Elite Performance Environments Andy Kirkland Ph.D. & Jo Calado


There's a great deal of debate going on just now about elite performance environments. Jess Varnish didn't quite open the floodgates, but the effect of her speaking out on her experiences at British Cycling seem to have empowered athletes in other sports to do the same. So much so that it's getting attention from the media and the powers that be at UK Sport.

Speaking out is never easy, as there's potential to be accused of sour grapes or not being good enough. Such accusations often have basis in truth, but it is without doubt that some athletes have a good case to complain too. Unless we've got 1st hand experience of context, we can only guess on where the locus of truth is on individual cases. However, we should welcome debate on the perceived 'win at all costs' culture currently pervading UK Sport funded programmes.

This blog comes in two parts. In the first, I have 'cut and paste' a Facebook post from my friend Jo Calado, a Paralympic swimmer, an awesome coach and a complete whizz at most things she does. She presents a wee 'case-study' of what happened in performance terms when another athlete left a high-performance environment for a 'normal life'. Of course, I asked Jo's permission to use the text.

In the 2nd half of the Blog, I pick out and discuss a few themes relating to current issues in elite performance environments and how they could be improved for athletes.

Jo’s Post

British Champs 2017

It takes a lot of hard work and dedication to be a high performance athlete, but how can you achieve a 20% effort: 80% outcome ratio when you're too focused, or too trusting in your coach to take a minute to stop and question it all. Athletes are humans. Humans need purpose. Purpose is not all about gold medals. Rather, it comes in all shapes and forms.

Being ALL IN, in a country with such tough qualifying criteria for major competitions like Olympics, Worlds and Europeans can be damaging for top GB athletes who train and make numerous sacrifices day in day out but are always a fraction of a second away from these brutal qualifying times. What happens then? How long can you justify dedicating 100% to a sport which doesn't see beyond gold medals? What motivation do you have to continue when you fail to qualify for that ONE event that gets you out of bed every morning, that ONE event which gives you the motivation to face gruelling sets?

Countless athletes like Olympic Medallists Michael Jamieson, Ian Thorpe and Tom Daley have already spoken out about the impact this can have in your life when it's no longer there. Post Olympics depression and identity crisis are to be expected. Ruthless qualifying times lead to a ruthless training mind-set which can create unrealistic expectations for athletes, leading to numerous insecurities and fears.

I'm very proud of this little one Rebecca Guy for having the COURAGE to question, challenge herself, the system and make bold changes before immersing herself back into this world where very few dare to go against the grain. Here's a few details of what happened when Rebecca changed her training environment.

British Trials 2016:

  • 50 Free / 25.8 sec / 15 - 20 hours weekly training
  • Olympic Qualifying time -- 24.3 sec
  • Occupation -- Athlete
  • Main worry -- Skin folds

British Trials 2017:

  • 50 Free / 26.1 sec / 5 - 8 hours weekly training
  • Worlds Qualifying time -- 24.1 sec
  • Occupation -- Chef
  • Main worry -- What vegan ice cream can i make today?
  • A 75% training volume reduction (2016 vs 2017) led to a 0.3 second difference. What is worth it? What did Bex gain in return?
  • More quality time with family and friends
  • More time reflecting and investing into personal growth
  • More time coaching and inspiring Bristol's next generation of young swimmers
  • A new career in one of Bristol's top restaurants

Andy’s Perspective

There are two principles that underpin all the work I do with Simone Dailey a top age-group triathlete with potential to go further:

  1. To be a happy, healthy, fit and motivated athlete is the most effective way to compete with the best in the world
  2. To achieve your potential requires a sustainable performance lifestyle and training environment.

In my mind, happiness and health should never be sacrificed in the quest for performance excellence. Rule Number 5: HTFU still applies because being amongst the world’s best requires hard work, commitment, resilience and pathological attention to detail. That’s no different to any quest for excellence whether you are an academic, a doctor, a chef or an artist. Being a top athlete also requires bravery and what I mean by that is they must know when to rest, challenge the coach with questions on 'why' rather than just being compliant and knowing when to walk away if the environment is not working.

