76 posts

Performance Narratives – There ARE Alternatives

Mark Upton
Feb 15, 2018

“As a team we are committed to taking our game to the next level through hard work and continuous improvement, (we) will continue to drive our elite standards and core values to ensure we are ruthless and competitive in every aspect of our preparation and performance.”

The above narrative (recently emanating from a professional team sport) perhaps reflects the dominant ‘performance narrative’ in elite sport, as highlighted through the work of David Carless & Kitrina Douglas…

We have suggested, however, that one particular narrative type is dominant within elite sport culture: a performance narrative (Douglas & Carless, 2006a). The plot of performance stories revolves around achieving performance outcomes (e.g., winning and/or being the best), underlying many stories recited by the media, coaches, sport policy makers and governing bodies, and athletes (Carless & Douglas, 2012). It is a story of single-minded dedication to performance to the extent that phrases like “winning is everything” are routine. In this narrative, performance-related concerns come to infuse all areas of life while other areas are diminished or relegated.

Yet there are alternative stories to be told, as Carless & Douglas demonstrate in the case of Alex…

Alex’s story may be regarded as a positive one from the perspective of long-term development and psychosocial wellbeing. A particular feature of his story is a refusal to adopt an exclusive athletic identity in favor of sustaining a broad-based, multidimensional identity. While at times this places Alex’s story in tension with elite sport culture, he reasons that this friction is worthwhile for the benefits it brings. In previous work (Douglas & Carless, 2006a), we have shown that the dominant performance script insists that, to be successful at the elite or professional level, athletes must be single-minded, resist other facets of life, and relegate relationships. For tellers of performance tales, “So total is the focus on sport performance, that the person and the job become inseparable” (p. 20). This is clearly not the case for athletes like Alex who achieve excellence while overtly resisting the monological performance narrative, storying their lives instead around the contours of a dialogical relational and/or discovery narrative.

They go on to explain dialogical narratives…

The scripts of these dialogical narratives call for connection, interdependence, exploration, diversity, and multiplicity over and above individuation, personal gain, singularity, and linearity. While relational and discovery stories are at odds with the dominant performance narrative, our study underscores recent elite sport research to suggest
they do not compromise performance excellence but hold positive
consequences for identity and wellbeing.

There are two points to discuss at this juncture. One is a remark on “individuation, personal gain, singularity” as echoing the extremes of Capitalism. And it is within that ideology we find TINA – There Is No Alternative…

What is there no alternative to? Capitalism. Claims that “things must be the way they are” and that “there are no better options than the present system” not only bespeak the pervasiveness of the system, but can also have the effects of leading people (including economists and psychologists) not to ask probing questions about the system.

(Kasser et al 2007)

Yet there are alternatives to the dominant performance narrative, and those alternatives promise both performance excellence and positive impact on identity and wellbeing. However, they also demand a greater level of skill and quality from those who craft performance environments and the wider sports ecosystems they reside within.

Below are videos of 3 coaches who are operating with such skill and quality, helping their teams aspire to performance excellence whilst providing alternative narratives in regards to coaching, leadership, culture, relationships and the balance of masculine/feminine traits.

I am co-creating a session next week with a group of people who are aspiring to join Steve, Graham and John in creating high quality environments & experiences for sport participants. I hope these alternative narratives will be timely for them and may also help others to embark on a similar journey.


Living, resisting, and playing the part of athlete: Narrative tensions in
elite sport (David Carless & Kitrina Douglas)

Some Costs of American Corporate Capitalism: A Psychological Exploration of Value and Goal Conflicts (Tim Kasser, Steve Cohn, Allen D. Kanner & Richard M. Ryan)

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #11

in pursuit of vibrant, sustainable cultures in sport
Mark Upton
Oct 16, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10

It’s hard to get through a week without coming across something that suggests we need to be doing better in our sports systems. In my discussions yesterday this led back to the theme of peoples intentions and ‘bad apples’ as covered in earlier posts in this series. Whilst pondering that on the train journey home I came across a related post from Julian Stodd. I have been enjoying Julian’s posts for a number of years as he has taken me on a journey to understand formal and informal authority, culture, and change within organisations. Julian’s post yesterday hit on the idea of well-intentioned people being part of a system that exhibits & tolerates toxicity as an emergent property…

systems tend to be full of well intentioned individuals, even if their understanding of ‘well intentioned’ may vary. And yet systems at scale tolerate toxic behaviours.

