The Importance of Strategic Leadership within Physical Performance Support

For a physical performance department to gain a competitive advantage in elite sport, where the objectives of optimising physical output while minimising time loss to injury are common, effective leadership can be the differentiating factor!

Performance practitioners who possess leadership skills that harness the capabilities of the department to achieve world leading support processes may separate the exceptional from the good and average performance programmes.

This increasing need for strategic leaders within physical performance is highlighted by the growth of physical performance support services; department heads must not only have a broad technical knowledge base but also enable practitioners with a diverse skillset to implement the desired processes at the appropriate time. 

While the importance of leadership capabilities has been broached for technical coaches via structured courses like the Premier League’s ECAS, there is a scarcity of such training and qualification for physical performance practitioners. This is an issue, because ultimately a department will not rise to the level of its objectives if it does not have the strategy and capability to implement it. 

Representative bodies such as BASES, UKSCA and CSP have typically focused on the development of technical knowledge. Yet furthering the development of effective leaders in physical performance would ensure they have the necessary soft and tangible skills to effectively deploy this knowledge in a way that improves performance.

To address this area of my own development, and to contribute to the advancement of Sheffield United’s Academy, I looked beyond sport to find out more about the fundamental skills required to successfully lead and manage people within a high-performance setting. This has led me to undertake a MSc Apprenticeship in Strategic Leadership at Loughborough University. 

I found there was a wealth of information to be gained from high-performing business. Although the environmental context may differ between industries, the fundamental skills and strategies required to successfully lead and manage people are the same. 

Transferring this knowledge to professional football can enable the development of a leadership framework that incorporate aspects of strategy that may not typically be considered within a sporting environment. The key elements of which are as follows:

  1. Building the Foundations for successful support


Strong inter-personal skills are crucial. Research indicates that team members respond positively to leaders who are considerate and collaborative, yet also possess the capability to flex their leadership style to be more directive and even detached when the situation requires. The effectiveness of a leader who is continuously autocratic and confrontational will be limited to specific scenarios.

Key to developing productive relationships is awareness. Both the leader and team members will benefit from a strong knowledge of themselves, others, and the wider organisation. Awareness of oneself and others can be gained in several ways. Personality profiling provides valuable insights into an individual’s natural behavioural tendencies and sharing such information with the group helps others understand why their team member behaves in certain ways during certain situations. Undertaking surveys such as 360 reviews also provides a useful means for an individual to understand how their behaviours are perceived by fellow team members, enabling that individual to modify their contextual behaviours where appropriate to help department performance. Crucially, knowing what engages and motivates practitioners (or alternatively switches them off) with differing skills sets, backgrounds and experiences is vital if a department is to work cohesively to provide effective MDT support. 

Return to play following injury is a great example of where enhanced awareness can have a positive impact on the outcome of the process. There is the need to keep the athlete safe yet prepare them for elite sport, something that requires input from several practitioners such as physiotherapists, sport scientists and technical coaches. The effectiveness of this return to play scenario can be maximised by the soft and tangible leadership skills centred around relationships in the following way:

  1. Ensure all practitioners feel respected and that their input is of value, they have a “locus of control”, ensuring each aspect of specialist knowledge is considered to form the support process. There is an environment of safety, where practitioners can challenge each other, and the shared awareness of themselves, each other and the values of the organisation helps such conversations to be honest, productive and engaging; rather than fearful and self-protecting.
  2. A standardised procedure (a return to play pathway) is followed that has been created by all individuals involved in the process. Providing clarity and direction while fostering practitioner buy in, removing any grey areas by providing an agreed MDT strategy.

 Vision and Objectives

To successfully create awareness, an over-arching vision must be created so that practitioners feel they have a shared purpose. Such identify aligns the efforts of team members with varying roles and responsibilities to achieve one common goal.

The creation of a shared vision also lays the foundation for the creation of department objectives. It can be useful to deploy both performance objectives (goal setting) and process objectives (goal orientation). 

Performance objectives ensure practitioner efforts remain aligned to the organisations vision and provide a way of measuring department performance. Examples of such performance objectives maybe the achievement of position-specific match outputs, strength capabilities relative to bodyweight and availability percentage for training and games. 

