Olympic Gold Leadership and Communication

In 2004 the Olympic Women’s hockey team didn’t qualify for Athens. In 2008 in Beijing they came 6th, in 2012 they won Bronze; on August 19th 2016, as part of the most successful overseas British Olympic Team performance ever, they spectacularly won Gold.

The success came at a cost. Sacrifices were made. Uncountable hours of pain and actual blood, sweat and tears were shed.

How did it come about and how do the learnings relate to your business?

Leadership

At the start of the process a ‘gold medal’ culture was described and set down by the senior players and the management team. The vision was the holy grail of Olympic gold. Every action had to have an ultimate reflection on that goal, what percentage would any action add to the chance of achieving success? The senior team then described that vision to each and every squad member – all 31 athletes within the programme regardless of age or experience had the concept ‘hammered’ home to them. That gold medal mentality was then the mantra for internal behaviours and also internal challenge. Everyone was accountable, the young could challenge the old and an open culture was born, where no one could rest on their laurels. So many programmes are brought into organisations without the detail and impact(s) being fully explained to all relevant personnel and similarly then those behaviours not being matched at all levels. Clear leadership creates a goal where an individual’s actions have a value. An individual who knows their own value and also feels valued encourages discretionary effort – giving that extra 1%.

Communication

The single greatest element that contributed to the success of the side was communication. Both positive and negative communication bred a culture of respect, honesty about performance and the ability to accept criticism, meaning that every athelete was constantly pushed mentally as well as physically. That level of communication then translated onto the field, a missed pass being acknowledged, but the correct outcome then highlighted with a word or gesture. The communication was clear and explicit, the fundamental elements of verbal communication – Pitch, Pace, Projection, Energy, Volume and Articulation – were refined to convey messages in a split second to improve and deliver performance results. The player’s understanding of the goals set because of the clarity of leadership resulted in constant improvements and even ‘in-game’ adaptations. Clarity of message within an organisation and delivery in an engaging style creates opportunity to measure the behaviours required, but also motivates and inspires – vital in a pressured environment.

Habit

Two numbers are widely talked about within performance sport:

  1. 1000 hours to create excellence (Matthew Syed ‘Bounce’)
  2. 3000 repetitions for a behaviour / action to become instinctive (drilled into me across 10 years of sport, origin unknown).

The implementation of a new programme is easy, it is fresh, it is exciting, but the actual execution is usually fundamentally boring. For the British Women, the desire to win gold translated into the necessity to train muscles physically and muscle memory technically to deliver actions at an elite level with no fluctuation in performance. Hit a ball on the run from the left foot to that cone, again and again and again, not until you get bored or the coach gets bored, but until the goal is achieved – set the success rate, 70, 80, 90, 100%, both measurable and repeatable. The greatest reason for poor skill retention is that the process isn’t repeated to perfection. It is simply done until boredom and that occurs before the skill is engrained. Within any programme, project or simple desire to change, the skills have to become engrained or team members / staff and employees ‘revert to type.’ The ‘type’ being who they are naturally. Performance habits are ‘set’ by creating a new normality.

Belief

A final element in the team’s performance jigsaw was belief. The path was not always smooth. A last place finish at the World Cup in 2014 saw some soul searching and hard questions being asked. Was the goal realistic? Were the players good enough? Could the world’s best be caught and beaten?

Quite simply the team believed that the other sides in the world could be beaten. A review process suggested that the players were given too much autonomy and needed more specific instruction, whilst they were the best athletes in the world they still needed to be guided and directed. They instigated new measurable behaviours that could be compared to other sides that gave a belief in their training methods, at a base level the players knew they could run faster for longer! By setting a number of targets (set through analysis) it meant that a performance process could be broken down and implemented in a number of believable steps. Not just empty words, but methods and practices that an individual can relate to. Daily actions and behaviours that could contribute to the overarching team goal.

So, by developing and implementing these four key performance elements the British Women’s side achieved something not seen before in women’s team sport at an Olympic games.

The relationship(s) between them in a sporting environment and the same skills in a business setting are immediate and replicable.