The Olympic Pursuit of Inspiration

Over the course of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio there has been much talk of inspiration. For instance, the BBC in the UK ran the feature 'Get Inspired'; in New Zealand it was 'Be The Inspiration', complete with an 'Inspiration Hub'. All of which, in a circular fashion, has inspired this post on the topic of 'Inspiration'.


For the most part, when those in the media talk of 'inspiration' or 'being inspired' they are referring to those watching sport being inspired to strive to achieve the feats that they have seen or attempt to emulate sporting heroes. In this way, great athletes are often described as 'an inspiration to others'. Essentially, this is inspiration borne of admiration - essentially the 'I want to be like them when I grow up' scenario. 

The alternative meaning of inspiration - and the definition that this post will mostly focus on - is inspiration in the sense of stimulating thought or inspiring new ideas.


In spite of the controversy that blighted the lead up to the Rio Games and the revelations that continued throughout, as a coach and practitioner I was nevertheless inspired in this way by the Rio Olympics. Having returned to the UK I woke up in the early hours in order to watch the closing stages of the heptathlon and then the final of the men's 100m. When I returned to bed my mind was abuzz with thoughts and ideas, inspired by what I had just seen. Sleep was a long time coming.

And so sport, and a pinnacle event like the Olympics in particular, is in itself a source for inspiration in the sense of provoking thought and stimulating new ideas. 

Seeking inspiration and creating an environment conducive to ideas and innovation is likewise always topical in the realms of elite sport, but particularly so in the afterglow of an Olympic cycle. 


Returning to definitions, innovation is essentially reframing or reworking an existing concept or practice. Conversely @@the genesis of a new idea is that most rare of things.@@ In the realms of physical preparation and athletic development if you are prepared to @@look deep enough and on a long enough timeline typically most 'novel' practices have in fact been seen before.@@

The quest for innovation and new ideas is a recurring challenge across the different branches of sports sciences, sports medicine and sports coaching. This applies both from a commercial viewpoint and for those in the field seeking the cutting edge (such as Team Sky and their mantra of marginal gains).


The genesis new ideas and initiatives is often influenced by environment. This might simply be exposure to an individual who challenges and provokes thought. In this way, just one individual can be the source of inspiration; and this alone can create an environment that provides fertile soil and the stimulus for the growth of new ideas. 

One common feature of such individuals who provide inspiration to those around them is that they are critical thinkers. However, beyond that also these individuals are also generally free thinkers who are unconstrained by convention. In essence, these are the people brave enough to pose the 'what if' questions. 

Being receptive to the inspiration afforded by such individuals in turn requires a mind that is not unduly troubled by such dangerous free thought. Possessing the necessary mental dexterity and agility of thought to take full advantage generally comes from the innate quality of being curious. Indeed @@curiosity alone is perhaps the single most important trait@@ that those who merit the dubious title 'thought-leader' have in common with those who are inspired by these agents of change.

Aside from innate curiosity, the capacity to be receptive to 'being inspired' is without doubt aided immeasurably by being exposed to 'rainmaker' figures during the course of a career, particularly when starting out.  


In contrast, this capacity is likely to be stunted by organisations and high performance systems that seek to indoctrinate rather than inspire and encourage free thinking. This applies particularly to internship programmes, such as those offered by national sports institutes. Those who are a product of such systems can be institutionalised to the extent that they are immune or even averse to inspiration, and indeed free thought.

A hallmark of inspiration is that it is fleeting, and as such this necessitates a mind that is attentive and open to these rare 'light bulb' moments.


Thoughts and ideas often come to me when I am traveling and have an abundance of time and space to think. Conversely, the routine of a normal work schedule seems to be less conducive. It is as though these thoughts and ideas are furtive and seem to hide away, only coming to the fore at the most random of times.

For instance, it is often when I wake up in the early hours and I don't get back to sleep straight away that thoughts come one after another. Once more, this occurs most often when I'm travelling - and jet lag is a co-factor here. The recent instance I mentioned earlier in the post of waking up to watch the Olympic 100-metre final in the early hours is a perfect example. 

It may be that it is the something about the state of 'disconnection' - middle of the night, unfamiliar environment, different time zone - that facilitates ideas to come to the surface. And once again, @@it is necessary to be attentive and receptive to these fleeting moments of inspiration@@, even if they arise at an inconvenient time (and interfere with your beauty sleep).


