We have been celebrating the Olympics for a while. Some have had enough, and some can’t wait till Rio. Whatever you feel about it, it is difficult not to have felt excited or inspired at some point and for that they have done their job.
On the surface there has been much to celebrate, and in equal measure much that didn’t quite work on the day but in almost every case, when the competition was done and the athletes went to the studio to express their gratitude to everybody who helped them, first on the list was nearly always their coach.
We have a traditional view of the coach as the person running up and down the towpath shouting instructions to the rowers, and to some extent this was pretty much the job of the coach.
The coach was the experienced mentor, usually with specialist knowledge from having been involved in that particular athletic discipline in their youth, and knowing what was necessary in order to prepare for competition, their job was seen as getting on their athlete’s case to make sure that the preparation was done and they were in the best possible condition for competition.
But a strange thing appeared to be happening in these games, the most successful for team GB for a long time. Not all the coaches appeared to be behaving in this traditional directive way. (The traditional coaching relationship could be characterised as an adult telling a child what to do, because the adult knows best.)
“What appeared to be happening in this Olympics was that from the way most of the athletes talked about their coaches it was clear that the relationship between athlete and coach had changed significantly.”
This limits the performance of the child because the adult coach, in the context of that relationship, cannot accept any input from the child, e.g. be quiet and do as you are told, I know best.
The athlete is actually an adult but when subjected to this sort of coaching cannot take an active part in their own development because the traditional coaching model does not allow them to have any control over their own training. Their development is thus limited to whatever performance the coach can produce through these directive means.
What appeared to be happening in this Olympics was that from the way most of the athletes talked about their coaches it was clear that the relationship between athlete and coach had changed significantly.
It was very difficult trying to get to the bottom of this change; I suspect that may be because the difference was not fully understood by the people involved.
Then I heard Gary Lineker talking to the performance director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford. Lineker asked if after his unprecedented success with the cycling team at the London Olympics he might consider lending his expertise to the England footballers. This was clearly a tongue in cheek question from someone who as a footballer would not expect a cyclist to be able to have any effect on what was clearly an entirely different set of specialised skills possessed by a completely different group of people playing a completely different game.
Then Dave Brailsford said why not? Lineker still did not understand, and seeing his attempt at light hearted banter going awry tried to give Brailsford a way out of what he saw as a large hole. Brailsford politely waited for Lineker to finish then he continued. He told us that he put down the success of the cycling team not to the coaching teams expertise at coaching cycling, but to their understanding of how to create the conditions for success at anything. Then, having understood how to create those conditions for success, applied them to the cycling team.
Brailsford seemed to understand perfectly what he had done and in answer to Lineker’s question said that having understood how to create the conditions for success at anything, there was no reason why he could not create those conditions for the footballers and therefore allow them to share the same sort of success that the cyclists had found.
To be fair to Gary Lineker, he could not be expected to take in something in a couple of minutes that turned on its head everything that he had ever learned or experienced in his athletic career.
“We hope that some managers may be inspired by what they saw in the Olympics to try to find those same truths for themselves and having found them, apply them to their own teams in the workplace.”
In the same way, when a manager does not understand how to create the conditions to allow his workers to be successful it is difficult to blame him for not immediately grasping that almost everything he had ever been taught about being a manager, was wrong.
Dave Brailsford and his team appear to have discovered some fundamental truths about human beings and how to create the conditions to allow them to perform.
Is it possible those same conditions apply equally to athletes and artisans, cyclists and recyclers? I hope that some managers may be inspired by what they saw in the Olympics to try to find those same truths for themselves and having found them, apply them to their own teams in the workplace.
There is a whole new level of performance waiting to be discovered and as Dave Brailsford tells us, it works anywhere.