With 6 days to go to until we kick off the 2014 FIFA Soccer World Cup I found myself wondering about the past few months of preparation for the teams and athletes taking part. With players having been dispersed all around the world involved with their various clubs, I started to question the environment that these players would enter into as they begin preparing for their respective World Cup games. The idea of players coming from different setups, different ways of operating and being exposed to different coaching structures and methods and then having to ‘gel’ together as a competitive unit for the World Cup is fascinating. Having worked with many teams and athletic groups I have come to understand how crucial and beneficial it is for coaching and management staff (as well as support staff) to be conscious about the role they play in creating a suitable environment for their players. To clarify, I am not referring specifically to a physical environment but rather a psychological environment. Experience has helped me realise that by creating the right psychological environment for athletes we will inevitably increase the opportunities these athletes have in obtaining an enhanced performance potential. It is safe to say that by the time the international athletes come together as a training squad and begin preparing for the World Cup, it is more a matter of finalising who is playing where and what the specific game plan and plays are going to look like as opposed to grooming or developing better players physically or technically. The environment we are therefore talking about here has a very specific aim, that being the efficient extraction of the highest possible performance from the athletes.

There are however multiple methods by which this can be done and it is exactly this diversity that formed the premise of this small article. What do the psychological environments look like within the different countries? How do the different cultures mould the nature of these environments? How do the different coaching styles affect the different environments that are created? How do the different players respond to the same environment? I think this is what is so fascinating about the nature of the work we get involved in.

Custom Built Trumps Blueprint

It is rare to come across a generic blueprint on how to develop, perform and maintain something that is suitable and effective for all contexts. It depends highly on the people involved, the guiding culture and the agenda of those calling the shots or the “powers that be”. As a professional it is naïve to believe that previously developed blueprints or generic plans will have as much effect on players as opposed to something that is custom created to suit the players and coaching staff being directly dealt with. This is why sport psychologists and performance experts should never be seen as a periphery service to be added last minute or only around competition time. This in itself is a major problem in our industry, the stereotype of having sport psychologists or performance professionals involved only when there is a problem or being seen as a “quick fix” to performance concerns. The sooner sporting organisations take the steps to engrain sport psychologists at grass root levels and allow them to stand beside the coaching and management staff when developing the plans going forward the sooner we will see an improvement in the quality of sporting setups.

Learning From The Best: The Environment Of The All Blacks

Switching focus from soccer to rugby for a second, we can get great insight into this idea of creating psychological environments by reviewing a journal article titled A Case Study of Excellence in Elite Sport: Motivational Climate in a World Champion Team written by Ken Hodge, Graham Henry and Wayne Smith in the journal The Sport Psychologist. This particular article touches on specific detail pertaining to the development of a particular psychological climate and culture that the New Zealand All Blacks adopted between 2004 and winning the World Cup in 2011. This is not the avenue for a full review on this article but for the purpose of the topic in question the following points help in underlining the importance of professional environment creation for athletes. Various situational experiences and critical turning points motivated the need for creating a better environment for the All Black players. The coaching staff, management staff and the players themselves, by means of creating various structures within their setup, managed to develop a specific culture that in turn helped players create certain components deemed to be vital for delivering high performances. Two of the major components of this environment creation were an autonomy supportive motivational climate and the development of transformational leadership. Some of the complimentary components that were developed can be viewed in the diagram below.  Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 11.07.34

The Process Of Evolution And Customisation

As already mentioned, I believe that we should always avoid promoting blueprint models previously used, however we can promote particular guiding principles that coaches and management staff can use as a skeleton structure to developing their own competitive environment and performance culture. Coaching and management staff can utilise these points as a founding platform and after considering their own cultures, ideas and opinions can then flesh it out specifically based on their needs and develop their own tailor-made action plan and psychological environment.

Tools For The Environment Architect

Below are some ideas that I feel are worth investigating as a sporting unit. If created correctly these components can have a profound effect on athletic performance and the created environment can provide great opportunity for the longevity of success and high performances. I must mention at this point that these ideas were generated by means of multiple research efforts combined with our own experience and are therefore methods that we have had success with in the past when applying it to the clients we work with. They may not be suitable for all contexts. Below are the ideas that we find useful.

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Know Your Players

From our experience with athletes we have established that the better understanding you have of your players and the more established your relationship with them the better the chances are of them responding positively to your setup. Happy players tend to be better aligned for delivering a higher performance. Coaches, managing staff as well as support staff must make an effort to get to know their players both personally and professionally. The familiarity and comfort that is created by establishing these relationships develops a healthy sense of trust and transparency that is crucial for extracting high performances out of players. There are multiple ways by which coaches can get to know their players personally and professionally. Some methods include: regular informal and formal one-on-one sessions, informal and formal contextual mapping sessions (contextual mapping would consist of asking various questions informally and formally regarding the athlete’s general life, athletic performances and / or training routines. It may touch on things like family life, interests and hobbies, performance anxiety concerns as well as perceived strengths and weaknesses) and group meeting sessions (with potential leadership groups or certain player units for example). The methods of getting to know your players both personally and professionally will differ depending on your particular context and the player base that you are working with. Regardless of this, begin developing suitable and applicable structures for you to tick this box.