Returning to the topic of 'rainmaker' individuals who stimulate thought and provide the spark for those around them, I been fortunate to have encountered a number of these people throughout the course of my career to date.

This first of these encounters came at the very start of my journey in elite sport, when my PhD research brought me into contact with Brendan Venter. That first preseason I spent with London Irish rugby club when Brendan had just taken the helm as Player/Coach I vividly recall returning home every evening buzzing with thoughts and new ideas. Indeed it was over these months and the subsequent two seasons that Brendan was in charge that I came up with many of the novel training interventions that eventually formed my PhD thesis.

Brendan is the epitome of the rainmaker individual described earlier. Brendan is a practicing medical doctor and boasts a fearsome intellect. As a coach, Brendan was (and remains) unconstrained by conventional wisdom and 'coaching manual' practice, as all of his coaching philosophies and methods are uniquely his own. I caught up with Brendan recently and he told me what motivated him to become involved in coaching in the first instance was his firm belief that it could be done better. 

Brendan brought a great deal of knowledge and practical experience from his years playing at the top level to his coaching. Equally, and more uniquely, he was ready to entertain any idea or methodology and evaluate it on merit; if it stood initial scrutiny he tested it under field conditions, and what didn't pass was discarded. Brendan inspired and challenged the players and staff around him; indeed an astonishing number of the players from that era have since become successful coaches themselves.

This early exposure to such a bold and free thinker had a profound influence on my career as a practitioner and coach. In the years since I have been fortunate to encounter several other key figures who have provided inspiration and influenced both my thinking and practice.

To name a few, in his capacity as National Coach and Performance Director Roger Flynn relentlessly challenged me to explore different avenues to come up with new and better training solutions for players at different levels of the national programme during our time at Scottish Squash. I was still new to the sport when I met Roger; not only was he responsible for bringing to my attention the critical facets of the game, but more than that he actively encouraged me to bring a different lens and alternative perspectives from my work in other sports. What drove our practice was the notion that our programme would lead rather than follow, and Roger made sure we continued to push the boundaries and remain on the cutting edge.

Following my arrival in New Zealand I was then hugely fortunate to make the acquaintance of Angus Ross; not only a great mind, but a man of boundless curiosity whose fascination with sport and performance has been undiminished by his many years' involvement in elite sport and its administration. Angus brings genuine enthusiasm to his endless quest to find answers to real performance questions that come directly from his continuing involvement in the field of practice with athletes. Angus and I continue to regularly engage in 'what if' discussions spanning a random assortment of topics; Angus has been personally responsible for many of the ideas that have borne a host of PhD research in New Zealand over recent years (many co-supervised by Angus himself).

In the recent period I have been similarly fortunate to cross paths with Scott Drawer; in each of Scott's respective roles with UK Sport, the Rugby Football Union, and now Team Sky, he has been tasked with finding novel solutions and driving innovation and knowledge transfer to evolve best practice in the field. As such, Scott has a unique grounding on the process of cultivating new ideas and bringing innovation into practice.

Finally, at the end of last year I had the privilege to finally meet Dan Pfaff during a visit to AltisWorld in Phoenix. As a track and field coach naturally I had followed Dan's work and teaching from afar for a number of years, and had even sought out those who had worked under Dan's mentorship. Meeting the man himself and sharing some time with him was an incredible experience. Throughout the week I spent in Phoenix my mind was once more buzzing with thoughts and ideas in a way that I hadn't known since that aforementioned period at the outset of my career. Dan is an extraordinary mind and is unique for a number of reasons, but perhaps most striking is his genuine desire to impart knowledge and share his insights with any coach or practitioner who wishes to learn. Rarer still is that this is borne of true altruism. Extraordinary indeed.


And so concludes our exploration of the Olympic pursuit of inspiration. As you have read I have been fortunate meet certain individuals at different points in my career who possess the ability to inspire those around them to think and perhaps to dream. I hope to encounter more in the years to come. Moreover I hope to remain receptive to the inspiration afforded by sport and those involved in the pursuit of better, higher, faster. Light bulb moments may be occasional and fleeting; nevertheless they remain available for those who are open and attentive to them.

Those who wish to read more are invited to visit the books section of the website.

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