Top tips from Britain's elite sports leaders

The secrets behind the success of those leading and managing Britain’s elite athletes have been revealed in research by sport and performance psychologists at Loughborough University.

As the athletes take centre stage at the London 2012 Games, it is all too easy to forget about those who have guided them in their pursuit of medals and who have overseen the support for their preparations.

Chartered Psychologist Dr David Fletcher, with colleagues Rachel Arnold, and Lindsay Molyneux from the University’s School of Sport, Exercise, and Health Sciences have interviewed 13 National Performance Directors (NPD) of Olympic sports. The team wanted to uncover what attributes make a good sporting leader and what their top tips to success are.

The interviewees had worked in elite sport for between four and 35 years and as NPDs for between five months and 13 years. Collectively, those in the sample had accumulated 24 medals at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games and accounted for £138 million of public investment.

The research identified four key dimensions of performance leadership and management in elite sport:

  • Development of a vision –  This involves eveloping a vision and identifying any factors influencing the vision – for example political agendas, recent performances, expectations – and sharing the vision.
  • Management of operations –  This involves financial management, strategic competition and training planning, athlete selection for competition, and upholding rules and regulations.
  • Leadership of people – This involves staff management, lines of communication, and feedback mechanisms.
  • Creation of a culture – Involves establishing role awareness and organisational and team atmosphere.

In a study published this week in a special Olympic edition of the European Sport Management Quarterly, the authors also revealed recommendations, advice, and suggestions from the NPDs for other leaders and managers and the organisations supporting them.

Rachel Arnold explains: “For leaders and managers, the NPDs advised them to establish an approach, understand roles within the team, develop contextual awareness, enhance personal skills, and strengthen relationships. NPDs advised organisations supporting them to employ the most appropriate individual, create the optimal environment, implement systems and structures, develop an inclusive environment, and provide appropriate support.”

Dr Fletcher adds: “Most people would naturally assume that a sport psychologist spends his or her time working with athletes to help them mentally prepare for competition. Although this is of course true, psychologists are also increasingly working with the leaders and managers of international sport teams to help them create and sustain a high performance environment surrounding the athletes.

“The findings of this study help to inform practice in this emerging and exciting area of sport psychology.”

The NPDs interviewed in the study are currently overseeing the final preparations and performance of athletes in the Olympic Park.