What is high performance in sport, and how do I achieve it?
Let’s start out by acknowledging that no one in sports really knows exactly what they’re talking about when they use the term “high performance.” People throw it around like it means something important, but everyone is either guessing or using their own definition. There has yet to emerge a shared definition of high performance in sport that is useful or meaningful to everyone.
In this article, we have undertaken to explain how high performance originated and what it should mean for sports performance professionals. From here on out, we will all be able to agree upon the purpose and significance of high performance in sport.
WHAT IS HIGH PERFORMANCE?
The concept of “high performance” originated in the business world as people started to study organizational excellence. While the term may seem somewhat nebulous, it’s simply about trying to understand what factors contribute to extraordinary success. In other words, it’s a “conceptual framework for organizations that leads to improved, sustainable organizational performance.” (Wikipedia)
The sports world has adapted the concept and commonly refers to it as the high performance model, but there is much confusion about what it means for sports organizations. So let’s start with the basic definition that the business researchers have produced:
A High Performance Organization is an organization that achieves financial and non-financial results that are exceedingly better than those of its peer group over a period of time of five years or more, by focusing in a disciplined way on that which really matters to the organization. —HPO Center
On the surface, this definition is rather vague and unhelpful. However, there’s two key points we can extract from it:
- Achieving high performance status simply means that you consistently outperform your peers.
- You achieve high performance by being disciplined and focused on what really matters.
We’re still talking in pretty vague terms, but we can further simplify the concept of high performance into a very concise statement: high performance is outperforming peers by focusing on what matters. We can use this as a springboard to drill down into what high performance is all about.
WHAT IT IS NOT
Before digging into what high performance is, we’re going to clarify what high performance is not. The term gets thrown around as a buzzword, often in the wrong context or simply with the wrong meaning. So we want to dispel the confusion and help establish a clear foundation for understanding the framework.
IT’S NOT AN OPERATIONAL PLAN
High performance is not a well-defined formula. As you can gather from the definition above, the concept is more of a “what” rather than a “how.” Researchers worked backwards by identifying the top performers in various categories and identifying their common characteristics. After looking at the data, they said, “this is what a high performance organization looks like.”
Many smart people have studied the characteristics of high performing organizations and tried to extrapolate the how-to of getting there. However, you won’t necessarily find a “definitive” step-by-step guide on how to build a high performance organization. It’s up to every team or company to apply the principles within their own sphere.
IT’S NOT ELITE
High performance in sport seems to have become synonymous with high profile, elite, or professional level. According to Wikipedia (as of the time of this writing), “high performance sport or elite sport is sport at the highest level of competition.” While this definition makes sense conceptually, it’s completely worthless. Every sport organization, regardless of competitive degree, constantly strives for higher performance. Accepting the above-mentioned definition implies that 99% of the world’s organized sport (all those that are not elite) will be omitted from ever achieving high performance.
Our hope is to move the conversation away from this “elite” paradigm into a more useful construct. Because in reality, all organizations can benefit from the high performance framework. You don’t have to be the best in the world, and you don’t have to be a large, high profile organization. You simply have to outperform your peers over a long period of time, which is what every organization strives to do.
WHAT IT IS
Now that we’ve cleared up some misconceptions, let’s further establish what high performance actually is. We’ll start by breaking down our simplified definition of “outperforming peers by focusing on what matters.”
Determining what it means to “outperform” your peers is usually pretty straightforward. You just need to establish your relevant peer group, define the key benchmarks of success, then measure where you stack up. If you consistently outperform your peer group based on the relevant metrics, you are a high performance organization. If we wanted to get technical, the criteria would probably be a little stricter, but we don’t need to get into that here.
