High Performance Manager is clearly the “buzz” term in professional sporting teams at the moment. Recently I’ve read a number of authors who are singing their praises for their intuitive use of data and integrated management skills, while others are “lampooning” them as nothing more than self promoting “geeks” who don’t actually get their hands dirty.
So what does a High Performance Manager actually do? Who is qualified to be one? How do you get qualified?
Well I may not be able to answer all these questions to everybody’s satisfaction, but I can certainly answer them relative to my experience and in doing so offer some insight into what the future might hold for some readers.
Let’s start with the basics. High Performance Manager has become the collective noun for the individual within a professional sporting team who oversees all the staff and processes associated with the physical preparation of the team. For the most part, outside of coordinating with coaching staff, these individuals don’t have anything to do with staff outside of the physical domain. So for a start I think we are overstating the position by giving it the “catch all” moniker High Performance Manager…really it is physical performance manager. That said, certainly with the inclusion of psychologists as part of performance teams it probably should be a more overarching name…anyway its all semantics.
High Performance Management, certainly in a sporting context, has only been around for the last decade or so. The first time I ever came across the term was when I was with the Australian Rugby Union, around 2004-5 and the then head of the HPU (High Performance Unit) approached me with a view to changing my job description to install me as the High Performance Manager for the Wallabies. While somewhat misconceived at the time, this was the start (for me) of a single person becoming responsible for the overall physical preparation of the team.
While I wouldn't say my Wallabies role was truly a HP manager role as they now are, my current role with the Fremantle Football club certainly is. With a 20yr background in Strength & Conditioning and exercise/sport physiology, I administer a staff that includes two doctors, three physiotherapists, three S&C/sport science coaches, a sports dietician and assorted other technical staff.
When asked recently by a board member to describe my job I think I summed it up fairly well. I told him…
“I facilitate the environment to achieve the team objectives”.
By design, I have always viewed my role very much as if I were running a small business. As Michael E. Gerber described in his book The E Myth (a great read for to stimulate thinking outside of S&C) I basically I have two roles:
Role One is pretty straightforward...do what you are professionally trained to do. Prepare the athletes to complete the task at hand and achieve the desired outcome.
Role Two is insurmountably different and takes a fair bit more experience in order to manage. I certainly couldn't have done the role as a younger S&C coach. Basically I was far too single minded, short sighted and inexperienced to recognize and respond to the professional and personal nuances within a group that create limitations to performance.
Without a doubt working with a plethora of great medical and paramedical staff over the years has helped me develop a detailed understanding of the philosophical perspectives of professionals such as doctors and physiotherapists. I'm not saying I am qualified as either, but I am saying that as a manager I know what they can produce professionally and how they interact as part of a team to get the best results.
In that way I constantly reassess and adapt perspective on any given issue in manner similar to that described by Edward De Bono in his landmark text The Six Thinking Hats, to ensure that my team gets the best result, not necessarily the best physio, medical or S&C result specifically.
As a High Performance Manager I have a very simple objective...Predictability. It is my aim to engender a confidence from my employer and direct report (senior coach) based on the fact they know what they are going to get from my team and I. There is no guesswork, no question about the future; my aim is to provide stability in a very volatile environment by way of predictability.
Predictability is achieved based on a systems approach. Everything has its place and everything has an order. Importantly everything has a normative value! Normative values allow my team and I to know when either a normal stimulus has not be achieved or been unacceptably exceeded. Equally it allows me to determine real change. Real changes allow you to see the trends and without a doubt...the trend is your friend!
So who is qualified to be a High Performance Manager?
Obviously my view is that professionals with an S&C background are best suited to the role as they are the most qualified to determine how a program is designed and subsequently implemented. That being said, a suitably experienced doctor or physiotherapist could just as easily do a great job. As Jim Collins outlines in his classic book “Good to Great”: “sustained success is generated first by getting the right people on the bus (and getting the wrong people off the bus) and then developing the vision, strategy and structure…first who, then what”.
As an S&C coach / HP manager I feel it is incredibly important that you don’t lose the “feel” for the environment. Numbers and algorithms can’t describe human nature, and it is critical that the guy “leading the charge” has great feel for the environment. I’ve heard a number of AFL HP Managers have their names dragged through the mud because they sit in their office and play with Excel spreadsheets all day and don’t even work directly with the athletes.
My personal opinion and practice is that I must coach. I must be in a position to see what is going on with players, to be part of the programming, to visualize progressions in both performance and rehab programming, and even feel what is going on by being involved in the “hands on” treatment of players. I want to see players lift, I want to see them accelerate and decelerate, I want to see them jump and land. In this way I believe my fingers are truly “on the pulse” of the team.
By being involved at this level I then feel that once we start looking at numbers I can assimilate what I am seeing (subjective data) with what I am being told by the numbers (objective data). By blending the two together I am confident I have a more complete and holistic perspective on the playing group.
As a manager I work on a very simple model…hire people smarter than myself. From this starting point I am then happy to take counsel on issues we face as a group, and very happy to learn new things. But when push comes to shove, I make the calls when any impasse is reached. You might say I run a collaborative dictatorship. We all work together for solutions, but if it starts to move away from our strategic model then I will ensure it gets back on track.
So where does this leave us. Hopefully by sharing how I work, as a High Performance Manager from an S&C background, it will give you an idea how you might work toward, and then frame your own management of a High Performance environment.
My way is not necessarily the best way or the right way…but it is my way! When I arrived at my current job I had a very clear picture of what I wanted to achieve for the club and how I intended to do it. At this stage I am yet to be convinced of another or better way of running my department…but I continue to look!
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