Home Culture On Creating a Culture of Excellence Part 2: Four Pillars for Performance & Engagement
On Creating a Culture of Excellence Part 2: Four Pillars for Performance & Engagement

On Creating a Culture of Excellence Part 2: Four Pillars for Performance & Engagement


There are four key principles, which are essential in the motivation and engagement of people. These four principles if embedded into any program and culture will improve productivity, performance, resilience and retention.

People thrive when we allow and encourage:

AUTONOMY:The freedom and flexibility to carve their own path…

MASTERY: Within a transparent environment that rewards personal and professional excellence…

PURPOSE:In a way that adds meaning to their life and the lives of others…..

PLAY: Alongside peers who allow them to be themselves and have fun.

 These four pillars are interdependent on one another; therefore the loss or neglect of any one can cause a breakdown in the others and negatively affect performance, resilience and engagement among athletes.

By exploring each of these components in more depth we can discover why they are so important, what impedes them, and how to overcome these obstructions when devising strategies to implement them within our own organisations.



‘Control leads to compliance, autonomy leads to engagement’ – Daniel Pink

Excellence at sports highest levels demands quick, clear thinking, conviction in ones decisions and the courage to act on those convictions by putting them to the test.

When the heat is on, no one else can make decisions for the athlete, no one can give them advice, and no one can act for them. They’re on their own. If we set up an environment, which continually absolves athletes of the responsibility to make decisions, we are setting them up to fail.

Plans, schedules and methods of monitoring are the tools of the expert. But they don’t mean much on game day. Game day is all about how clearly we have communicated our intentions, and the depth of character we have cultivated in our people.

The US military realised this when their incredibly well planned, hierarchical and autocratic approach to managing their troops in combat failed dismally time after time.

Tom Kolditz, head of behavioural sciences at West Point summarised the military’s learning best when he said:

No plan survives contact with the enemy”

Mike Tyson pointed to similar wisdom when he said:

            “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”

 Prepare people well, clearly communicate the goal, and then allow them to achieve it by whatever means circumstances require. This is the military’s solution, instead of telling people what to do at every step.

Its called Commanders Intent.

When we allow room for athletes to decide how they achieve the outcomes we deem important for their progress, we are indirectly telling them; you are intelligent, you have the resources, and you are responsible. We empower them.

When we insist on micromanaging every aspect of their preparation, we are telling them; ‘You’re not as intelligent as we are, you don’t know how to use the resources around you, and you can’t be held responsible’. We disempower them.

With the inception of professionalism, the need to ‘manage’ pro athletes led to the rise of ‘experts’ and with this change came a shifting of responsibility and ownership of performance, from athlete to expert.

Athletes suddenly went from being the conductor of an orchestra; harnessing and combining the expertise of specialists to conceive, create and coordinate a moving performance, to musicians being cued and corralled endlessly.

Now instead of collaborating and working with others to create the perfect performance, they compete for approval and recognition of the crowd and the coach, which can often be fickle and fleeting.

Internal motivation becomes external when athletes begin competing not for the pride in their performance, but for the approval and recognition they might receive from others.

External motivation is weak and unreliable.

Internal motivation is strong and irrepressible.

Of course its not a matter of just leaving athletes to their own devices, we must first invest our energy into effectively educating athletes on all aspects of their preparation.

Once athletes understand how to use the resources at their disposal, and are empowered to use them to achieve clearly defined goals, we are laying the groundwork for our next performance pillar: Mastery.



‘If we take people only as they are, then we make them worse, if we treat them as if they were what they should be, then we bring them to where they can be brought’Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.


Giving people freedom and flexibility does not absolve them of accountability. When people are allowed autonomy in their work they are by design more accountable, since their results stem from their own ideas and actions.

People who have autonomy think more critically, but also act on their instincts and intuitions. This enhances creativity and innovation, and ensures feedback will be relevant to their own unique experience.

Without autonomy, mastery is impossible. However there is another element, which when used well, works to create and embed mastery into any program; Feedback.

To encourage excellence we must show more, and tell less. The difference is a subtle but an important one. Telling is directing, showing is sharing. Direction demotivates, feedback stimulates.

Feedback can be subjective or objective.

Subjective feedback otherwise known as ‘opinion’ is effective only when it is shared effectively from credible sources that have established trust and rapport with athletes. I have written extensively on this here

Objective feedback, otherwise known as ‘data’ is effective only when it comes with the following characteristics: accessibility, relevancy, speed and regularity.

Accessible feedback is simple, engaging jargon free information, which improves the athlete’s awareness and combats existing ambiguity about where they are versus where they need to be,

Relevant feedback is communicated in a way that is specific to the individual. Linked to their values and interests, and using their language.

Fast feedback works to shorten the time it takes for an athlete to accurately assess the results of their actions. The faster the feedback, the more rapidly an athlete can iterate and evolve their approach. Progress is the ultimate motivator.

Regular feedback ensures progress is steady not stalled. Uncertainty grows in the absence of feedback; Ambiguity is the enemy of progress. Planning and automating feedback where possible combats ambiguity and maintains motivation.