However, the power dynamic shifts for funded athletes in which they are like employees who are expected to do what they're told without too many questions. Coaches and athletes often come under bureaucratic pressures which is unhelpful to performance. Athletes have limited choice of who they work with, where they train and who they do it with. Having a 'big personality, being quirky or not being scared to challenge is implicitly discouraged. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules. But 'fitting in' to the system is important even though 'standing-out' is what winning is all about.

Environment and Funding

It should never be forgotten by banded athletes that they are incredibly privileged to receive funding at the levels they do from UK Sport. With that funding comes expectations and the only metric that really counts is success at a world level. I don't necessarily think this is wrong per-se. However, athletes often find barriers to excellence in their way, which emanate from high-performance programmes lacking the agility to allow for their individual needs.

Athletes do not get to choose their coach or training environment unless they are the likes of Mo Farah or are seen as almost guaranteed Olympic medal winners. Even then, if an athlete wants something different to what the NGB has on offer, they'll usually have to fund it themselves. If the coach-athlete relationship is a poor one, then what other choices are available? Maybe none, but athletes should still 'feel safe' and feel empowered to report when things go wrong. This definitely is not the case at the moment.

We must also recognise that most athletes on elite programmes have always been exceptionally good at sport and have been 'big fish in small ponds'. Many have been supported from an early age through NGB development programmes with the associated support that comes with that. They are the ones in their clubs who have been on the front pages of newsletters, who coaches brag about having coached them and the 'flags are put out' by everyone when they win a place on a programme. Who would not feel special and maybe a little entitled after all that fuss?

When I see the level of funding that has been removed from youth services in the UK, I find it hard to feel overly sorry for athletes who don't get the support they feel they are entitled to though. Further, Simone would be classified as a Band C or Band B athlete by UK Sport if IM distance triathlon was an Olympic discipline and she would be funded accordingly. However, she has to pay me, cover physio' bills, attract sponsors, pay to travel to races, do a day job and fit in 15-22 hours of training in a week too. As her coach, I have incredible respect for her, and I'm not bitter that the 'system' does not support her. Thats because we're we're only accountable to each other. The worst bit is that the biggest barrier to success is financial, not a lack of talent. UK Sport funded athletes should feel privileged.

That said, UK Sport and NGB's have a duty of care to all their funded athletes. Helping them perform to their full potential and athlete welfare are part of that obligation. These factors are not mutually exclusive. The obvious way to support athletes is to invest in a world-class coaching infrastructure. That means employing highly trained coaching professionals. Whilst UK Sport may argue that they already do so, I believe the balance of investment is completely skewed, as illustrated in the figure below. It's possible to develop a top-class performance environment on a shoe-string budget. What is needed are expert coaching, a good physiotherapist, availability of whole-food and facilities that are sufficient to get the job done.

Representation of balance of investment in high-performance sport.

Quality Coaching

Coaching should be at the top of the tree when it comes to investment in sport. That is because coaches are the ones who are in most contact with athletes, who determine the 'feel' of the training environment and who make operational decisions on a daily basis. The model of Rynne and Mallet (2012) shows the enormity and complexity of the role of many performance coaches.

Rynne & Mallet (2012)

The reality is that many coaches are employed basis of who they know and reputation, rather than having demonstrable skill sets which align to the model above. They are rarely appointed through an open recruitment process. Of course, coaches must be seen as credible and Performance Directors must be confident that they will fit into a particular squad dynamic. However, what we often see are extensions of old-boys networks in which coaching methods are based on tradition rather than evidence-guided practice. Some coaches experience success only because they are consistently presented with genetically exceptional athletes who have not cracked in the journey through an uncompromising performance culture. Also, gender inequality is endemic at the highest levels of sport, so we are only selecting the best coaches from one talent pool when there are in fact two. This means that performance environments are often male dominated and overly macho. This can be unhelpful and fosters a cultural environment in which some very talented athletes may not prosper.