Build A Shared Vision

All teams need a vision, a purpose and a clear map as to how they are going to achieve these elements along with a clear understanding about how each individual team member (and staff) fits in with this overall picture. Without these components team success will only be determined by how far the natural talent alone will take them. Spend time developing a sense of what the team’s ultimate dreams and visions are. What do these look like and what do these feel like? How can you best describe these moments? Discuss what makes successful teams a ‘winning team’. What are the components of this ‘winning team’? How can we rank ourselves within these components? This helps create a useful comparison between the teams ‘ideal self’ and their ‘current self’. Continuing from here, establish an elaborate goal map going forward, one that includes ‘time based ultimate goals’, a series of ‘medium term milestones’ and an array of ‘everyday activators’. Map this out as thoroughly as possible. Once a clear picture is portrayed establish with your team the essential ‘non-negotiables’ surrounding this goal map. These elements will be an outline of the non-negotiable components such as communication channels, communication nature, time management, behaviour and attitude around practice and competition etc. Ensure that all players are on the same page with regard to this procedure and each one of them understand his / her role and responsibility within the overall picture. You may have your own ideas about effective goal setting in which case utilise these methods but ensure that a vision, a purpose and a direction are clearly mapped out at the end.

Transformational Leadership

The next two components concern that of further accentuating the already created culture by developing transformational leadership and involving a player led mentality into this environment. By ticking the first two environmental components you will have already established some sense of a positive culture. To add to this it is important that coaches develop responsibility, accountability and leadership in their players. Coaches must be encouraged to get players involved in a number of selected decision making processes and empower certain players to take control in a variety of situations. Provide opportunities and platforms for players to lead the group and for the team to slowly develop a sense of responsibility and accountability for their actions, behaviours and performances. As with the abovementioned ideas, methods of achieving this are numerous so choose the methods that you feel are most influential.

Process Orientation And Intrinsic Motivation

The next component presented is the idea of creating the best motivational climate for your setup. People who are involved in something for the wrong reasons will crumble when times get a little challenging, they often fail to occupy that inner purpose or climate that will keep them going strong in the face of adversity. Hopefully, by this stage of environment creation, all parties involved will have bought into the previous steps and will therefore be sharing similar visions and purposes and are therefore involved for the right reasons. The process should naturally wean out those with alternative agendas. Your players will always arrive with their own sense of what motivates them. As coaches it is our job to create an atmosphere whereby we can improve the longevity of this motivation and provide a platform that will encourage and motivate athletes when things are a little tough. This is a challenging concept as we are rarely motivated by other people’s reasons for doing something. Coaches must be encouraged to develop a ‘task / process orientated motivational climate’ as opposed to an ‘ego / outcome orientated motivational climate’. The later comprises an environment motivated by rewards, results, status and money where the focus is solely on the outcome and athletes derive self-worth based purely on results. The former is an environment motivated by enjoyment and passion where the focus is on the smaller steps to success and value is placed on growth, development and positive progress. The former system provides a more suitable method of dealing with setbacks as these experiences are seen as an opportunity to learn, adapt and further develop. Coaches must open up opportunities to create a task / process orientated motivational climate where progress, strengths, growth and learning are praised and encouraged. Despite being ideal, this does take time and will require a potential mind shift within a variety of players and coaching staff.

The Right People

The right group of people can often be a determining factor between success and failure. These environments prove very difficult to create if you do not have the right people working alongside you sharing the same vision and passion for what is being created. A cohesive unit who are chasing the same dream and walking the same journey at a similar pace is vital for creating the most professional psychological environment for athletes. Therefore, if you are lucky enough to have a say in who your support staff should be, choose wisely and ensure that each person involved has a significant skill set that will inevitably add immense value to your overall setup. Having the right people doesn’t only extend toward the coaching, management and support staff, it extends further into the player base as well. As harsh as it may sound, sometimes the art of selecting players based on behaviour and attitude (as the All Blacks have done) will reap longer lasting positives results than purely selecting based on talent and skill. I personally have been involved in a team where one player’s credentials far outweighed any other players’ in the team. He was arguably the most talented player on the field, but due to his poor attitude and individual-natured behaviour his talents were lost and he ended up bringing the whole team down! Needless to say, the system naturally weaned him out and a more positive atmosphere was re-established.

Growth And Innovation

Finally, the need (not desire) to continuously improve your knowledge (and impart that knowledge) as a coaching staff is vital for the success of this environment. We live in an information age where we need to adopt an ‘information obsessed mentality’. What we do to allow us to succeed today may not be enough to succeed tomorrow. The lessons we learn from success, ours and others, becomes part of best-practice industry wide, and the onus in on us to develop our skills and keep improving, or get left behind. Coaches and management staff need to adopt an organic approach where they embrace innovation, capitalise on change, evolve as a body and continuously seek to apply their newly acquired knowledge. Sport in many ways can be compared to any business with a product. Daily operations must be targeted at getting the best out of that product and ensuring that you set yourself aside from any competitors. Athletes require new, innovative, ground breaking information about how to improve as a performer so as to stay ahead of the continuously changing demands of modern day sport.

Take Action

The abovementioned ideas are merely the start to creating the most conducive environment for eliciting high performing athletes. I would like to encourage coaches and their management / support staff to consider these as a bare minimum start to creating your own environments. Use these ideas, adapt them, mould them to suit your context and add your own spin on creating a competitive and comfortable environment for your athletes. At the end of the day the more professional your athletes feel the better are the chances of delivering competitive performances. If anything at all, at least we are likely to be involved in the process that will inevitably create a slightly better person.