On Creating a Culture of Excellence Part 1: Why Work Life Balance is a Distraction
It seems organisations and unions in sport are more and more at odds when it comes to finding a solution for increased behavioural problems, higher rates of burnout and lower levels of overall engagement.
- Players and unions want ‘improved working conditions’: which is code for ‘pay us more and give us more time off’.
- Organisations want improved professionalism and engagement: which is code for ‘appreciate your circumstances more and get on with it’.
When neither party is completely transparent it is almost impossible to find common ground. This article aims to help leaders in sport find that common ground, while proposing pragmatic solutions that can address the root causes of conflict to improve outcomes for all parties.
To effectively fix any problem, we must do two things: first we must acknowledge that there is one (and that it is worthy of our attention), and second we must find a way to understand it better than we do currently. In the words of the great Albert Einstein:
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”
How did we get here?
Society idolises athletes and values them as once they did kings and queens. Athletes and their achievements inspire people to follow their dreams, think bigger and do better, and we love them for it. We also pay them for it.
When talented people lose their passion and being talking about ‘time off’ they have forgotten the excitement, energy and enthusiasm their pursuit of excellence initially created, and instead begun to associate ‘work’ with what was once ‘play’.
When this subtle change occurs, it can cause the athlete to lose their value due to the inevitable decline in performance. Don’t believe me? Think about the career trajectory of Ian Thorpe, one of the most decorated Olympians in history.
Elite sport has some serious issues to acknowledge when athletes begin talking about more time off, fewer obligations and higher pay. The current zeitgeist, if not addressed will have long-term implications for the value of the entire industry and everyone who exists within it.
But whose fault is it?
As we have seen, it is easy to point the finger at the other side, though as is often the case, the truth is more complex. Athletes are not selfish, lazy or greedy, and their employers are not inherently autocratic, uncaring or corrupt.
This change in landscape is most likely a delayed reaction to the subtle and subversive changes in behaviour from both groups that occurred when amateurism gave way to professionalism at the highest levels in sport.
Suddenly athletes who previously had trained and prepared for the ‘love of the game’ now earned more than enough to pay the bills and live a comfortable, at times even luxurious existence.
These changes brought with them an unspoken, embedded pressure to ‘earn it’. For many, this meant approaching sport in the same way one approaches a job: show up on time, when instructed and do as directed without question or qualm.
Obligation inhibits passion. I kiss my partner every morning when I leave for work, but if ever I were ordered to do so I am sure the shine would quickly wear off this ritual despite my love for her.
This ‘professional approach’ has created an unnatural obligation, which has led to resistance and defiance among otherwise inspired athletes who suddenly claim to have ‘burned out’ despite few or no signs of physical fatigue.
Is more time off the answer?
No athlete ever reached their highest potential by resting their way to excellence. No champion has ever achieved extraordinary results by not putting in the work at higher levels, more often than their competitors.
But don’t take my word for it, read theirs:
“If you do the work you get rewarded, there are no shortcuts in life” –Michael Jordan
“The highest compliment that you can pay me is to say that I work hard every day.” – Wayne Gretzky
“People don’t understand that when I grew up, I was never the most talented. I was never the biggest. I was never the fastest. I certainly was never the strongest. The only thing I had was my work ethic, and that’s been what’s gotten me this far” – Tiger Woods
“Maybe some people can wake up and play PlayStation all day, but that’s never been me” – Tom Brady
Would the man who stands on top of Everest after being flown by helicopter feel the same level of pride and accomplishment and the one who trains and toils through treacherous conditions to achieve the same result?
I doubt it.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that time off and athlete compensation do not merit discussion, What I am saying is that these concerns are not likely the answer to issues of athlete engagement and satisfaction at ‘work’.
In this post we have explored some of the root causes for athlete burnout, lack of engagement and poor performance, in part two we will look at four pillars for improved performance through engagement.