Beijing, China
Friday 9th December 2016

Shortly after the 2012 Olympic Games in London had drawn to a close, I flew out to Vancouver to attend the 2012 International Scientific Tendinopathy Symposium, which was hosted at the University of British Columbia (UBC).  Whilst I was there, I met with Dr. Jack Taunton, then professor in sport and exercise medicine at the university, as well as co-founder of their sports medicine centre, and Dr. Alex Scott, a lecturer in physiotherapy and organiser of the event.  

By this time, I had already decided that I wanted to leave UK Athletics over the coming months, as many of the colleagues I held in high esteem were also planning their departures, and as such I was looking for a new challenge that might light me up.  During co-authoring the tendinopathy consensus statement paper with Alex, he offered me the opportunity to undertake a PhD under his supervision, looking at the clinical management of tendinopathy in professional sports environments.  It was an invitation I considered very carefully and the opportunity to return to Vancouver was extremely tempting but in the end, the offer to move to Asia and work in football again seemed more timely.

When I sat down with Alex for a catch up over breakfast during the summer, the topic again came to the fore, and whilst a clinical PhD didn’t fit with my career objectives, the chance to explore studying an area more aligned with my recent career path was extremely appealing.  After a challenging year of personal and professional highs and lows, I had revisited my personal goals and was looking to make some fundamental changes in several aspects of my life and such a shift was consistent with what I was looking to achieve.  

A couple of weeks later, Jack (now Professor Emeritus) and I shared an energising lunch meeting, discussing the ideas that were floating around my head and what his hopes for UBC were.  Jack inspired me to take the leap and with his support, I applied for a PhD in experimental medicine, to be supervised by Dr. Darren Warburton.  I am delighted to say, that a couple of weeks ago, I was accepted to the programme and my visa application to move to Canada once again, was approved.  As such, as 2016 draws to a close, I will fly west to start the next chapter of my incredible life's adventure.

During the time studying my Masters in Sporting Directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University, my passion for the strategic analysis of operational aspects of high performing sports organisations and for the management of change and innovation had been ignited.  Coupled with the frustrations experienced in recent professional roles, where change processes I had been tasked with driving had been hijacked by politically manipulative characters, motivated by ego and self-preservation ahead of the betterment of the organisation they were employed by, I decided this area was one I wanted to explore in more detail.

Whilst conducting a review of the change management process undertaken by GreaterSport, a sports charity based in Greater Manchester, I observed a process that was conducted in a very thorough and researched manner, supported by each member of the executive board.  This was simply not reflective of several of my frontline experiences in the sporting organisations with whom I had worked in Asia, mainland Europe or North America. 

From a practical aspect, the lack of process-orientated research and considered management of change in many professional sports organisations in North America is disconcerting.  However, this shortcoming also presents an opportunity, to develop my personal learning in this area and return to consulting for teams, armed with a detailed understanding of best practice and how to implement it.

This approach is particularly timely, given that in recent years, there has been a movement by North American professional sporting organisations to adopt high performance sports science and medical departments, akin to those employed over the last 25 years by teams in Europe and Australasia.  These departments are being introduced and tasked with reducing injury, optimising rehabilitation and return to play, as well as improving the understanding and management of physical, physiological and psychological performance, to enhance training and competition outcomes.

Elite leagues in sports throughout Europe and Australasia have closely investigated risk factors for injury (Hullin et al, 2014; Colby et al, 2014; Rogalski et al, 2013; Gabbett et al, 2012; Gabbett and Ullah, 2012; Killen et al, 2010; Bowen et al, 2016) and further calculated the cost of injury, under-performance and financial consequences of insufficient preparation for return to play following injury (Hickey et al, 2014; Miller, 2015; Poucher, 2015; Holloway and Cooke, 2016; Schmook, 2016).  However, these areas of understanding have not been extensively investigated by any of the big four sports in North America.  

As a result there is little knowledge or consensus as to:

  1. Strategies that could be adopted to reduce risk of specific types of injury;
  2. How resources should be allocated to sports performance departments to optimise spend; 
  3. Which skill sets are required by the professionals populating the sports science and medical services performance departments; 
  4. What the roles/responsibilities of the professionals employed by these departments are; 
  5. Which attributes must be displayed by the people leading these departments. 

Subsequently, there is a lack of information guiding change in this area of performance in professional sporting organisations in North America.  Whilst in other areas of business, where established models of change are well documented and researched, in high performing sports organisations, there are no documented or established models of change.

