Professional Tension In the Performance Program – And What to Do About it


Management of training and training loads is a relatively new concept in sport, and has given rise to new kinds of experts. Most notably sports scientists, physical performance coaches, and sports physiotherapists.

Despite the obvious benefits these skill sets can bring to a program, the interplay between experts can at times cause confusion and distraction. This can and does impact team performance when not managed effectively.

The team of champions always struggles against the champion team. This is as true off the field as it is on the field. The best-performed programs are those in which colleagues respect each other and work together effectively.

Leaders who clearly understand the root causes of these issues are better placed to manage and mitigate them. This post highlights the underlying causes of conflict and tension among key support staff, and offers decision makers a road map for building cohesion within the team behind the team.

The State of Play

Professionalism in sport has brought with it many changes. The money that has flowed into the sports industry has created jobs for athletes, coaches and other support staff in elite programs.

Along with the obvious opportunities that come with increased resources, there are also significant challenges. That is, more people generally also means more people problems.

The number of staff in programs has increased exponentially within the last ten years due to progressive specialisation of skillsets. Where before one person did many jobs, these days one person does fewer jobs (hopefully better).

In particular, two skill sets have become more prominent within elite sports programs; the performance specialist (usually a strength & conditioning coach), and the sports medicine specialist (usually a sports physiotherapist and or doctor).

Performance staff are trained to work with technical coaches to plan, prescribe, deliver and assess interventions. The goal of intervention is to improve an athlete’s physiological capacity and output.

Medical staff are trained to diagnose, assess and treat injury via a range of modalities, primarily centred around manual therapy and rehabilitation specific exercises.

In an ideal world, the two skill sets complement each other perfectly. Performance professionals set a plan and carry it out in consultation with medical staff, who add more context to decisions and mitigate risks.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work this way.

The Big Issue

Conflict arises when people feel others are doing ‘their job’. Usually this is not because others are doing the work, but what doing that work seems to imply: ‘your not doing this well enough, so I am going to’.

Often People have no problem when others take on work they no longer want, need or can fulfil. It’s only when others take on roles and responsibilities we identify with, that things get a little tricky.

The rapidly expanding, and relatively new area of sports science has caused tension between performance staff and medical staff, because both skillsets are deeply interested and invested in its application.

Sports science brings the promise of more information and a deeper understanding of events concerning training, competition and recovery of athletes. This knowledge is crucial for managing training loads effectively – .

And this is where things become problematic.

When two different skill sets with inherently different perspectives begin to use the same tool, and simultaneously claim ultimate responsibility and authority within one narrow area, competition develops and conflict is inevitable.

For performance staff and medical staff, roles and responsibilities regarding the interpretation of sports science data, and the management of training loads have become less and less distinct.

Information is power, and for some the pursuit of power can outweigh the importance of the team’s performance. When personal ambitions begin to overshadow professional objectives, the consequences can be costly.

Conflict, Competition & Consequences

Distracted purpose occurs when colleagues who should cooperate begin competing. Instead of collaborating they strive to outdo each other and claim ultimate authority and influence over the program.

Symptoms of distracted purpose include: hoarding information, putting others down, grudges, gossip and (to use Patrick Lencioni’s term) ‘artificial harmony’. None of which are conducive to performance.

The long-term effects of distracted purpose are subtle and subversive. An off field team which fails to work together sets a poor example for professionalism, makes poor decisions and frequent mistakes.

When athletes’ sense friction among support staff, they begin to doubt or disregard the message leaders preach about teamwork, and over time emulate the same self-serving behaviours they are observing.

Relationships fracture and rebellion ensues, eventually on field performance begins to reflect off field professionalism. When the organisation is dysfunctional, winning can be a lot harder regardless of talent and experience.

The default response for many organisations is to point the finger at one or two scapegoats and ‘move them on’. Believing the next person (often hailed as the saviour) will finally be able to make things work.

Often this new leader can come in and have an impact, some may even succeed. However, in most cases the problems will eventually resurface, and once again people are moved on to create space for the next saviour.

If a problem recurs regardless of people and personalities, and is evident across programs within the industry, it must be organisational in nature. Unfortunately, these organisational issues continue to be treated as relational.

The high turnover caused by this ‘knee- jerk’ response damages trust in the program and leads to cynicism among athletes who grow tired of being asked to ‘trust the experts’ and buy into the performance program.

Three Ways To Combat Conflict, and Create Cohesion

Success comes with stability. Once again this is as true off the field as it is on the field. It takes time for colleagues to get to know one another and learn how to work together while managing pressure and workloads in elite sport.

Every time staff members are moved on or leave because ‘things aren’t working out,’ programs lose predictability, intellectual property and credibility. In many cases programs actually regress since new staff often discard existing processes.

