How to Organise & Manage for the Emergence of Excellence in Sport?

Mark Upton
Oct 31, 2016

I’m looking forward to a whirlwind visit to Évora, Portugal in a couple of weeks to be involved in the International Congress for “Exercise and Health, Sports and Human Development”.

I’ve started to gather some high-level thoughts for my session – Embracing the complexity of learning & excellence in team sport. I’m striving to layout something coherent that covers the last part of the session description…

“how archaic education & management systems are negatively influencing sports systems and in turn limiting the potential of young people.”

Hopefully this post will provide personal stimulation (with your feedback and any subsequent discussion most welcome)…

My starting point is to journey back to late 19th and early 20th century of the industrial era, Scientific Management of Frederick Winslow Taylor and an educational system fit for that time. Educating and managing people for highly repetitive and stable work in factories with little need for thinking and decision making. The work being deliberately designed to be largely independent from other workers, making it easily measurable and controllable. A low-skill environment that required little or no training to up-skill workers in the single best way to perform a task. Tasks that were not particularly engaging for many workers, where much motivation came from the possiblity of earning higher wages for being ever-more efficient and therefore productive.

If you had to describe individual or collective excellence on a team sport pitch/field/court today it would almost be the antithesis of the above – constantly changing environment requiring high levels of thinking, decision making and at times creativity. Having to perform interdependently(teammates and opposition), making reductionist metrics of very limited value. Demanding expertise that is learnt over a long, nonlinear journey with no two paths being the same. Many ways to perform a task successfully (multiple solutions to a problem on the field). Generally players who are motivated (not always for intrinsic reasons mind you).

So why are many clubs and sporting organisations of the current era still (and in some cases increasingly) exhibiting organisational design, management, leadership and pedagogical approaches incoherent with the type of “work” required from the players they develop?

Perhaps it comes down to a lack of critical thinking and leadership…

“A key aspect of leadership includes challenging the prevailing paradigm, asking ‘Why are we continuing to do what we are continuing to do the way we are continuing to do it?’” (William Tate, 2013)

It could be a lack of self-awareness and appreciation of the paradigm or worldview they operate from (that was certainly the case for yours truly) – linear, predictable, controllable, reductionist, efficient. Not realising that a fertile middle-ground exists between the poles of “order” and “chaos”, a ground that some have discovered and benefited from in team sport player development.

My concern is for the many brilliant coaches (and teachers in the education system) who understand the principles that Jean Boulton mentions. Their brilliance in helping young people on their journey to excellence is increasingly threatened by organisational and managerial practices unfit for purpose.

I like this graphic below from Tanmay Vora and may use it in the presentation. I feel it captures particularly well the transformation required from some of the larger governing bodies of sport…


I will touch on the Sport NZ Community Coaching Plan as an example of an organisation shifting their strategic worldview…

In 2012 we chose a traditional approach to coach development focusing on the standard areas of recruitment, development and recognition of coaches. We set detailed action plans with specific measurable goals and KPIs and, with the best of intentions, set out to achieve great things in all three areas.

What we discovered was that there was a great gulf between intention and impact. In a highly complex community sport system it was almost impossible to identify and deliver initiatives that would have a direct and measurable impact on coaches, particularly the vast majority of volunteers who coach in the foundation and development communities. The sheer size of the sector, combined with the multiple layers between Sport NZ and the actual coach, make direct causal links virtually impossible to measure except in relatively narrow areas such as performance coaching.

What we did discover, however was that it was possible to have a direct and significant impact on the coach development system. Coaching is first and foremost a people-led process and by focusing on how to engage and develop the key people within the system more effectively, we were able to begin the process of building self-sustaining communities of practice. We believe this will ultimately build coaching system capability across our community sport sector.

Implicit to this approach has been the development of empowered leadership models that grow leaders at all levels and foster a culture of continuous learning.