Culture is a perverse feature: the NHS has a challenge with bullying, but it’s full of amazing people who would never consider themselves bullies. How can this possibly happen? Within the formal structure, we typically take the view that the problem is the bully, but in a socially dynamic frame, we may take the view that the issue is the overall community that tolerates, implicitly, the bully.

Typical organisational approaches to toxicity are to counter it with rules, but rules are operating in the wrong space. You can probably use rules to pick off the perpetrator, but you can’t use rules to influence culture, because culture operates in a different space.

I have a suspicion that this toxicity, when found in sport systems/cultures, can emerge from an engineering approach as Tony Quinlan also wrote about yesterday…

what we see is that the engineering approach to change – set a target, plan a route to get there, communicate clearly, introduce rewards and punishments – is fundamentally flawed. It’s hard, it’s resource-intensive and it is rarely sustainable without regular reinforcement.

This need for regular reinforcement – ‘turning the screw’ when we’re not ‘delivering against the plan’ – comes at a high cost (in terms of energy, finance, health, relationships, trust) that has to be taken into account alongside any measure of ‘success’. Critically it does not make for a vibrant and sustainable system.

The engineering approach to complex systems and challenges produces a constant feeling of wrestling and fighting against the system. Too often the response to intractable problems is to do more of the same and/or try harder. How many times have we heard in team sports ‘we just need to work harder’ as the solution to a form slump or poor season? We don’t often go back to question the assumptions underpinning the targets and plan and whether they now match reality…or going one step further, question the belief that clear targets and detailed planning are absolutely necessary.

With such a combative approach there are always going to be casualties. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, and Tony’s post continues on to provide an alternative…

Treating it as an ecological problem makes changes more sustainable and, often, lower cost. But that takes a different approach – understanding what values and behaviours are at the moment (disposition) and where they might or might not be inclined to go next (propensity). The theory behind it has been around for a little while – fitness landscapes based on micro-narratives.

Here is an example of a fitness landscape we generated from micro-narratives in a sport context*, looking at the shifting dynamics of sporting cultures and learning environments in the stories people told (green dots) about the moments that mattered in their life in performance sport…


The above example is particularly relevant for many clubs and national bodies who aspire to provide players/athletes with autonomy-supportive environments. Yet is this happening? How is the club/sport disposed based on current attitudes and beliefs? How could novel insight like the above inform novel actions and innovation? Do these start to shift the landscape in the desired direction?

Whether at scale via an online platform or face to face in a small group, we are generally finding good intentions embedded in the stories people tell. Through various engagements we are now exploring if an ecological approach better compliments the richness and complexities of life in sport, enabling good intentions to translate into vibrancy and sustainability at the cultural/systemic level.

* Future of Sport project

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #10


governing and funding bodies are PART of a complex social system – not THE system

Mark Upton
Sep 16, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9

In one of the links in fragment #9 it was intimated that innovation in football academies could be hampered by rigid regulations imposed from the governing body of that sport.

This is not a sport-specific phenomena…Peter Gray (2014) talks of the same issue in education and the challenges of growing the number of Sudbury Valley-style schools. In a bid to control the system governing bodies impose regulations around standardization and measuring what can easily be measured (but often don’t particularly matter), stifling evolution through variation.

“Evolution requires variation. To the degree that variation is prevented by law, evolution cannot occur” – Peter Gray

One of the tensions at the moment in many sports systems is the struggle of governing and funding bodies to come to terms with the fact that they are a PART of a complex social system – not THE system. The latent potential of these complex social systems goes unrealised by attempts to seize and centralize ‘control’, often through ludicrous reporting demands and excessive use of arbitrary numerical targets and KPI’s.

Bjarte Bogsnes provides a useful critique in Hitting the target but missing the point – myths about target setting

“Without targets people won’t know what to do”. Not true. Words can often address direction and expectations much more clearly and intelligently than what any single number can do.

Without targets people will not be motivated to perform. Not true. Many, including myself, are much more fired up by the right words, igniting our hearts in a very different way than those clinical and decimal-loaded numbers which only reach our brains.

Without targets we are unable to evaluate performance”. Not true. This one might be the most solid myth to bust.

