How COVID is changing the rules (and roles) of leaders in the business of high-performance sport

08 Jul 2020

How COVID is changing the rules (and roles) of leaders in the business of high-performance sport

In times of crisis, leadership is more important than ever. No surprise there. But it’s not leadership as usual anymore.

Looking a little deeper, the way individuals have reacted in this crisis has provided an opportunity for sporting organisations to identify future leaders and change aspects of talent management and development. And that’s not only in the player/athlete population, but also amongst high-performance practitioners and business executives.

Rethink learning and development

If remote working remains more commonplace than it was pre-COVID, there’s another challenge. How do leaders best develop their people in a more virtual environment? Especially the all-important new talent?

Structured learning and development is one thing, but for younger people in their early careers, traditionally a lot is learnt by ‘corporate osmosis’. That’s the development a person gets by being exposed to experienced colleagues and great leaders who can provide regular feedback.

In the absence of regular physical interactions, businesses and their leaders will need to find new ways of creating suitable learning and interactive environments that ambitious employees desire. Or face losing them to a more attuned competitor.

Not all learning needs to be formal

To be a top athlete, you have to be responsible for your own performance and take action. It is interesting to hear about some of England’s rugby stars and club players taking it upon themselves to have virtual mentoring sessions with up-and-coming Academy players, using this time to pass on their knowledge and experience to the next generation. An important player-led initiative that says a lot about their ‘corporate’ culture.

New challenges at the top

From a high-performance point of view, we expect to see more performance leadership roles at the top level, in response to a number of changes.

Even before this crisis, the demands on the high-performance area of sports organisations were increasing exponentially.

  • The frequency and intensity of games and competition is greater than ever
  • There is more complexity in stakeholder management
  • The focus on athlete well-being and mental health has sharpened
  • The amount of data analysis has multiplied
  • Balancing an inclusive and healthy culture with a winning one is a priority

Emerging roles

Post-COVID, the increased health regulations, compliance and communication required is likely to lead to more sports adopting versions of the ‘Performance Director’ role, similar to the one we see in Olympic Sport.

This is a leadership position, removed from day-to-day delivery, but with a focus on building an environment which delivers long-term, sustainable success in line with the cultural objectives.

It may be that we finally see the emergence of an Assistant Sporting Director role or Assistant GM which focusses on these areas, but without direct accountability for talent ID/Scouting and recruitment.

Manchester City Football Club is just one example of an early mover in this area, with the appointment of Simon Timson, the former Performance Director for UK Sport and more recently the LTA.

Real role evolutions

We expect to see similar role innovations and evolution on the business side of sport and other industries. 

A new leadership model is emerging which will be required to steer through these stormy waters and take advantage of the upturn.

Employees have become accustomed to more autonomy, empowerment and flexibility which means that very top-down and rigid management cultures will be struggling, especially in attracting the best talent.  

Leaders are having to adapt their style and approach and new leaders are emerging who bring different experience, communication skills and approaches to building high performing teams. It is, as they say, a whole new ball game for leaders.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how the sports industry is facing up to the challenges of COVID and beyond, and what it means for leadership and talent, please get in touch.