The leadership team – ‘ready for anything’

Today we are going back to pick up with Nat and Danny, the two key leaders of the British Skeleton team, to explore how they feel the team are getting on and discuss what still needs to be achieved between now and next February when the Winter Olympics take place in Beijing.

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We began by talking about what they are currently focusing upon. Nat talked about the challenge of paying attention to both the short and the medium-term challenges. “There is inevitably a lot of attention on where we are in the journey to Beijing, but we can’t forget that there is another Olympic cycle straight afterwards. We need to ensure that we don’t allow the immediate challenges we face to disrupt our longer-term momentum and ambitions”. But in terms of the here and now, Nat and Danny emphasised six key areas that they feel will put the team in the best possible position to achieve success in February:

Getting into the detail – at the moment both Nat and Danny are preparing for some seriously detailed planning to set out exactly what needs to happen over the period between now and the race season beginning. “This is going to be the busiest season with the greatest number of unknowns we have ever embarked upon” said Danny, “we need a plan that everyone can get behind”. Nat is keen to stress just how confident she is that the investment in the team to date means this vital planning activity will be incredibly productive. “Everyone knows and buys into the core philosophies that guide us and the scale of success we are all aiming for. It is now time to go into real detail and ensure everyone know exactly what their role is and what is expected of them at every step along the way. There is a huge amount of honesty and mutual respect across the team, and this means we can get together and develop a bold and imaginative plan in a way where we all have a voice and the expertise of everyone is respected and heard”.

Preparing for anything – Nat is acutely aware of the need to prepare for disruptions. “The recent floods in Germany have washed away one of the key tracks we were going to compete on, so we are having to work out what that means in terms of our preparations. It’s just another example of where we need everyone to be able to step up and respond when things don’t go to plan”. Danny is also keen to ensure the team are prepared for anything. “We need to work through every possible scenario and every possible barrier that might be put in our way. We need to ensure that not only do we know how we will respond, but also the team have total confidence that we can cope with anything”.

Smart leadership based on an increasingly deep understanding of the team – Both Nat and Danny stress the extent to which they feel they now really know and understand every member of the team, their strengths and how they operate when at their best. This has led to two critical things – one is ensuring that they provide them with exactly the right level of guidance and space to do their job well, and secondly ensuring that everyone is playing to their strengths and through this performing at the peak of their potential.

Learning from the past – not only are the team about to enter the busiest season in history, it is also massively impacted by the pandemic. “We can’t allow these unknowns and uncertainties to derail us”, says Nat, “and luckily we already have one Covid-disrupted season under our belt. It is vital that we extract every ounce of learning from last season and bring it to bear in the way we prepare our athletes for Beijing”. Danny also highlights the great opportunity of having people attend the Tokyo summer Olympics to witness at first-hand how athletes are coping with the additional isolation. “To an extent we are entering uncharted territory”, he says, “but some things we have seen before and we must use these past experiences as a real asset in our preparations”.

Making the extraordinary, ordinary – Nat talks about the importance of routine in preparing athletes for the biggest day of their lives. “We have to make it feel like ‘just another race’”, she says. “That is why we establish a series of repeatable routines every time we compete. It is the familiarity with these routines that athletes can rely upon and that avoids them feeling they need to think, act or behave somehow differently because it is the Olympics”. You can tell just how much care and attention is put into protecting these routines, ensuring that nothing is allowed to create a distraction at the key moments leading up to and during the competition.

Innovation and curiosity – we talked again about how vital creativity and innovation has been in enabling British Skeleton to regularly outperform their competition and consistently exceed expectations. “We all need to be innovators and problem solvers”, says Nat, “using this as fuel as we always seek an edge and ensure we are always learning”.  “Olympic year is no different”, says Danny. “It may be that the time has passed for the big ‘shiny’ breakthrough innovations that can be made before February, but we all need to continue to be curious and continue to seek those incremental improvements that might make the key difference”.

We end up, as always, asking about what they are both most excited and worried about. Nat begins by saying how proud she is of the team and how excited she is to see how far they have come and what they are now capable of. “It is the unknowns that worry me”, she says, “We need to be confident that everyone will respond in the right way when and if things don’t go to plan”. Danny is equally as excited by the strength of the team. “There is a real togetherness across the coaching team”, he says, “and the investment we have made, and continue to make, is really paying dividends”. Danny is worried about the potential disruptions such a brutal season could have on the mentality of athletes and coaches. “We are going to have to rely upon our collective resilience and creative problem-solving credentials to see us through”.

It is now just over six months before the Games begin, and you can sense a shift in the way Nat and Danny describe their role and what they are now focusing upon. Most of all you get the feeling that they are ready. They have put together a winning team, established a winning mentality and have the team fully committed and mobilised for February, operating at the peak of their potential. But not for one moment are they taking this for granted – they describe how every week they are doing something to further strengthen the team. At one point during the conversations Danny said “we are not interested in going to the Olympics, we are interested in winning the Olympics”. That sums it up perfectly.

We are next going to talk to the athletes, and it is going to be fascinating to hear what it is like from their perspective and how they are feeling as they approach this final six months of intense preparation. I can’t wait.