The harder part of the equation is “focusing on what matters” so that your organization can actually achieve high performance status. This is where we turn to the research. The best work on this topic arguably comes from Jim Collins, who has undertaken some of the most rigorous, comprehensive analyses on what separates high performers from the rest.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH PERFORMANCE ORGANIZATIONS
Jim Collins is a Stanford MBA graduate who founded a management laboratory in Boulder, CO. In the late 1990’s he compiled a team of researchers and set out to uncover why some companies achieve greatness while their peers flounder in mediocrity. They looked at 1,435 companies that appeared on the Fortune 500 list from 1965 to 1995. Out of this dataset they identified the ones that consistently outperformed their peers for a sustained period of time. The culmination of this research was the landmark book, Good to Great.
In his book, Jim Collins outlines the principles and characteristics that helped good organizations transition into great ones and sustain their greatness for many years to come. These principles are applicable to anyone in any industry, and the concepts have stood the test of time.
The first characteristic of great companies is what Jim calls “Level 5 Leadership.” Leaders of this caliber consistently exhibit two distinct traits: personal humility and a tenacious drive to succeed. It’s a somewhat paradoxical blend where the ambition to succeed is centered on the organization, not on the self. Level 5 leaders are not afraid to check their ego at the door, admit when they make mistakes, and deflect praise onto others. Additionally, these leaders are almost always promoted from within the organization.
Noticeably absent from the greatest companies in the study was a larger-than-life, celebrity CEO. It seems as though leaders who pursue fame and glory do so at the expense of the institution. They may achieve great things while at the helm, but they don’t leave a sustainable culture, and nobody around them is any better for having been under their leadership.
Achieving great performance requires more than exceptional leadership at the top. The greatest organizations are filled with exceptional people at all levels. A Level 5 leader at the top won’t be afraid to hire smart and talented people around them. High performing organizations find high performing people before setting out to design some elaborate strategy or implement a top-down plan. Jim calls this concept, “first who, then what.” Having the right people on your team is of paramount importance. It doesn’t matter what tools you have at your disposal, the wrong people will use them improperly and squander your chance at greatness.
Radical Transparency and Honesty
Transparency might seem like a foreign concept, because many professionals are used to an environment where information is closely guarded. People are trying to protect themselves from criticism, or they are afraid of making managers unhappy. But this type of environment is toxic. No organization will achieve high performance if it operates like a facist regime composed of self-serving cronies and aspiring yes men.
If you have the right people on the team, they won’t be afraid to confront the hard truth. They look at the facts objectively and want nothing but to find the right answers to the problems at hand. Everyone is transparent about results because failure is not punished, and taking risks is embraced. People are less concerned about making themselves look good, and they are more concerned with surfacing issues so that they can be addressed.
Clear and Shared Identity
With the right people onboard who aren’t afraid to confront the facts, the best performing teams rally around a crystal clear vision and identity. This identity is centered around the organization’s core strengths in three important areas: 1) what you are best at, 2) what you are passionate about, and 3) what drives your bottom line. If you think of it as a Venn diagram, your core identity sits at the intersection of these three circles. You can be passionate about something and really good at it, but it won’t matter if it doesn’t significantly impact the one metric that matters most.
Jim and his team termed this the “hedgehog concept” based on an idea that stems from an old Greek parable: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The point is that the best organizations in the world have simplified their goals, their challenges, and their approach into a simple, unifying concept. This concept is gospel, and anything that doesn’t align with it is heresy. Every single person in the organization needs to adopt the identity and incorporate it into everything they do.
Unwavering Focus and Discipline
Once the team has a simple, unifying identity, the greatest performers are those that can stay true to that identity with unwavering discipline. Every new project, every new technology, or every new fad that comes along is measured against the hedgehog concept. Team members ask themselves, “Does this align with our identity? Does it fit within the three circles?” If it doesn’t, then it gets discarded. High performers are immune to “shiny object syndrome.”
Many managers have made the mistake of betting on the latest technology to “revolutionize” their organization. Without much thought as to how it aligns with their hedgehog concept, they naively invest in new hardware or software. They simply assume that the new tech will be a game changer. However, it rarely delivers as expected.