Athletes, who already have much to contend with are then forced to use precious time attention and energy to learn new ways of working with the new staff, and go along with new methods they may or may not agree with.

There are three ways to address the causes of conflict among support staff and improve stability with an elite performance program;

  1. Avoid over staffing
  2. Merge objectives and diverge responsibilities,
  3. Appoint and empower one leader

Avoid Over Staffing:

In the classic management book ‘the effective executive’ Peter Drucker warned managers that the only impact the underemployed, but over skilled man can have on a group is ‘mischief’.

Recurrent crises, drama and endless meetings are all sure signs that too many people have too little to do. The challenge is to stretch people enough to engage their focus and demand their effort, but ensure their workload is manageable.

Standards for staff to athlete ratios do exist, however in my experience the best thing to do is understand the teams broader objectives. The way a program is run will have significant influence on how it should be staffed.

For example, one team I worked with decided to create more autonomy for their athletes during the pre season. This meant multiple options for the same session. This change created a greater need for more staff to cover all sessions.

Merge objectives, diverge responsibilities

‘Clanning’ refers to the natural social process that occurs when individuals who share common ground tend to form distinct groups, and differentiate themselves from ‘outsiders’.

When objectives, interests and perspectives among colleagues are too disparate, clanning can occur. This can lead to unhealthy competition for resources, power and approval among staff who should collaborate.

Due to organisational incentives and industry paradigms, success often equals different things for different skillsets. Performance staff tend to focus on fitness, and medical staff tend to focus on injury.

When the two skillsets work effectively together, the result is a well-prepared group of athletes who practice and compete at higher levels more often than their opponents.

If skillsets are to work together, and contribute to the teams’ primary objective (winning) they need a vision for shared success. This means merging objectives and organising experts into one unit.

In team sport, offensive groups and defensive groups work interdependently, and are managed together as one team with one common objective (outscore the opposition). Why should it be any different off the field?

If shared success is well prepared athletes who practice and perform at higher levels more often than their opponents, then the primary objective for all support staff becomes obvious.

Maximising the teams’ continuity of training is the one objective that can unite performance and medical staff, since both skill sets are necessary and dependant on each other if the group is to achieve this objective.

Of course there are supporting goals that influence the outcome (such as improving fitness, and reducing occurrence of injury), though these are less competitive when pursued as a means rather than the end.

Once objectives have been merged, it is important to differentiate responsibilities and ensure each role is distinct in order to reduce tension and competition among support staff.

This needs to be the responsibility of someone whom understands all roles, responsibilities, personalities, interests and expertise. This leads us to our last point: appoint and empower one leader.

 Appoint and Empower One Leader

Currently, the pervasive debate within sports industry seems to be centred on the question of which skillset (performance or medical) should lead the performance program.

Traditionally performance staff have set the tone for a program, given their background in planning, prescription and delivery, along with frequent communication and contact with coaches.

More recently, some organisations have employed medical staff to head up performance programs as a result of their skill in analysis, critical thinking and clinical reasoning around risk and injury.

Rather than focusing on technical skillsets to answer the suitability question, it is often more fruitful to first think about the nature of the assignment – and what it entails within the specific environment – before looking to skillsets.

On the field, defensive players are no less qualified to lead teams than offensive players. The most qualified person to lead is simply the best leader; and leaders come in all shapes and sizes.

While technical skillsets are required, they need not be the defining factor. However, tactically the leader must possess proven ability in three major areas;

Be able to galvanise a group of interdependent professionals and create a culture of collaboration and innovation among colleagues.

  1. Be able to act as a communications bridge between support staff, and coaches or management. Filtering information both ways to manage pressure and allow people to focus on their tasks.
  2. Be able to cultivate a strong working relationship with the coach, which allows for open and honest interaction around decisions regarding management of training and athletes.

Effective leaders come in all shapes and sizes, with different personalities, skillsets and backgrounds.  However they must embody the coaches’ philosophy and be empowered to do the job.

More recently, some programs have opted for a more ‘flat structure’ wherein no one person leads or links the support staff to coaching and management groups. I believe this often proves problematic.

When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. In the absence of one accountable leader, experts will clan. Then instead of working together toward objectives and solutions groups will continue to compete.

Competing groups are more likely to present coaches with disparate and often contradicting information. Without one person distilling information and acting as the groups conjugate, more confusion and distraction may result.

Uncertainty combined with pressure creates stress, and when the coach shows signs of stress, it affects everyone.  Appointing one point of contact, whom can speak for all support staff simplifies communication for everyone and combats pressure for professionals.

Progressive Programs Perform Better

The last decade has seen rapid growth and change within the sports industry, the effects of which have created new and unforeseen challenges, many of which are still playing out.

Change in one area initiates change in other areas. Management of the off field team has become more and more important to on field success. Teams that function effectively off the field model the right behaviours for athletes and are much more likely to succeed.