In my own personal experience and according to my discussions with numerous other European or Australasian performance directors operating in either the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB or MLS, change programmes implemented in elite American sports franchises have often been frustrated due to flaws in areas deemed critical to success by research conducted in other industries, such as: 

  • Poor communication from leadership (Kotter, 1995; Kotter, 1996; Armenakis et al, 1993; Ginsberg and Venkatraman, 1995; Jansen, 2004); 
  • Lack of understanding of the need for change by established employees (Armenakis et al, 1999; Gist et al, 1989; Lewin, 1946; Coch and French, 1948; Bandura, 1986; Pettigrew, 1987; Nadler and Tushman, 1989); 
  • Lack of readiness for change within the organisation, or professions servicing the organisation (Armenakis et al, 1999); 
  • Political resistance in the sports or professions serving within those sports (Paper et al, 2001); 
  • Timing, sequencing or pacing of change by the leaders (Buchanan et al, 2005); 
  • Lack of positive attitudes to change by politically influential members of the organisation (Kobi, 1996; Paper et al, 2001;  Hambrick et al, 1993).

The review of the GreaterSport approach to change management highlighted that these areas were carefully addressed throughout their process and subsequently, the change has been implemented, to date, without such resistance.  However, there are several critical differences in the characteristics of the GreaterSport organisation, in comparison to the major league franchises in the USA, which might have contributed to the variation in outcome.  These include:

Organisational Size and Structure - GreaterSport is a small organisation, with 25 employees, as opposed to the large, multi-layered organisations that elite US sports franchises have become.  As such the complexities of communication, political manoeuvring and building momentum for change are much more challenging in the larger businesses.

Business Nature - GreaterSport is a charity and as such has different aims and objectives than professional sports teams who are competing with each other in a “winner-takes-all” environment.  As such, the organisations in the USA are more ruthless, more reactive, less patient and are populated with dominant, egotistical characters, rather than the self-aware personalities I observed at GreaterSport.

Tradition - GreaterSport is a fledgling organisation, founded in 1996.  In contrast, the franchises that compete in the major leagues in the USA, with the exception of the MLS, are long established, traditional and inherently resistant to change.  As such, mobilising staff around a change process is a more manageable task in a company with more modern DNA, such as GreaterSport.

Diversity - GreaterSport has a healthy diversity of employee demographics, whereas North American sports franchises are dominated, especially in the positions of power, by white males.  Even the NFL’s introduction of the Rooney Rule, whereby recruitment for head coaching and general management roles must consider at least one candidate of minority racial background, has been charged with being toothless, as teams have often adhered to the process, without serious consideration of hiring the minority staff interviewed under the ruling (Reid, 2016). 

Financial Value - GreaterSport is run on a tight budget, relying on acquiring government funding to operate, whereas the North American sporting powerhouses are some of the most valuable sporting franchises in the world, bankrolled by multibillionaires and supported by television revenue, corporate sponsorship and partnership deals, local government authorities and extensive fan bases.  As such, the cost of error and failure have a greater impact at GreaterSport, whereas the professional sports institutions across North America think nothing of paying key staff millions of dollars to honour their contracts, as they show them the exit door and change strategic direction.

Ownership Model - GreaterSport is a charity, with strategic decisions overseen by an executive board, whereas the large sporting franchises in North America are exclusively privately owned entities.  As such, the experience of private owners to manage professional sports franchises is varied, the involvement in the daily running of the operation is inconsistent and the understanding of integral components of the operation is often limited.  

Following conversations with several performance directors appointed to lead these change programmes in North America, many of the problems appear to be exacerbated by a lack of understanding on the part of leadership, management and/or coaching staff as to:

  1. What a Performance Director’s role should entail;
  2. Who the Performance Director should report to;
  3. Who should report to the Performance Director;
  4. What aspects of “performance” the Performance Director should be responsible for.

Virtually every Performance Director I have spoken to has a different role and consequently different responsibilities, backgrounds, experiences, skill sets, direct reports, management and challenges of resistance, which predominantly stem from the perception of roles and responsibilities by athletic trainers and orthopaedic surgeons acting as chief medical officers or lead team doctors.

Although GreaterSport is not a privately owned entity, the Chairman has taken a close interest and active involvement in supporting the leadership group, in order to ensure understanding of the need for change throughout each level of the organisation.  In addition, by involving all employees in the decision making process, each person understands the role they play in the process and the responsibilities they must assume for the change to be successful.  Subsequently, employee engagement has been maximised, which minimises resistance at each step.  

These contrasting outcomes reflect the literature regarding change management in other industries, where problems in implementing models of change are rarely due to strategy, structure, culture or systems but about changing behaviour of people (Kotter, 2002).

As such, it is my intention to further explore change management in professional sporting organisations in North America, primarily in relation to performance science and medical services departments, but expanding to other aspects of performance, as I move forward with my formal education at UBC and further develop my experiential learning.  


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