Wise professionals realize that technology can accelerate a transformation to greatness, but it’s never the cause. What do you think would happen if you could go back in time and give a smart phone to a cavemen? He would of course have no idea what to do with it, and his life would stay exactly the same. Great technology in the hands of mediocre people still produces mediocre results.
Similarly, powerful technology that does not align with your core competencies has no place in your organization. Smart managers let their hedgehog concept guide the application of technology. High performers are not merely adopters of new tech; they are pioneers in new applications of technology.
If you dig into the topic, you’ll find many versions and derivations of the high performance concept. For example, André de Waal, a business professor from the Netherlands, performed a meta-analysis of 280 studies on high performance organizations to compile and organize the most common traits. He also wrote a book based on his work called What Makes a High Performance Organization. His findings more or less echo what Jim Collins uncovered through his primary research.
You might also consider Ray Dalio’s book, Principles: Life and Work. Ray founded and ran one of the most successful hedge funds in the world. His book outlines the principles he used to run his company, which are applicable for anyone who wants to create a high performing organization.
As we think about the application of high performance in sport, we should consider other industry-specific paradigms that have emerged. For example, manufacturing engineers developed the Lean Manufacturing philosophy. Software engineers established the Agile Development philosophy. These frameworks didn’t necessarily branch out from high performance; they evolved in tandem as professionals in each industry sought to continuously improve.
Lean, Agile, and other similar methodologies are not comprehensive high performance frameworks. Each one embodies a narrowly defined set of philosophies and best practices that help drive outstanding performance within a specific profession or craft. In other words, the notion of high performance would encompass all divisions within a software company—finance, sales, marketing, etc.—whereas Agile is employed primarily by the software development team.
HOW DOES IT APPLY TO SPORT?
Now that we’ve laid the groundwork, we’re finally ready to look at high performance in the sports industry. You might be asking the question, what does all this business stuff have to do with sports? The answer is that the principles of high performance are relevant to any organization, whether it be a sports team, a nonprofit, or a multinational corporation. Because at the end of the day, high performance is essentially about optimizing how people act, think, and cooperate to achieve extraordinary results.
Sports organizations are ultimately no different than any other institution. They are made up of people with diverse backgrounds, skill sets, and responsibilities. In order to succeed, they need disciplined leadership, disciplined thought, and disciplined action. Everyone on the team needs to have a shared vision of the future, and people need to work cohesively to achieve that vision.
Accordingly, high performance in sport can be achieved by aspiring to the same ideals as those used in the business world. Whether you’re a university or high school athletics department, a professional or semi-pro sports team, or a private training business, the principles for achieving sustained performance at the top of your peer group are the same.
However, there is one important factor to consider: all organizations in the industry are concerned with optimizing athletic performance in order to find greater competitive success. And just like software development and manufacturing, the art of sports performance optimization is a special craft. It requires special skills, as well as attention to certain important factors unique to the space.
HIGH PERFORMANCE SPORTS MANAGEMENT
A company that manufactures goods will not achieve high performance status if it doesn’t follow the principles of the Lean methodology. A software company will never consistently outperform its peers if it doesn’t employ some variation of the Agile methodology. Any given company may have amazing people, a rock solid hedgehog concept, unwavering discipline, and so forth. But if it doesn’t utilize or innovate on the industry-standard best practices, it will never consistently outperform its peers. Put differently, no company or individual can be a high performer without mastering the craftsmanship of its chosen trade.
Similarly, a sporting institution will never achieve greatness without implementing the best practices and principles of high performance sports management. High performance sports management (HPSM) is the craft of managing and developing athletes to their highest potential using a holistic, interdisciplinary model of care. HPSM is to sports as Lean is to manufacturing or Agile is to software development. It embodies the best of the best in terms of operational and organizational principles for maximizing health and performance while minimizing injuries.
