76 posts

Developing World Class Potential – the discussion continues…

Mark Upton
Mar 16, 2016

In a post last year Developing World Class Potential, I described an enjoyable encounter and key messages from María Ruiz de Oña, the coach developer and psychologist at Athletic Bilbao.

María has been in touch this last week to bring to my attention a congress she and colleagues are holding in Bilbao at the end of May. In correspondence with her, it is clear the discussion and intent around developing world class potential will continue at this event. In fact, her comment that “the main topic of the Congress is the development of coaches, and the learning method is self-conscious dialogue” reflects a very similar approach to our #relearn events.

I have linked to a document with more information below, and here are a few relevant snippets…

Many leaders of football academies, in their projects, speak about the need for long-term vision, speak about a personal and professional development of players, everybody speaks about creative players or “thinking players”. But neither the structures nor the contexts change to deploy that process.

The approach of this Congress starts from two main keys: one of them refers to reflection on the coach and the coach-player relationship from the learning point of view; the other key has to do with the method: reflection on actions, which takes place in a context of dialogue. This method is characterized by sharing with others the personal experience….steeped in knowledge, beliefs, prejudices, theories and values. It is in this exchange where we contrast and question our world beliefs and others. In this interaction people can gain new insights that allow us to understand our world and to project actions from these new understanding, and therefore a different way of doing things emerges.

Today, high performance sport is becoming more demanding, not only in terms of physical and tactical concepts, but in relation to other aspects that are sometimes less clear, such as creating relationships, transformation, management, personal growth, building projects.

This requires looking at learning as a value for those who work in the environment of the player: coaches, trainers, doctors, physiotherapists, managers, psychologists … Why do we need to learn today? What do we mean by learning? What are the axes of professional improvement? What are the axes that help to make us better?

When we have a need to improve something, we wonder what is going on? We feel lost and we do not know what to do. At first we cling to the mantra of “greater effort” but when more does not lead to a better result, we are facing a nonlinear reality and therefore it is time to make qualitative changes, from how much (do more) to how (do differently).

The Third Congress CIPAF is about what we do and how we do on issues such as:

* The personal and sport growth as two indivisible aspects of the same process of development

* The connection between player and coach, how to approach helps to understand each others circumstance, leadership being the most decisive variable for the value and health of the team

* If I as a coach can not connect with others, it will be very difficult to understand what is happening to another. Looking inward is an opportunity to be seized and enjoy

* To compete involves working the mental aspect, technical-tactical and physical and that all these factors are connected and interacting with others most of the time

View the PDF (including full program)

Narratives of Excellence

Mark Upton
Feb 29, 2016

I found last week a fascinating one in regards to engaging conversations and online content. The theme that emerged centred around prevailing and alternative narratives of excellence – of an individual or team, in the present or on the developmental journey.

In the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed learning about the power and influence of narrative in both sustaining and shifting culture. Scratching the surface of Sociology, Anthropology and Ethnography has broadened my thinking, whilst also creating the “scary and exciting” (hat tip AG’s son Noah) realisation that I know very little!

The idea of prevailing and alternative narratives in sport is framed well in the video below and makes a good starting point for this post…

Whilst Kitrina reminds us that Discovery and Relational narratives are as meritorious in the pursuit of excellence as the Performance discourse, in this article the brilliant Ed Smith hones in on the professional sport practice environment, challenging existing narratives whilst suggesting a place for “serious play” and uncertainty…

“If you’re really serious about winning, I eventually realised, you should adopt an equally serious commitment to play”

“A lack of playfulness is also a failure of professionalism”

“It is a mistake to think that good preparation requires the elimination of uncertainty. Quite the reverse. The art of preparing a team – or any group of performers – rests on the right blend of routine and unfamiliarity”

Ed’s thoughts triggered recollection of All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s views on the importance of finding the right balance between performance, learning and fun.

One of the few organisations that could be spoken of as highly as the AB’s is the San Antonio Spurs and their coach Gregg Popovich. “Pop” was recently asked about the qualities the Spurs looks for in the players and staff they allow into their environment of excellence. Amongst many insights, the quote that most challenged past and present narratives regarding coaching was this…

“you have to feel comfortable in your own skin that you don’t have all the answers”

I feel this is the mindset/attitude required for someone to become/stay a “learner”. However, of the people who make decisions on coaching appointments, I’m not sure many are tuned in to this narrative – more likely one that expects coaches to be all-knowing fonts of wisdom. Popovich’s comment also resonates with me due to an encounter I had last year with María Ruiz de Oña, the Psychologist and Elite Professional Coach Developer at Athletic Bilbao. She spoke about Developing World Class Potential and emphasised…

“we need doubt….it makes us think”

Finally for the week, a most fascinating post on Google’s quest to understand the dynamics involved in achieving excellence as a team. Amongst their not-so-surprising findings were that traditional profiling measures lead to dead ends, along with “collective intelligence” being an emergent property that was different (potentially higher or lower) than the sum of the individual intelligence in the team. So what is important? One of their key findings suggested a “psychologically safe” dynamic as highly and positively influential. This was brought to life by a story regarding a manager having the courage to be extremely vulnerable with his staff and the impact it had.

