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