I'm very proud of our MSc. in Performance Coaching at the University of Stirling because I believe we equip coaches with many of the skills and knowledge to operate in complex coaching environments. Our coaches are committed learners, balancing their practical experience with often newly found intellectual rigour. We work closely with the British Canoe Union who invest heavily in developing their top coaches through this programme. Ok...I have a vested interest, but, I believe that all NGB's should afford their performance coaches sufficient agency to embark on learning programmes such as ours. Nyberg's consent continuum provides good justification to do so.

Nyberg's Consent Continuum

For example, athletes who openly criticise the system have usually reached the end of their tether because they have acquiesced under the threat of sanction from their coaches or the wider system i.e. doing what they are told or lose their funding. The system has failed them if this is how an athlete feels. Appropriate coach learning will also help coaches avoid the middle ground of the continuum, and better equip them to make informed judgements which athletes are more likely to buy into. A well-trained coach is one who finds efficiencies in the system (i.e avoids window-dressing/saves money), understands how to differentiate between athletes and fosters an environment that works for the many rather than the few.

Getting the Balance right

Sport is not helped by the language used by TV sports presenters such as Sue, Colin and Denise. They constantly reinforce how hard training is and the super-human sacrifices athletes have to make to reach the top. Bollocks!! Ask a Syrian refugee what sacrifice is. Getting paid to work in sport is a first world privilege. Also, if having the odd beer, seeing friends or eating the odd slice of cake are seen as compromises, then the coach and athlete mind-sets need reframing.

The more enlightened amongst us recognise that achieving life balance is more important to performance than an uncompromising work ethic. Unhappiness and extreme work ethics do not facilitate optimal performance. Rather, they will typically result in maladaptive physiological, emotional and behavioural responses. The most important equation in how I determine training load is the following one:

Training Stress Score + Life Stress = Total Stress

There's no escaping that elite sport can be ruthless, unfair and inequitable. It's also got more than its fair share of egocentric and unpleasant people. Part of the duty of care of coaches and systems is to mitigate against such facts, thus reducing the stress load. If bullying or unfair treatment occurs, this needs to be 'nipped in the bud' immediately, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it compromises performance. Research from my friend Prof. Andy Lane suggests that athletes perform at their best when they’re experiencing pleasant emotions. We all know that it’s hard to feel good when we are under undue pressure or when total stress exceeds what we can cope with.

If the sporting environment results in avoidable stress, then it is likely to be compromising rather than enhancing performance.

The ‘holy grail’ is finding the optimal level of training load in which training maladaptation does not occur. This optimal level follows a dose–response relationship in which as a coach I want to identify the minimum level of training exposure that will result in performance enhancement. If exposure is too low, adaptation will be minimal/negligible. If it is too high, it may be either minimal/negligible or more commonly maladaptive. The reason identifying optimal training load is the holy grail is that it is in a continued state of flux. It moves with the level of fitness of the athlete and other life stressors associated with being a human. As with everything training related, all athletes respond differently to levels of training exposure too.

Optimal Training Load

reflecting on jo's example

Jo's example and her own experiences relate to swimming, a sport that I've taken a very keen interest in over the years. My perception is that it is still very driven by tradition, even at the highest level. (Our Scottish/Stirling programmes seem to be bucking that trend).

Drop-out rates and longevity of athletes in the sport are pretty shocking. Many coaches do not understand the individual dose-response relationship and are still influenced by Australian and USA swimming cultures in which volumes are often in excess of 80-100km per week. These cultures result in a trickle-down effect to youth and junior programmes. Despite some attempts by the ASA/British Swimming to make things better, it is still common for youth swimmers to do 3-6000m in a single session (x 5 times per week or more, some starting before 6am) Lanes are often so full that swimmers are practising with high training loads, inadequate technical input and a questionable use of non-evidence-based drills.

The fact that feeling fresh, being relaxed, content and mentally awake increases distance-per-stroke and technical efficiency too is often forgotten about. Training in a chronically fatigued state or simply swimming half-asleep at 5:45am is sub-optimal.