The HPSM division generally operates within a larger organizational structure, but it may comprise the entire organization for smaller companies and institutions. Whatever the overall structure of the larger organization, the ideal HPSM unit will encompass the following disciplines:
- Strength & conditioning
- Sport science
- Sports medicine
- Sports nutrition
- Sports psychology
- Talent Acquisition
The figure below represents how HPSM fits within the typical sports organization:
Through this paradigm we see that HPSM is only part of the overall high performance equation. Technically, the HPSM division falls under the operations category, but it is probably the most important operational unit, so we break it out for clarity and emphasis.
In order for a sports organization to outperform its peers in both financial and non-financial results, sales & marketing and finance have to do their jobs. However, we don’t always have control over those things, so we’re focusing on key elements of just the HPSM division.
CHARACTERISTICS OF HIGH PERFORMANCE SPORTS MANAGEMENT
For those concerned with all aspects of general high performance, we recommend studying the works of Jim Collins and others. Researchers on this topic have provided excellent insights into how organizations can achieve extraordinary performance. However, from here on out, we are going to concern ourselves primarily with the craft of high performance sports management. We will draw on some of the principles of high performing organizations to provide a framework for high functioning, high performing HPSM teams.
If we think of the HPSM unit as if it’s a business, the athletes we serve would be our customers. The most successful businesses always put customers at the center of their strategy. Amazon and Apple didn’t achieve massive success by focusing on e-commerce or iPhones. They became powerhouses because they focused on providing something valuable to their customers.
The same is true for high performance sports management. We sometimes get sidetracked by things that may not be centered on the athletes—trying to get promoted, tinkering with new technology, etc. But everything we do should be focused on the success of the athlete. Sometimes that might mean leveling up our knowledge and skillset, building relationships, improving soft-skills, or implementing new technology. Other times, however, we might need to step back and ask ourselves if a new project or initiative is truly beneficial for the athlete, and if our time could be better spent elsewhere.
When a company sets out to build and launch a new product, they will be most likely to succeed if they form an interdisciplinary team that includes product, sales, marketing, customer service, etc. By getting diverse perspectives, they will surface the best ideas and find the best path forward.
Similarly, in order to provide the best possible care to athletes, teams must collaborate effectively (interdisciplinarity). Coaches can no longer operate within their own silos (intradisciplinarity). They need to provide an integrated, interdisciplinary service that doesn’t bog down the athletes with tasks. Athletes need to be able to receive the proper interventions with minimal touch points and maximal effect. Everyone needs to work from the same information so they can be on the same page and provide the highest level of care.
Unified, Flat Organizational Structure
HPSM teams should be flat with minimal layers of reporting. This is most often a problem in academics where certain disciplines might report to the head coach while others report to academic administration. In an ideal world, the team would have a high performance sports manager that oversees all sport performance professionals, including the sport coaches.
Why do we currently charge the head coach with managing the entire organization? They may or may not have the required managerial experience, let alone basic knowledge of the essential sports performance disciplines. Do we really expect all this in addition to their job of coaching athletes and developing game strategy? They should collaborate alongside everyone else within the interdisciplinary environment for the benefit of the athlete.
Asking the sport coaches to report to a manager is probably a big ask given the politics and egos of the status quo, but some organizations are already trending toward this ideal. Many professional sports teams already have a general manager to whom the head coach reports. Why not put someone in charge with the expertise and managerial skills necessary to lead a collaborative, interdisciplinary HPSM team?
Now you know what high performance is all about, and how it applies to sport. We’ve established that high performance is a generic term that applies to all organizations that strive for excellence. Organizations of this caliber generally have the following traits in common:
- Exceptional leaders
- Exceptional employees
- Radical transparency and brutal honesty
- Clear vision and a shared identity
- Unwavering focus and discipline
- Applied technology accelerators when appropriate
We’ve also established that a more specific framework is needed to promote best practices and achieve greatness in sports performance. We call this framework “High Performance Sports Management” (HPMS). Professionals in the industry can now rally around a common set of shared values and ideals to drive continuous improvement. We invite all stakeholders to contribute to this framework for the benefit of teams and athletes everywhere.
UPGRADE FROM STRENGTH & CONDITIONING TO HIGH PERFORMANCE
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