1. A Warts and All Guide to Being an Athlete in a ‘High-Performance’ Environment Andy Kirkland Ph.D.

About the article

This article has been primarily written for athletes who aspire to compete in high-performance environments or are already there. Parents, significant others and those involved in athlete duty of care may be interested too. My purpose is to help you navigate through an elitist culture fraught with numerous challenges with your sanity intact. There are 5 chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. High-performance sport is ruthless
  3. What does it take to win?
  4. Identifying Challenges
  5. The End

If you don't want to read all 5 chapters, I recommend that you at least look at Chapter 4 and the questions I pose there. This is about 'self-assessing' if your environment is one that works for you.

Each chapter broadly explores my perspective surrounding different areas of the high-performance environment that I think is important that you know about. These aren't sugar-coated or presented in a way you'd expect from an NGB, Federation or national sporting organisation. That's simply because I have the independence to speak relatively openly. I do my best to do so in an objective and fair way.

There's a button at the end of each page to allow you to click through each chapter.

Preface: why you should listen to me?

I've been close to the 'coal face' of performance sport for many years now. I have have experienced great joy supporting others to victory along the way. It's been wonderful to meet and even work with some of my heroes too. But I can't forget some of the less nice things I've seen, experienced and been told too. So, my motivations for writing these chapters is very simple. My main goal is to help others to develop the best performance systems possible without compromising the well-being of athletes, coaches and support professionals who work within them. That's a long-term goal. In the meantime, I want to help people like you navigate the system, with your eyes wider open to the challenges you may face. I don't want your health and well-being to be compromised unduly on your journey.

So why am I the man for the job? Well, I'm a 'Jack of All Trades', a generalist who knows lots about performance systems, athlete development and coaching. I'm a coach who has worked with athletes at every level of sport, a Lecturer in Sport Coaching, and have worked for British Cycling & the Scottish Institute of Sport. My experiences in these roles has motivated me to become an expert in mental health in sport, particularly in the social factors that influence people's thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

I do a lot of work behind the scenes, which for obvious reasons, I can't really talk about. But it involves supporting people and organisations when things don't go to plan. This means speaking with NGB's, psychiatrists, psychologists, coaches, athletes and friends in the industry. This is tough because I sometimes hear way more than you'll read about in the papers or see in social media about athlete well-being. Whilst sometimes heartbreaking, it's nice to have the expertise to make a difference.

I do sometimes associate myself with some organisations and work with them, But I like to retain my independence. This allows me to present a realistic perspective and not be too afraid to challenge the status-quo. Of course, sometimes I'll be wrong or you may disagree. Sometimes I'll present a 'picture' that you are unfamiliar with and I may even anger you. But I do so through being intellectually rigorous, balanced and with the best possible intentions. I welcome being challenged or put straight when I'm wrong.

If you'd like to contact me, you'll easily find my email through a Google search. You will also find me on Twitter @andykirkland71


I love sport. Like many of you, it is nearly everything to me and it defines who I am. Sport is full of people who want to help you achieve your dreams. Some are better at it than others. However, there are many pitfalls in which people suffer unnecessarily for a multitude of reasons. These typically within five overlapping areas:

  1. Athlete aspirations and ability are mismatched;
  2. There are gaps/deficiencies in ability to deal with challenges that ‘elite’ sport presents;
  3. There are systemic flaws in sporting programmes and leadership;
  4. Those who are in positions that are meant to help you aren’t very good at what they do;
  5. There are multiple stakeholders including government, sporting organisations, NGB's, sponsors, parents, families and athletes with conflicting agendas.

If you aspire to reach the top, you should always consider all of these factors very carefully, taking personal responsibility where appropriate but also recognising the things that are outside your immediate control, including the culture of the sport you are involved in.

There are some wonderful elements about sport, but I'm not going to focus on them here. That's because there are lots of organisations doing that. Their 'hands are tied' in presenting anything that may tarnish their image or leave them open to being sued. However, there have been far too many stories emerging in which athlete health and well-being has been compromised because of ‘Win at All Cost’ cultures. In many sports, poor practices are so deeply ingrained that they are viewed as normal. Culture is difficult to change, especially when there are people who will try their best to avoid inconvenient truths. Doing so is often perceived as threatening the financial sustainability of an entire sport and means recognising that wholesale changes to clubs, coaching practices and competition structures are needed. This is made harder by the fact that some of the worst practices we see are used by teams, squads and coaches that are perceived to be the most successful. People want to be associated with national squads and high-profile teams. This makes them blind to their flaws.

Winning is celebrated and those who break down trying are often perceived to be weak. Wider systemic issues go ignored. There are champions, who are perceived to be strong, but poor performance programming and coaching have resulted in avoidable long-term health issues for them. I know it hurts some of these athletes when their name and images are used to promote programme successes such as medals won. The fact is that some have succeeded in spite of these programmes. Omerta and pain avoidance prevents them from speaking publicly.

But it’s not all bad. By writing this article, I hope to help you progress on your journey, having positive experiences as you go. There is absolutely no point sugar-coating my story because that would not reflect my experiences and expertise within high-performance environments. I’d urge parents and ‘significant others’ to read the chapters too. That is because your well-intentioned role is often central to the sporting journey, sometimes being instrumental into success but also that well-meaning behaviours hinder progress and can actually result in longer-term mental-health issues.