Of course such comments are generalisations and I do believe such programmes help develop discipline, work-ethic and resilience. But I've never heard a properly evidence-based argument from a swimming coach delivering a high volume programme which could not be dismissed by the 'eggs against a wall' principle or the coach saying 'my record speaks for itself'.

In Jo's example, training volume was reduced by 10-12 hours per week, with only a 0.3sec drop in performance. Whilst, this sounds small 0.3sec is very significant over 50m at world level. However, I suspect time-on-feet in a hot kitchen explains the performance decrement more than a reduction in training load. Towards the end of his career, Mark Foster was still performing at a world level with swim volumes comparable to an age-group triathlete. Further, awesome IM athlete Lucy Charles, who was previously a GB swimmer, swims nearly as fast now as when doing circa 22 hours swim training a week. That load is now spread over 3-disciplines. Whilst this evidence is anecdotal, what I'm arguing is that the dose-response relationship is not well understood in swimming. Because of this, the performance and well-being of many athletes could well be compromised.

My guess is that we'll never know whether it was the coaching environment and training that was imperfect for Rebecca or that she simply wasn't good enough to win on the world-stage. However, part of the duty of care to every athlete is that such questions are considered with great care. High-performance coaches should always ask the question 'how are you' and deeply care about the answer. They should also be intellectually equipped consider the 'whys' more than the 'whats' and should not be paid for through government funding unless they are equipped to do so. Of course, the answer to most questions in sport is 'it depends' but solutions to problems will only occur by exploring them and continually reflection on coaching actions.

I would challenge Jo on her use of phrases such as ‘ruthless qualifying times’ though. Unless goal-times are at the absolute limit of what is possible for an athlete, then winning on the world stage is unlikely. The model of Brehm and Self (1989) is useful to illustrate this point.

Brehm & Self (1989)

To mobilise sufficient effort, an athlete must believe they have a chance of success. However, if the goal is too easy, then it is unlikely they will mobilise sufficient effort for the task. If they believe the task is too hard, then the likelihood is that they'll remain on the sofa.

The job of those responsible for selecting athletes for performance programmes is to make a relatively accurate assessment of potential (Talent ID). In turn, the job of a coach is to support every athlete in their journey to recognising that talent, regardless of where the individual limits of performance are.

In high-performance sport, if an athlete has a problem with motivation or lack of belief in their ability, then the origin may be personal, situational or systemic (thanks Mark Upton). Therefore, finding origins and solutions to problems is complex. It is the easy option for coaches and programme managers to simply say 'the athlete is not good enough'. It is far more difficult to deal with situational or systemic causation in which the coach or programme may be the problem. A mature performance programme should be receptive to criticism, agile and open to change. Of course, it may be that an athlete is simply not good enough and it is right-and-proper that they leave the programme. Also recognition of the elite sport maxim "life is not fair" is a useful one to accept for everyone.

Concluding thoughts

I believe that 'winning at all costs' is an oxymoron. This is because if a system is so invested in winning, then it is unlikely to foster an environment in which athletes can recognise their full potential. Athletes should be encouraged to have interests beyond sport and supported in developing skills that will prepare them for the real-world that they may find themselves in at any time.

As a concluding thought, I believe far too many people in high-performance environments take themselves way to seriously. To re-iterate what Prof. Lane says:

"Athletes perform at their best when they’re experiencing pleasant emotions"

Maybe smiling and laughter should be the most important metric to measure how successful the culture of a high-performance sporting environment is.

About Me

I’m an endurance sport expert, who works as a Lecturer in Sports Coaching at the University of Stirling, Scotland’s University of Sporting Excellence. I am a BASES accredited sport and exercise scientist with Chartered Scientist status. I worked at British Cycling for 6 years as a coach developer and am a qualified triathlon and cycling coach. I have over 20 years’ experience in triathlon and an extensive personal network in the sport.

My coaching fees are commensurate with my level of experience, unless you can make me laugh and have the ability to win at the highest level. Then I’m cheap as chips.

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andrew kirkland

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