People will take more care and put more effort into work that affords them independence, and makes progress obvious. But elite sport demands more than effort and care, the ultimate success demands persistence.

If we want to encourage and develop persistence in our people, the pursuit must hold personal significance to them. This brings us to our next element; Purpose.



‘He who has a why to live for can bear any how’- Nietzsche


Andre Agassi hated tennis.

He was good at it, it made him money and it made his dad proud.

But he hated it.

Until he realised it was his vehicle for initiating and sustaining change in the American education system.

Before he realised tennis was his ticket to leave a legacy far greater than wealth, fame and worldwide recognition, Agassi took the court battling two opponents; one was his opponent, and the other was himself.

Then, in one powerful moment he realised tennis was not his fate, but a powerful platform to increase awareness in society, resource worthy initiatives and create the kind of change he could be proud of long after his career ended.

In that moment, Agassi realised tennis was not in the way of his real calling, it was on the way.

Once he saw his profession as linked to, rather than impeding his higher purpose, his performance soared and only then was he completely able to fulfil the potential the world saw in him from the early days of his career.

As an industry; we have a tendency to assume that all pro athletes love their sport for its own end. This causes us to overlook other aspects of who they are, leading some to feel marginalised and resentful toward their industry and their career.

I don’t believe this happens because these people have fallen out of love with their sport, It may more likely occur because most do not feel like they are truly able to honour and express all parts of themselves.

When statements like ‘there is no such thing as an honourable loss’ become part of the popular vernacular, we can see that the pressure to perform and win is exceeding the pleasure to practice and play to one’s potential.

John Wooden is universally acknowledged as one of the best coaches across all sports. His legacy of ‘success’ on and off the court is unparalleled despite the fact that he considered his tactical nous to be inferior to many of his colleagues.

Wooden’s process was simple:

  1. Use sport and practice to promote the virtues in people that lead to success in any realm.
  2. Recognise and reward the expression of these virtues above ALL ELSE (including winning)
  3. Wait for success to show up.

To Wooden, ‘success’ was reaching one’s potential. He judged his teams to a higher standard than winning; he considered a win a loss if he thought his team did not play to their potential.

As an industry, we often overvalue what someone is doing, and undervalue who they are being. Woodens counterintuitive approach yielded superior results because he trained his athletes for life, through basketball, not basketball for life.

The difference, though subtle is important. Using sport as a tool to teach athletes to succeed in life is of far more value to them than teaching them to succeed in sport. It shows them they are more important than their performance and that their potential is not limited to the playing field.

Athletes have sixth sense when it comes to other people and their motives, and in my experience they will work harder for coaches they trust. In my experience trust only develops when we show we care about the whole person, not purely their performance.



‘You can discover more about a person in an hour of play, than a year of conversation’ – Plato.


For most athletes, it was at first an act of play that started it all.

That act of play ignited a passion, a passion to exceed and excel in the sport of their choosing. This passion often leads to persistence, and it is persistence that ultimately improves performance.

But it all starts with play.

When what was previously fun becomes work, we lose play. When we lose play, everything begins to unravel pretty quickly. No play, no passion, no persistence and over time no performance.

Simply put, play is any apparently purposeless activity pursued for its own sake, that affords you freedom from self consciousness, makes you feel good and helps time pass quickly.

So what functions does play achieve?

Play allows us to pretend, when we pretend we take more risks and deal with failure better that we do in ‘real life’. Research on athletes has shown that those who are willing to take more risks and more readily deal with failure faster are much better performed than others who don’t exhibit the same characteristics.

Many ancient indigenous cultures such as the Aborigines trained young warriors to hone their supreme survival and hunting skills, by teaching them games designed to assist the development of specific elements of each skill they were required to learn as men.

Putting the fun back into preparation and practice by turning it into a game can help athletes overcome blocks to learning and allow them to process feedback more effectively than might otherwise be possible.

Another reason play is important is that is essential for fostering strong and healthy relationships among people. Play serves as the glue that sustains and improves interpersonal relationships, and creates a sense of community among those who participate.

Research has shown that people who have strong relationships with others in their workplace are more engaged, more productive and less likely to want to leave due to higher overall levels of wellbeing than those who feel more isolated and alone in the same environment.

Most people will probably gloss over play and consider it a ‘nice to have’ or non-essential ingredient, I would caution against this. Over time I have come to consider play as one of the most critical factors in creating a culture of excellence.

People enjoy themselves when they achieve more for sure, but people also achieve more when they enjoy themselves. Success occurs only when deserved and this can take time, but enjoyment is available at any moment, why wait for success when the benefits of play can be had now?

Summing up:

The organisation that can develop, attract and keep the highest quality talent has a distinct advantage over its competitors. To create a culture of excellence, leaders must work to separate wellbeing from winning.

When we focus on wellbeing, by embedding autonomy, mastery, purpose and play into all aspects of what we do, work life balance becomes an afterthought, and teams and the athletes within them are more likely to perform to their potential.

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