Innovation: Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle… #4

Why are you here? Really

Jono Byrne
Aug 11, 2017

Read episodes #1, #2 and #3

The prologue

“You’re just like all the other staff here, hitchin’ a ride on the gravy train off the back of our efforts.”

In my time in elite sport, I’ve had many conversations with many athletes.

Two have stuck with me.

The first, in 2009, was with a senior Team GB athlete. An ‘old hand’ who’d seen it all as captain of his team at Commonwealth, European, World, and Olympic level.

The accusation that I’d jumped on the “gravy train” stung like hell.

In that instant, I understood the suspicious relationship between athletes and staff in a generously funded programme. It was ‘them and us’.

The second, more powerful conversation took place in the winter of 2015.

Floundering in the turbulent waters of Shit Creek, I was again reminded of my privileged place in a world where I didn’t really belong.

Getting it

“You just don’t get it Jono. I’m struggling to pay my rent and my food bill here.”

The accusation that I didn’t “get it” wasn’t a repetition of that tired cliche about ‘getting performance’.

Instead, it was a deeper, more personal, and upsetting insight.

It came from a young woman passionate about her sport, dreaming of competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

I didn’t know she was struggling to survive on the lowest level of funding in the UK performance sport system. An income less than the UK’s legal minimum wage.

What I didn’t “get” was this young woman’s hopes for her life in sport.

I didn’t “get” what she needed to fulfill her dreams.

I didn’t “get” those things for one simple reason.

I hadn’t asked her.


There’s a trap waiting when you start believing in the power of your own expertise.

You think you know what’s best for people you claim to serve. If they’d just listen to you, their lives would be so, so much better.

In the search for ‘efficiency’, you’re decisive, you crack on, and you get busy improving ‘how things are done around here’.

There’s your trap.

You’ve just become a ‘Missionary’.

Bringing your civilisation to the ‘savages’.

Sent into the backwoods by the Church of Marginal Gains, I brought the religion of ‘science and data’ to a tribe of sporting unbelievers.

Like all missionaries, I believed I was doing good, moral deeds.

The tribe felt differently.

The lessons

In my experience, very few people have bad intentions.

But believing your intentions are good is no guarantee of right action.

I’ve seen too many ‘eager beaver’ sports practitioners fervently producing ever more sophisticated tables, charts, and video analysis.

I’ve seen equal numbers of coaches eyes glaze over.

Instead of trying to relentlessly improve how we do the things that we do, perhaps we should ask “what should we be doing?”.

Surveying the current state of UK track and field athletics, respected coach Malcolm Arnold recently made a telling observation:

“Coaches are not being developed or looked after.”

I’ve heard similar observations in other British sports. Are we having honest conversations with coaches about what they really need?

The young athlete who said I didn’t “get it” didn’t want me to analyse and understand her ‘performance’ better.

She wanted me, and others, to understand her better.

In the company of a successful UK Performance Director and a wise friend, I recently experienced “a culture where creating a winner does not come at the cost of the human being”.

As welcomed guests of Team Denmark, we learned about a swimmer who’d retired in disillusionment, and the high performance programme that adapted so she could rediscover her love of sport.

That young woman is Pernille Blume, an Olympic gold medallist in Rio.

Back home, UK Sport Chairwoman Dame Katherine Grainger has said there are “huge concerns about athlete welfare”.

Perhaps it’s time for some ‘innovation’.

But maybe less gadgets this time. Maybe a little less data. Maybe less shiny equipment.

Instead, maybe it’s time for a rethink of the relationships between coaches, athletes, and the system that exists to serve them.

I’m drowning in Shit Creek… and nothing can save me now.

Read episode #5