Mark Upton

Mark Upton

Sport has always been a big part of my life. Growing up in Adelaide, South Australia, I played a number of ball sports (none particularly well!) and was always a keen observer, as much as a fan, of sporting contests. Watching highly skilled players and teams push each other to higher levels of performance, almost in collaboration as much as competition, is always a pleasure.

My first experiences in coaching were with children in tennis and Australian Rules Football. This was during my years at university where I ultimately graduated with a sport science degree. This led to an opportunity to work in a professional AFL club for the next 12 years.

Over this time my role gradually became more coaching focused and I became accustomed to operating in a space that blended coaching and science. I was fortunate to be involved in, and contribute to, emerging leadership, culture, skill acquisition and performance analysis initiatives that are now becoming common-place in professional sport. Towards the end of my time in AFL, and also through consultancy to other sports, I focused primarily on player and coach development.

Reflecting on my 12 years in AFL, the combination of moderate success and some “failures” has actually provided a nice contrast and helped me extract greater meaning from the experiences.

Early in 2014 I joined the English Institute of Sport as their first-ever Coaching Science Manager. My role involves supporting athletes and coaches directly in their learning and development, as well as providing system-level input into UK Sport’s world-leading coach development programmes and NGB’s coaching and talent pathways.

For seven years I have been a father to my wonderful son Sam, the last 3 years of which have involved his participation in informal and organised sports. Observing Sam grow and develop, in and out of sport, has taught me as much or more about learning as the preceding 10 years in professional sport. It has also shown up remarkable similarities in the complex dynamics that exist regarding coaches, parents, administrators and the ill-informed perceptions of effective coaching and learning environments (including the education system). This complexity exists in the classroom, grassroots and high performance sport, and must be embraced if novel solutions are to emerge.

Somewhat paradoxically, relatively simple interventions can be highly effective in this complex space. I have found it both enlightening and exciting to discover in the last 2-3 years that complexity theory & ecological dynamics, that I knew relatively well in terms of informing my approach to skill acquisition and motor learning, is equally applicable to working at an organisational level. The fact these theories and principles scale from the pitch to the boardroom creates enormous potential if they can be applied effectively.

This leads me to my involvement with myfastestmile. When Al told me his story around “chasing lampposts” as a child and striving to be his best, I could see the link with learning and development. It became even more apparent when he shared that, at the age of 40+, he hadn’t given up on the possibility that he is still to run his fastest mile. This resonated even deeper, as I have come to the realisation that learning is not just for young players and inexperienced coaches – it is a life-long journey that the best players, coaches, teams, clubs and organisations have the courage to undertake. They continue this journey regardless of the “success” attained along the way. Indeed one of the major reasons for a lack of sustained success is that people believe they have discovered the “secret recipe” and from that point disengage with their learning journey.

By embracing the complexity of learning, I can think of nothing better than to work with Al and others at myfastestmile as we endeavour to help people be their best. I’m hoping that by doing so, I will also get the best from myself.