In contrast, process objectives focus on the actual quality of the support provided; how, what and when is the process delivered to ensure the performance objectives are achieved. An applied example of a physical performance process objective would be to ensure force velocity profiling is used for all key lifts during strength sessions, creating player engagement (immediate feedback on performance) to maximise every rep performed. Goal orientation objectives also have the benefit of creating high levels of practitioner motivation. In the changeable world of elite sport, where winning and losing can be determined by factors outside of a practitioner’s control (e.g. fixture schedule, team selection, investment), focusing in on the physical performance processes (mastery of the controllables in your area) maintains a sense of direction and purpose.! As mentioned earlier, it is the quality of the processes, not the goals that will define a department’s success.

  • Formulating the Strategy to achieve the Vision and Objectives.

For a department’s performance objectives to be achieved and process objectives to be optimised there must be an effective strategy. A common starting point is to identify the internal resources of the department / organisation, this will allow any strategy created to remain realistic while ensuring focus is given to achievable actions. Key resources to consider are:

  • Staff – How many in each discipline? What is their knowledge, experience and skills base?
  • Facilities – what is the infra-structure such as performance space, playing surfaces and conditioning / assessment equipment.
  • Procedural and behavioural – What processes and behaviours (culture) are currently in place that will help or hinder a performance strategy.
  • Financial – What investment is available to advance the strategic support services.
  • Collaborative – Do any collaborations exist or potential to be formed that can support the strategy.

An important element of resource to consider is if it is unique to you. The harder it is for a resource to be imitated by others, the greater the potential for it to provide a competitive advantage within the strategy. Such knowledge can be crucial in directing efforts and strategic thinking. 

Once the internal resources are known and areas of focus identified, a performance model can be created. Utilising GAP analysis a department leader can begin to inform their strategy:

  • Determine the physical requirements of elite performance within the sport e.g. benchmarks for running speed capability and capacity: “what does elite performance look like”?
  • Identify what world class multi-disciplinary support services exist (within and outside of the sport) or can be innovated (unique resources for a competitive advantage) to achieve the identified physical requirements of the performance model.
  • Assess the GAP between where the department needs to be (enabling a world class performance model) and where it is (the support services it currently provides). This can then form the basis from which to create strategic plans to close the GAP!

By analysing the internal and external environments the intention is to create a world class support programme authentic to the strengths of the department. A pragmatic approach maybe to firstly devise a strategy that follows a timeline that firstly plans to utilise department resource to achieve the “brilliant basics” of the performance model, before then driving innovations that allow a department to become field leaders.

  • Deployment of Strategy

Successful deployment of strategy can often be the hardest aspect for a leader to achieve. It requires consideration of what is realistic yet gives the best chance for a successful outcome.

It is a fact that elite football players are high value, niche products. To optimise the development of such specialist performers requires specific consideration of how the world class processes identified from the GAP analysis are delivered. How can the tangible and intangible resources of the department be managed to best meet the needs of such exceptional individuals? 

Support processes employed within high-performing business that develop low volume, but high value products tend to employ a project management approach, where specialists have specific responsibility for a certain aspect of the support programme. From a physical performance context, this approach would mean that an athlete has specialist staff providing support for each element of their performance. This approach can also be an efficient method of working, as multiple specialists can work simultaneously on the various elements of performance support, compared to a more generalists’ model where a practitioner is responsible for all the elements of performance and so can only work on one at time.  

Such an approach is established within athletics and team sports such as American Football and Rugby. Importantly, it is also becoming more evident within football, evidenced by the recruitment for positions such as data scientists, rehabilitation S+C specialists and player wellbeing officers to name but a few. Yet, it is still common for many clubs to use generalist practitioners to deliver a multitude of support processes. An approach that is often dictated by the available financial resource, yet one that does not allow for the optimisation of player development. If football is to really advance physical performance support the project management approach is one to take seriously. 

Perhaps clubs with a smaller resource can strike a balance between specialist and generalist support to provide some degree of enhanced player development.  In such circumstances, specialist support could be provided via the use of consultants or collaborations with academic institutions, reducing the financial outlay yet providing a greater depth of support in areas identified as important for performance within the strategic plan. However, it should also be noted, departments that comprise too many practitioners who have one specialism can become inflexible to change, The current COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example where departments have had to flex their capacity to meet high external pressure. The rise of the specialist-generalist practitioner may be an appropriate solution. 

About the Author
Academy Head of Elite Performance at Sheffield United

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