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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Olympics 2012 – We’re All East German Now


And so London 2012 draws to a close – at least as far as the Olympic Games is concerned. It’s been good hasn’t it? No missiles fired from roofs and some astonishing performances in sports we’d barely heard of. Of course, it’s much easier to appreciate the sports we see only once in four years when Team GB are doing so well. From an unprecedented high in Beijing, an uplift of 50% on the medal haul and a significant number of them Gold. Personal bests were set and records broken.

One world record which fell just this last weekend was the 4 x 100m women’s relay. The USA team took almost a second off a long standing record previously held by the East Germans before the wall fell and the secrets spilled out. One reason this was applauded was the well founded suspicion that the athletes of the former DDR weren’t exactly clean. Stories of widespread doping emerged. But at the time we didn’t know that and yet there was still a sense that things were not right, that all was not fair. In those halcyon, Corinthian and determinedly amateur days we looked askance at the East German teams because their members didn’t seem to have proper jobs. They were ‘employed’ by the state or the military and it was clear to all that these were full time athletes, paid to train rather than to do a real job.
Welcome to the full time world of modern sports. You can’t compete at the levels experienced from the sofa in 2012 without putting your whole life into it. Sportsmen and women who came up a little short talked of four years wasted. Those who succeeded felt that their sacrifices and their full time commitment to competing and training had been vindicated. They thanked the coaches and trainers, many of whom were funded directly or indirectly by the government. The pledge of continued funds until Rio 2016 was joined by heated debate about whether one sport would secure the funds versus another. There was no suggestion that returning to a part-time amateur path was even considered. The simple truth is Team GB triumphed because of the investment in elite performance from the moment the games were awarded to London in 2005. In 2008, this resulted in a great medal haul. In 2012, the structure, the investment and the full time commitment of the athletes beat the previous performance out of sight.
That investment is divided into two parts, roughly. There is a sum of money for mass participation, though not a great deal of funding. Some clubs get a new pot of paint for the changing rooms and some second hand equipment. Then there is the funding for elite performers. Spotted for their potential and funded only if they are likely to make the grade, the elite performers are coached and trained relentlessly. Their specialist coaches spot every opportunity to make marginal gains in performance – a hundredth of a second here, a fraction of a centimetre there. And it’s not just about the athlete’s own performance but also about the competition. Jade Jones won the women’s 57Kg Taekwondo gold medal. Her coach trained a group of sparring partners so that they accurately replicated the fighting styles of all the top women in her weight category. This elite training is focused, structured and formal. The required disciplines are available from medical to mental, technical to technological.   All this phalanx of support is overseen, in each discipline, by a Performance Director. Seems a little similar to the system we disliked about the East German training regimes, though without the banned substances.
Think about that. What if the head of L&D in your organisation was called Performance Director? What if small proportion of the available training resources were spent on everyone in part to help identify the next crop of peak performers? What if the elite performers were in receipt of focused, structured and well-resourced training, where their performance was constantly analysed to spot those opportunities to make marginal gains? What if the training looked at the competition and focused outwards as well as inwards? What if there was competition for these training places and the Performance Director was the power behind everything which happened?
The thing is we know that those organisations which take training seriously do best. The best resourced training programmes - with the focus and structure required to really drive the performance that matters - lead to success.
Of course, we can carry on in our own version of the Corinthian spirit – doing a bit of training for everyone and hoping that most of the required performance improvement will simply be picked up as we go along. We will look at those organisations, from here and elsewhere in the world, which have more formal, structured training programmes for high potential people – and be somewhat sniffy about what they do. We’ll refer to their people as having been brainwashed or acting like automatons. 
But we won’t win. We’ll win when we have trainers and coaches who really understand what drives success. We’ll win when we have resourced our training teams properly. We’ll win when we have Performance Directors who are revered by the remainder of the board.
Until then, join me on the sofa for the Paralympics. 
Robin’s book Complete Training: from recruitment to retirement is published by Kogan Page in 2013

One Response

  1. We are all East Germans now

     With a background of working with elite performers in sport I have been part of the changes that have been made. Money helps but the changes that have been made are due to committed people making it happen. Inspiring coaches and administrators who have invested in their own development and understanding and learnt from other sports and other countries about what success is and what drives it

    We will win when we get off our backsides and decide to do something about it! We are the trainers and coaches of the future so if we truely believe in what you are saying we have to make it happen even if it is in our own small area it will be a step in the right direction.

    So watch the paralympics and be inspired 


Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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