Getting Better at Getting Better: A framework for more effective talent development.
In sport, there’s a tendency to draw a line between performance and development. Coaches are often labelled as performance coaches or development coaches. Organisations have development pathways and performance pathways. Athletes are seen as either developing talent or elite-level performers. But this dichotomy is deeply flawed.
A few years back I was in a consultation with a professional athlete, who was unhappy with his coach. He complained about his coach’s lack of experience at the highest level; that he was a development coach working in a performance context, and therefore had very little to offer the athlete. After a little to-ing and fro-ing, we arrived at the following question: “So just when was it that you stopped developing and started performing?”. A short while later, the athlete left having realised his coach had a lot more to offer than he first thought, that his ego was perhaps bigger than it should be, and that sometimes I ask ridiculous questions.
You see, top level performers in every context never stop improving. They never stop developing. They consistently look for ways to get better; a new technique, different tactics, refining a skill, greater consistency. Better. Always better.
Perhaps counter-intuitively then, sustained high-performance is all about development. And those that develop more effectively than the opposition, gain a true competitive edge. Think about it; how much better would your organisation be if you could adapt quicker to changing trends and challenges? How much value could you add if your workforce could be up-skilled faster and more effectively, or transform more potential ‘talent’ into consistent high-performers?
"The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage." - Arie de Geus
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend the last decade or so studying and researching effective talent development, supporting “developing” and “elite” athletes, and helping shape the cultures and environments of systems whose job it is to develop talent.
Throughout this time, I’ve tried to answer two fundamental questions around the development of expertise, namely: what makes the elite, elite; and how can we get better at getting better?
As part of our research into the psychology of talent development, we found that there were four key attributes that differentiated between those who were likely to make it to the elite level and those who were not. (You can find the links to some of the research here and here)
In short, our research – along with our years of applied practice in high-performing talent development environments – showed that the best athletes in the long term were more controlled, made better use of others, responded effectively after failure, and engaged with challenge more than their less successful counterparts. (It also gave us a nice little acronym, and who doesn’t like one of those?)
So, let’s unpack these four ‘CORE’ characteristics a little bit…
The ability to manage yourself is vital when it comes to development, and this requires a range of skills. Self-awareness is fundamental to everything. Knowing your strengths, where you need to take care, what pushes your buttons and how you tend to react enables you to identify just where you need to grow.
One of the key characteristics of elite performers is the ability to manage their emotions and focus on what really matters, right when it really counts. Believe it or not, Gold medal winners aren’t robots. They feel all the same emotions that we do. They feel nervous before a big game. They’re anxious about hitting that winning shot and worry about getting that big decision wrong. But what they don’t do is let those emotions drive what they do. They create space. They allow those thoughts and feelings space in their mind and then ask themselves, “What’s important now?”.
The best performers know that they can’t do it alone. Athletes need coaches. Coaches need support staff. Leaders need their teams. The old adage of “you don’t know what you don’t know” is very applicable here, but this isn’t just about increasing the knowledge-base of any one individual or within a particular team. Given its arduous nature, there’s a great need for social support through the development process, for sharing ideas and creative collaboration, and for getting different perspectives. Learning to understand there are different ways of seeing the world allows you to better understand others and communicate more effectively. Our network of support can also contribute to our success in seemingly insignificant yet immeasurable ways.
In one of our research studies, we interviewed an athlete, who by their early teens had reached a plateau and couldn’t break through into the top 10 in the country. Her parents spoke to her coach, who said they felt they had taken her as far as they could, and recommended another coach in a different town 40 miles away. The parents knew that if they asked her directly, their daughter would refuse to change clubs as she’d miss her friends. So, one Saturday morning, the family all got in the car and set off to go shopping. Except they didn’t. Instead, they drove to the new club. On arriving, her parents pulled out her kit bag from the boot and said to her “This is your new club, give it a go and see if you enjoy it.”
Multiple World and European Championships followed, all capped off with an Olympic medal. And without that support from others, none of that would have happened.
If we want to get better, invariably at some point we have to attempt to do something that is currently beyond our level of ability. By definition then, we’re not going to be able to do it. We’re going to fail. Sometimes spectacularly. Almost always unceremoniously.
This is the single most critical point in development, because now we’re faced with a choice. We don’t have to try again. Nothing is actually forcing us to go again. Sometimes, walking away might actually seem the safer thing to do, especially if failure has very visible, social or financial costs.