Given all this, it was timely to hear from Harold Jarche this week…

This really struck a chord given our ‘Life in Sport’ initiative mentioned at the end of the last post. The purpose is to put humanity at the forefront of sport at all levels…so that everyone can live a meaningful life in their sport(s).

In a current engagement related to talent development this has involved ‘relearning’ of strategic intent and action, enabling new connections, dialogue and interactions between people (creating the conditions for a potential shift in culture to emerge).

This can be difficult work and sometimes quite challenging for managers and formal leaders – my own experience and previous mistakes suggest it is much easier to hide behind a spreadsheet than constantly attend to the conversations that matter.

“ We need leaders with competence beyond the ability to compare numbers. Leadership is not meant to be easy” – Bjarte Bogsnes

Our hope is ‘Life in Sport’ can help sports organisations better attune to and act in these complex social systems and, returning to the theme at the start of this post, open up the space for innovation and evolution in learning, player development and coaching.

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #9

innovation in player development – breaking the shackles of a mechanistic paradigm

Mark Upton
Aug 25, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8

I have been thinking about what meaningful innovation in player development environment and systems looks like. The obvious leap when talk of ‘innovation’ arises is toward the adoption of technology and data (perhaps interactive screens in class/meeting rooms, tablets, or online performance management platforms that clock training hours of young kids who like to play football). I’ve traversed that path on my own journey and found their utility is heavily modulated by the developmental paradigm they are used within.

I think the more exciting innovations in this space are going to come from those whose thinking deviates from the fundamental assumptions, beliefs and practices that make up the mechanistic paradigm of learning/education/development mentioned by Carol Black in the last fragment. In doing so they will create space for new possibilities and re-imagining developmental environments…perhaps informed by evidence but often having to forge ahead into the unknown.

“the absence of data does not preclude possibility. If you are talking about new outcomes and behaviors, then naturally there is no prior evidence. A truly rigorous thinker, therefore, considers not only what the data suggests but also what within the bounds of possibility could happen. And that requires the exercise of imagination – a very different process from analysis”

– Roger Martin & Tony Golsby-Smith

In fact there are such people already getting busy with innovating school and sport environments. These are inspirational figures who are embracing the messy nature of innovation and the inherent tensions when challenging the status quo.

  • Vista High School piloting a personalised-learning approach, moving away from a prescriptive curriculum that denies students choice in what/how they learn.
  • Fellow blog contributor Sporticus experimenting with a Game Sense approach for a term of cricket at his school, rejecting the ‘sport-as-techniques’ culture in PE (reductionist & not representative of the game)
  • Joey Peters embracing and adapting to the ‘emerging game’, placing much less focus on detailed plans, learning objectives and standardization.
  • Mark O Sullivan & Dennis Hörtin are involved with AIK Football Club in Stockholm and spoke to Stuart Armstrong about the clubs bold decision to raise the age before children formally become part of the club’s academy, going against the world-wide trend of the “race to the bottom”. After catching up with Mark recently he also explained how they are mixing ages and genders with positive signs. (Disrupting one of the most prevalent influences from the schooling system – that kids must be sorted and grouped by age, with the assumption they will all progress in a homogeneous manner within that grouping and justifying testing/grading to track actual v expected progress)
  • Debbie at Salisbury Rovers showing great courage in withdrawing the junior teams from standard league formats, instead creating alternative opportunities for young players to experience competitive football in an environment free of adult norms and obsessions around winning and judgement/comparison.
  • Michael Beale, formerly of the Liverpool academy, re-imagining what an academy environment could be with a heavy focus on creating a “community” feel. This is strongly opposed with the “elite training facility” approach where the walls, literally and metaphorically, create a highly “contained” and often sterile environment (again comparisons with schools – often one of the great disconnects is between a school and the local community it resides within).
  • A football academy that has cultivated and deliberately maintained a connection with its community is Athletic Club Bilbao – “There are no barriers. It’s all part of our philosophy. Every day a lot of people come here to see the boys. Go outside right now and you can see a child kicking a ball around with his father. It’s normal here. There is a warmth” – José María Amorrortu (Sporting Director)

There will be many further examples of creative sports leaders on a mission to remove the shackles of mechanistic player development approaches. Indeed part of the “LIFE in Sport” project we are co-creating with governing/funding bodies of sport is helping them to enable more of this. I might expand on that a little further in the next fragment…

KPI’s, Comparative Coaching & Classrooms

Mark Upton
Aug 18, 2017

I’m very much looking forward to facilitating ‘relearn Team Sports’ with Ric Shuttleworth from next month onwards. Whilst I expect many of the challenges and curiosities people bring will relate to on-field practice and learning design, there is an increasingly urgent need to address the role of video analysis, KPI’s, data visualisations etc – how do these things help or hinder learning & performance? That is a question that intrigues me and an area where I’ve learned plenty from getting things wrong in the past!

