody is working towards the same goal and bound by their contribution to these outcomes. Fatally, in some national 'high performance' systems there can even be a situation whereby there are essentially no consequences when providers fail to deliver appropriate support and good service to the sport.

A story from a Winter Olympic sport. The men's and women's national teams were considered a high probability for winning multiple gold medals, based on the history of every previous major championships and recent performances. For these reasons, every branch of athlete support was thrown at the programme by the institute of sport, regardless of need. This is a skill sport in which performance is not bound by physiology, or indeed reliant on generic athletic qualities (strength, power, or speed). Hence, for the most part the unwarranted provision was largely motivated by the lure of reflected glory afforded by association with a gold medal winning programme.

When the Winter Olympics came round the men's and women's teams not only failed to win gold, but came away with zero medals - unprecedented in their history.

In the debrief, athletes and coaches identified that the misguided and inappropriate involvement of miscellaneous support providers and associated distractions were major factors which adversely affected their performance in the championships. Despite these damning findings, those involved were not sanctioned or effectively held to account in any way. Indeed, at least one of the service providers in question was promoted to a senior role in the national institute of sport organisation not long afterwards.

No Competing Agendas

Most commonly issues occur when the key performance indicators that each discipline or team member is held accountable to takes little or no account of what is best for the athlete and coach in relation to the ultimate performance goals.

In his treatise on the management and success of a high performance unit, Phil Coles warns against a situation where respective disciplines are working in isolation from each other.

An integrated approach of the HPU to improve each player’s athletic capability means the unit as a whole may then be held accountable for any success or failure
— Phil Coles

Once more, this scenario is more difficult to achieve when service provision is delivered by an external agency. One of the most frequent criticisms of the institute of sport model is that the respective disciplines operate as silos. The worst case is that providers representing the respective disciplines not only work in isolation, but the disciplines themselves operate in competition with each other.

An associated problem arises from each respective area of athlete support essentially striving to justify their own existence. Representatives of the respective disciplines are therefore driven to promote their own area of service provision, with little regard for any identified need from the sport. In this instance, service providers are judged by what traction and involvement they gain with the sport or athlete, regardless of whether this involvement is warranted.

Here we see there is the potential for competing agendas is considerable. Where service providers are motivated by, and held accountable to, interests other than those of the sport and the ultimate peformance goals, clearly this cannot be considered 'high performance'.

So, whilst the label 'high performance' is freely applied in different sports and organisations around the world, actually achieving a system of athlete support and a 'high performance unit' that justifies the title is a far more complex than it appears, and there are a number of obstacles that must be overcome. Whilst systems are evolving, the majority of sports and organisations around the world are still grappling with these issues. Given the size and complexity of the challenges involved, resolving this will be no easy task and there is some work to go until many sports and systems ascend to true 'high performance'.