Fear of failure forces us to adopt defensive behaviours that protect us from perceived harm or judgement. Sometimes we might reduce the achievement standard such as being happy with just a ‘pass’ in an exam or accepting our own below-par performance because someone else on our team hasn’t pulled their weight. An athlete may feign injury, rather than face defeat in public. Or we might simply avoid that difficult conversation over a pay rise with our boss rather than face the possibility of “No.” The final type of defensive behaviour is to exert maximum effort and is often seen as a driving force to excel, however, its positive impact is pretty much always only ever short-lived. Longer term, it has been shown to lead to burn out, performance decline and even mental health issues.
But in the context of getting better, right at that crucial point when we need to make a choice – to choose our response and commit – fear of failure gets in the way. And this avoidance and lack of engagement with challenge is a big problem.
So, if getting better is hard, and we’re going to fail often, we’re going to need a damn good reason to pick ourselves back up and go again. We need some sort of ‘glue’ to help us ‘stick’ to this challenging process, and that glue can come in a range of guises. Having a purpose and being true to your personal values play a massive role in allowing us to engage at those difficult moments; when we’re pursuing a personally meaningful goal, difficult times are easier to endure.
Ask any new parent. Nobody wants to get out of bed three times a night to feed their child. We’re not motivated to do it. The thought of living off four hours sleep a night for two years certainly doesn’t ‘excite’ us. But because it’s important to us, because its meaningful, it allows us to commit to it despite the difficulties, and ultimately, reap the rewards.
Coffee also helps.
But – and there’s always a ‘but’ – we’re not saying you should run headlong into the next challenging situation, hoping that enduring a world of hurt is going to make you a top-level performer. What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger, but it may also kill you. It’s all about finding the right challenge…
The Role of the Environment
Over the years, the human race has done a pretty decent job of adapting to its surroundings, and it’s this adaptability that underpins the development process. When faced with a challenge, and a reason to overcome it, we adapt. We develop new ways of thinking, new skills, new behaviours and new ways of working. But the key point here is that we adapt to the challenge, not just because of it, and this brings with it some key considerations if we’re to get the environment right for developing talent.
First, we need to target the challenge carefully in order to elicit the right adaptation. It’s no use challenging a footballer to use his left foot more if we need him to improve his heading ability. Second, we need to the right dose of challenge. If the challenge is too insignificant, there’s no need to adapt. Conversely, if the challenge is too great, it becomes insurmountable and adaptation can’t take place. Finally, because it takes time to adjust and adapt, and that sometimes this can have a detrimental-yet-temporary impact on our ability to perform, we need to get the timing of the challenge right too in order to maximise the adaptation and minimise the performance impact.
So how do we go about implementing all this? Essentially, we need a coaching process that allows us to target these key themes and optimise their adaptation.
Set the context so that the challenge is targeted appropriately. Where do they need to improve? What adaptations do we want to see? How do we challenge them on this? Is now the right time? How much challenge is too much / not enough? What is the cost of failure, and can this be mitigated? How will our immediate performance be affected? How much scope is there for repetition and variation; for us to practice?
Orient the person to the challenge ahead. Allow them time and space to consider where the challenges in the situation may lie for them, and how they could address them should they occur. Arguably the biggest derailer to performance isn’t usually the challenge itself, but its element of surprise, sending the ‘emotional’ part of the brain into override. This forward planning or orientation not only helps remove the element of surprise, but also allows for multiple performance solutions to be developed.
Simply, run it. Unleash the challenge. Then repeat it. Try different solutions. As they adjust, adapt, and start to overcome the challenge, tweak it. Make it harder. Just not too much.
Finally, embed the learning. Review the process and reflect on it. What did they find difficult? Did the challenges play out as expected? How did they overcome them? What would they do differently next time?
Applying the Process.
Don’t get me wrong though; this isn’t an easy process despite it being a straightforward one. Somewhat ironically, I’ve spent a lot of time making a lot of mistakes trying to implement this approach in high-performance systems, and I guess that’s a big reason why I can feel confident in the process. (The empirical research behind it also helps.)
One vital lesson I learned very early on is that each context is different. Football is different to table tennis. Business is different to sport. Your organisation is different to all other organisations in your sector, and within your organisation, every person is unique.
This is where you come in.
You are the expert on your context. You know your challenges, your resources and your people far better than any consultant or self-professed ‘expert’ ever could.
Instead, we listen.
Then we collaborate. We help you bring the best out of yourself and those around you.
When we get this right, what we end up with is a pathway to high-performance full of ups and downs; a rocky road to the top. Big obstacles and barriers are preceded by strategically timed smaller ones that prepare the individual for what lies ahead. High-performance becomes a game of small incremental adaptations and gains, that translates directly from the pitch, straight to the boardroom.