On Stuart Armstrong’s podcast, Ric made some interesting comments and observations of current trends – these could serve as a useful provocation for the group…

KPI’s & Comparative Coaching

“Your KPI’s and measures will generally constrain players to be more externally organised – ‘am I running the right line?’…’am I doing the right thing?’ – they’ll be playing in fear that they’re not doing the right thing. And that tends to breed comparative coaching…coaching that forces a model to be compared to what the players are doing and then you look for error and try to detect it and correct it. Rather than looking at the player in the moment and looking at – ‘have they adjusted in the moment?’…’how did they adapt?’ – and thinking how could they be more effective next time”

Classroom Learning

“There is a lot of so-called ‘learning’ in the classroom or a hotel…(but) the learning should take place in context. So in effect learning has to take place in training or a match, and then you come out of that context and start to see ‘ok, what information can we use to transfer back into the moment so we can learn better when we’re back in the training or match?’. We’ve over-emphasised it (learning) in the classroom or hotel room before training and there is a lot of time spent there.”

My own experiences and observations suggest there can be a disproportionate amount of time analysing, editing and preparing video clips for the “classroom”, in comparison to the time spent thinking about and designing purposeful (perhaps even creative!) on-field activities and sessions. Given the time constraints we are all subject to it is important to understand how you can generally get the most “bang for your buck”…perhaps having the coaches ponder & critically discuss these couple of questions will help them…

  • “what is your theory of the learner and learning process in relation to developing a high-quality player/team?”
  • “are you trying to develop players knowledge ‘of’ or ‘about’ the game?”

Sport Systems – fragments of thought #8

Mark Upton
Jul 31, 2017

previous fragments – #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7


I have been following Carol Black’s writing and thoughts for the last couple of years…I would like to say with enjoyment but in reality she often leaves me feeling jarred and unsettled.

In The Future of Big Box Schooling, Carol casts a critical eye over the mechanistic approach to education…

The fundamental flaw which is structurally embedded in our education system is the fallacy of social engineering — the false belief that it is possible to institute a top-down, mechanical structure, impose it on a complex living system, and expect predictable results. The entire superstructure of goals, objectives, state standards, curricula, and tests is fundamentally built on the assumption that learning is a mechanical process, in which the proper ingredients can be fed into the pipeline and the proper product will emerge at the other end. (Of course, the fact that this persistently does not happen, John Taylor Gatto argues, is no accident, but reflects the fact that it is not actually in the interests of the existing power structure to have a large population capable of exercising independent critical intelligence.)

Given many of those involved in sport systems have progressed through this mechanistic & uncritical approach to education via their formal schooling experience, it is unfortunate yet not unexpected that this influences the approach taken to designing “learning”, “education” and/or “development” of coaches, players and other roles in sport. In my experience when any of those 3 terms are used it is difficult for people to break out from this familiar paradigm as their starting point. Just one consequence of this is the persistence of the “classroom as best/only way of learning” belief…

In her article, Carol also goes on to describe a more organic & complex view of learning

The key to the development of human intelligence and learning is that it is an organic process, in which a myriad of elements – some seen but many unseen – engage in a dynamic interplay to produce results which are stubbornly unpredictable in both timing and ultimate outcome. If you change your fundamental metaphor for the education of children from a mechanical one to an organic one – in other words, from the manufacture of a product to the flowering and fruiting of a plant – then you begin to see that your role is not to rigidly control each step in the process – with age-graded standards and lists of objectives and scope-and-sequence outlines and percentile scores – but to create the conditions – the soil, the water, the light – under which human brilliance may unfold and flourish.

(is that very last sentiment admirable in its aspiration but impractical in reality?)

I’m looking forward to discussing this topic tomorrow with a coach who has been involved in one of the most successful player development environments for the last 20+ years. I sense he is unsettled by the mechanistic approach that sport academy systems are increasingly disposed toward.