carnegieXchange: School of Sport

Elevating our sports as well as the athletes within them: The role of a high-performance practitioner

As high-performance coaches, practitioners and researchers, we often consider that supporting the athletes that we work with daily is our primary prerogative. But as leaders in our respective fields, what responsibilities do we have in advancing and promoting our sports?

R Stanley 2

Sport is competitive, on an athlete-to-athlete level, of course. However, in the 21st century, with so much media coverage of sport available, sports are competing amongst themselves just to be seen. The Tokyo Olympics will sadly only be privy to live audiences from the host nation. This is a deviation from the spectacle that is usually enjoyed by crowds from all over the globe; people coming together to celebrate the world’s best athletes across a wide range of sports that may not always be at the forefront of public awareness.

However, it does not have to be all doom and gloom. Tokyo has a unique opportunity to provide audiences with the most exciting virtual experience of the Olympic Games we have ever seen. The potential for such an experience has been building over the last few years. For instance, since the Rio Olympics in 2016, the development of streaming services such as Amazon Prime and YouTube have provided audiences with the ability to consume more sport on-demand at any time. With many of these services also providing interested spectators with additional metrics, such as distances run in football, that bring their sports to life even more vividly.

But with so much choice of sport now available 24/7, audiences may be left with that overwhelming feeling that you get when presented with the rainbow of cardboard boxes in the cereal aisle in the supermarket. To ensure that a sport stands out from the crowd and is picked out from the metaphorical supermarket aisle of many colours, it must create its own identity, something I believe we practitioners, as custodians of our sports, should be contributing to.

One sport that has done a fantastic job of engaging new audiences is Formula One. In March 2019, the Netflix series: ‘Drive to Survive’, a documentary that was produced in a collaboration between Netflix and Formula One, brought a new level of insight to the sport, highlighting the narratives that play out behind the scenes of the Formula One World Championship. The producers combined coverage of the engineering marvels that have previously drawn so many people to the sport with the human element of high-performance environments that had perhaps previously been eclipsed by the sports fantastic but faceless technological advancements. The series brought to the fore a narrative akin to that of a reality television show, opening up Formula One to a new audience. Whilst the stars of the show were the drivers (and rightly so), a highlight for me was the additional exposure to the support staff who work tirelessly behind the scenes to allow the sport to happen but all too often who’s stories are left untold. Netflix not only provided these practitioners with a great platform to have a voice but also engaged fans all over the world in their work, telling an even more holistic version of the Formula One story.

Not all sports will have the privilege of enhanced media exposure from large and seemingly ever-growing media outlets such as Netflix, however that does not mean that we as practitioners cannot utilise our roles within the sport to engage new audiences and athletes (or practitioners) of the future. High-performance sports practitioners and researchers may already be experts in apologues of their sport, their audiences being the athletes they work with to allow them to learn and prepare for future competitions. It stands to reason that alongside the athletes, practitioners and researchers could be at the forefront of telling the story of their sport to prospective audiences. We regularly use data to explain the performance narrative within sport, an example from my role includes the measured performance demands and metrics that pertain to the training status of the athletes. But such data is often not then translated into a format that wider audiences can understand or appreciate, resulting in a divide between our sports and the audiences that we could be engaging with.

We as practitioners and researchers could bridge the gap, acting as a voice for the data and our sports. This blog by WH Chambers highlights an appetite for performance data integration in the broadcast material that is presented to consumers of rowing. Although some media outlets may employ their own analysts to create such data which they can then portray to the audience, it is unlikely that they will be able to obtain the same level of insight integrated practitioners have the privilege of being exposed to every day. This makes us the gatekeepers of the performance narratives that audiences could also use to understand and engage with our sports, in the new, more virtual world that we have found ourselves in.

But there are caveats to the increased dissemination of ‘behind the scenes’ information and data.  For instance, there is a risk that we make ourselves and the athletes we work with vulnerable to direct competitors within our sports. Perhaps a leading reason for the sparsity in published research and media coverage of practitioners in high-performance sport is the need for sport teams and practitioners to protect the perceived competitive advantage they give the athletes they work with through investigating and understanding the apologues that make up performance. It is more common to see the dissemination of research long after target competitions have played out and the athletes that the practitioners were working with have left the sport. An example of this can be seen in this research paper by Teun van Erp who presented race characteristics of Tour de France sprinter Marcel Kittel after his retirement from the sport.

Of course, it is important for athletes that we keep sport competitive and that we protect the intellectual property that may help them to win. However, there is information and research that we could share in the public domain. Doing so is important in engaging new audiences but also sharing what we know could fuel conversations that are mutually beneficial and could help to advance our sports. In sharing ideas and best practice, we could upskill each other, leading to an increase in competitiveness and in turn, more interest from audiences. Venus and Serena Williams may be the greatest example of how collaboration (growing up and training together) and competitive rivalry simultaneously drove them to become two of the best tennis players the world has ever seen. Also, initiatives such as The Football Collective are driving this principle by bringing together some of the world’s leading minds in the sport to collaborate on research that can drive performance whilst not hindering competitiveness on the field.

Another way in which practitioners can help to grow their sport whilst also benefitting their athletes and teams is through the development of technology for competitions and training. World Athletics have shown how a lighting strip that shows pace on the inside of the track, developed by Wavelight Technology could be used to improve the pacing of runners. The development of this technology also has the potential to make viewing more enjoyable for audiences at competition by showing how the current competition is being run in relation to existing records. The Wavelight technology also has the potential to provide a fantastic tool for coaches as it could help athletes pace their efforts, reduce dependency on stopwatches and therefore, give coaches more opportunity to observe the athletes and provide feedback. Although the development of technology can be expensive, when there are mutual benefits to multiple parties, the cost can be shared by collaborators which in turn helps to develop the sport. This again highlights the importance of practitioners becoming involved in discussion and projects with other colleagues, away from our day jobs.

We all have different reasons for working in sport but ultimately, we are all trying to achieve the same thing: to improve performance. Our priority continues to be to improve performance of athletes we work with, which will in the long run develops the overall quality within our sports. However, by also sharing data and ‘behind-the-scenes’ insights, we could not only widen the audience for our sports, but we may also be able to advance sport as a whole, inspiring athletes and practitioners of the future.

Key takeaways:

  • Practitioners have a role to play in growing the whole sport in addition to their teams and athletes.
  • Growing their sport can be directly beneficial to the teams and athletes they work with as well as inspiring future participation in their sports.
  • Practitioners are gatekeepers to insightful narratives that can be powerful, they can play a key role in the sport’s engagement with media and wider audiences.
  • Discussion and involvement with alternative stakeholders within the sport may present greater opportunities for practitioners to develop themselves and the athletes they work with.