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Our guest blog this month is by Owen Slot, Chief Rugby Correspondent for The Times and author of The Talent Lab, which tells the remarkable story behind the rise of Team GB as an Olympic superpower.
There was a point on their journey to becoming Olympic gold-medallists in 2016 that was absolutely crucial to the GB women’s hockey team, and as an insight into what makes successful people, it is probably as valuable as any.
I dwelt upon this for a long time because, in writing The Talent Lab, I was attempting to distil the truths about high performance in sport in a way that could apply to the outside world. Could the story of Max Whitlock’s Gymnastics double-gold medal success in Rio 2016, for instance, be told in a way that a businessman, or an army captain, or a headteacher, for example, could learn from them?
Could there be one strong and defining answer that would be easy to follow, be it intensive practise, or 10,000 hours, or some superstar high-performance genetic strain, or a winning environment, or elite coaching, or psychology, or your diet, or your parents, or the way your hair is parted? What is it? What is the secret?
There are many books that analyse success in this way, that pinpoint one defining and very specific characteristic – and I am not saying they are wrong. Some of them are contrived. Others are very smart indeed.
However, I wrestled with the concept. And the longer that I worked on the project, the more I struggled to find it – and that is because it doesn’t exist.
There is no single ingredient for success
The story of how GB’s Olympic team went from also-rans in 1996 to a global super team in 2016 allows for no cute conclusions. The boxers had about as brilliant a winning environment as I had seen. The gymnasts, meanwhile, had imported cleverly from foreign models; the rowers had been outstanding at identifying talent; the cyclists had benefited from superior technology and training methods; Katharine Grainger and Jess Ennis-Hill had perfected the art of performing on the day; the people who run swimming in the UK had worked out the art of funding and the smartest way to invest in a sport.
And so it goes on. No one single element made for success. There was no one-size-fits-all. That is my conclusion after spending three years closely studying the GB Olympic team and then writing a book about it. And I am happy that that is the case. Sport and success would be a bit dull if the solutions were so straightforward and predictable.
However, though I didn’t find a single ingredient, I did identify a common theme.
There is a way towards winning
There was a moment of epiphany for Danny Kerry, the hockey coach who would lead the GB women’s team to gold in Rio. It came after the Beijing Olympics eight years earlier in the form of the post-Games feedback from the girls. They came sixth in Beijing – not great but not bad either – but Kerry had worked phenomenally hard during the Games and was expecting a positive appraisal.
Instead, he found the girls’ views to be astonishingly critical. There was a theme through their comments and it was this: you spent the Olympics trying to find solutions, trying to adjust tactics and with your head in your laptop (which was when he was doing analysis). What he was very much NOT doing was talking to the team and giving them buy-in and influence over his decisions.
Kerry conceded defeat to the feedback. He started to communicate better; he started to let his players take more responsibility. This went well, so he went even further. He gave the players more autonomy. He wanted them to take ownership of their programme. They started to have greater input into tactics, training schedules, the lot. This went so far that they – not he – were allowed to choose their captain.
It seemed to me that there was a strong link here with the Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonny, who won gold and silver in the Triathlon at Rio. And with Jess Ennis-Hill, who won silver in the Heptathlon.
In the final weeks pre-Rio, Ennis-Hill wanted to control her training sessions so much that when Toni Minichiello, her coach, would draw them up, he would make them too long. On purpose. That allowed her to take control and thus to cut them – and therefore find the right middle ground. But she felt she was in charge.
The Brownlees have always been so independent that Malcolm Brown, their coach, doesn’t really try to control them. He knows he has to trust them; he just seeks to nudge them into doing what he wants. Likewise, the Brownlees really don’t want to be told what to do. They don’t want to be in a position where they can blame their coach, or anyone, if something goes wrong; they want to be able to blame themselves.
What do you do? Empower the talent
The more I worked on The Talent Lab, the more I became aware that there is no single ingredient to success. Likewise, the more I worked on it, the more I became convinced that potential superstars are best nurtured if they are given empowerment.
As I write this blog, I am en route to New Zealand where I will be reporting on the British Lions rugby tour. The Lions are coached by Warren Gatland who explained to me once that one of the greatest compliments he was ever paid was when one of his staff asked, somewhat pluckily: What exactly do you do? He loved it because the team he was coaching at the time – Wasps, one of England’s leading Rugby clubs – were so self-driven that, at their best, they pretty much ran a training session on their own.
Likewise, Eddie Jones, the England rugby coach, has said that the better he does his job, the more he will have made himself redundant. The better his team, the less input they will require from him.
It doesn’t just work for teams, it works for individuals too. Great leaders trying to nurture great talent very often find they are doing a great job if they hardly seem to be doing the job at all.
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