At various times, including as recently as our first #relearn event, I have been involved in groups that have been prepared to be open and vulnerable. Whilst slightly uncomfortable, it creates a level of connection that can pave the way for collective excellence. Contrast this with the more masculine narrative of sport where it is purported a “stiff upper lip” must be maintained at all times whilst acting “professionally”. Being vulnerable demands a different type of courage, one more akin to its original definition derived from the latin term ‘coeur’…

“to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart”

The Common Thread…

Towards the end of the week it occured to me the common thread running through the above could be described as “counter-narrative”. They each tell a story that contrasts, in some cases sharply, with much of the received wisdom regarding striving/achieving excellence in sport and other settings.

So should we make a polaric shift to the approaches suggested by these “counter-narratives”? I’m not convinced that is the best conclusion to draw either. In the uncertain and complex space that excellence resides within, dichotomies and polarised views are often false and rarely helpful. Instead we might consider how amplifying these counter-narratives could help to shift the narrative “slider” to more central spaces on various continuum, something like the below…


With this in mind, decision making and action for the purpose of amplification (and dampening) of narrative becomes a key skill for leaders*, particularly when operating in a distributed organisation or system. As Marcus Guest states….

“leaders must seek to better understand why the current narratives dominate and then act to shift the environment, making unproductive ones unsustainable. Yet this must be done authentically — seeking narratives already in the system and amplifying them. A discovery and amplification strategy supports growth of authentic counter-narratives that genuinely mobilise people”

To finish on the idea of both “scary and exciting”, I find it scary to consider the wasted potential (not to mention prospect of physical and emotional harm) of young people if some of these counter-narratives cannot be amplified. At the same time, it is tremendously exciting to consider the possibilities if they can be…


* to be clear, this is very different from “corporate storytelling”

NOT Falling Prey to The Data

Mark Upton
Feb 23, 2016

I really think coaches need a little bit of theoretical guidance

I’ve had the good fortune of Professor Duarte Araújo’s company on a couple of occasions in the last 6 months. He is a passionate, intelligent and genuinely nice guy. His academic work has stretched and challenged my thinking over the last few years. Given my recent post concerning the importance of a theoretical model of learning to “protect” against the misuse of data and technology, Duarte’s recent insights on this theme are worth sharing…

(this passage is from the Perception & Action Podcast featuring Duarte speaking with Rob Gray)

“nowadays with all the advances in technology, we tend to be driven by data – not by ideas, not by questions – but just because you can measure, you can have numbers about something. But I think this can create more anxieties than solutions because you have huge amounts of data but no clue with what you can do with it. I prefer to be more information-driven than data-driven in the sense of just measuring things and putting sensors everywhere.”

“So I really think coaches need a little bit of theoretical guidance. Sport Science can do more than just provide new technologies, we can be more useful if we can guide a bit how coaches look at performance. I think high-level coaches will not benefit too much from this, because intuitively they are already attuned to the relevant performance variables. But for the majority of those that are not high-level coaches, I think theoretical guidance can help them about what direction they should take in training, how to analyse competition, how to prepare for the next match, not simply by having numbers or repeating what other coaches do. Their ideas about the game can be guided by what we know about individual and team behaviour.”


– Duarte Araújo, Associate Professor, University of Lisbon (find out more about Duarte and his work at the Sport Expertise Lab)

Whilst coaches are clearly identified in the above, I have also been musing over the implications for Performance Analysis roles. If this field is going to differentiate itself from generic data and analytics experts it really needs to justify the term “Performance” being in the title – in Duarte’s words, this means being “guided by what we know about individual and team behaviour” (and I would add – how players learn these behaviours). I feel there is much progress to be made here…

The Skill Acquisition Project in Scottish Golf

Mark Upton
Feb 20, 2016

In our latest Hangout we spoke with Graeme McDowall and Peter Arnott about their initiative in Scottish Golf talent development – the Skill Acquisition Project.

It was great to get an insight into why and how they are applying Ecological Dynamics theory in the design of challenging learning environments for golfers looking to make the jump from amateur to the professional level. Their honesty was refreshing and will hopefully send a clear message that we need coaches prepared to try new approaches and be the “learners” as much as players.

You can get in contact with Graeme and Peter on twitter.

(Learning) Space Invaders

Mark Upton
Feb 11, 2016

Not that long ago, in a galaxy not that far away, there was a space

Over time young people (along with a select few adults) discovered the elements to make it a rich and vibrant space for learning. All was at peace in the galaxy.


However peaceful times rarely last. Around the turn of the century some ambitious characters arrived from another galaxy.


All of a sudden, the Learning Space was vulnerable and the need for a Protector emerged.


For a while the would-be Invaders were content to hang around the periphery and engage in friendly chat with the Protector. They even shared a few ideas with the Protector that enriched the learning space.

Eventually, the power hungry Invaders revealed their true intentions, launching an all-out assault on the Learning Space and the gallant Protector.


Despite the Protectors best efforts (such as reasoning with the Invaders to get them to understand the learning space and, when that failed, faking compliance with the Invaders demands), it was an exercise in futility.


Inevitably the Protector weakened and finally succumbed, the only choices left being to join the Invaders or flee to a far away corner of the galaxy. The Learning Space was now fully exposed and at the mercy of the Invaders.


The Invaders swamped the Learning Space and it quickly faded away, becoming nothing more than a distant memory.


Euphoric, the Invaders began an intensive search for the holy grail – “High Performance”.

Unfortunately for the Invaders, it was nowhere to be found….

(thanks to Julian Stodd for the inspiration regarding the visuals)