The athletes – ‘flourishing in a high performance environment’

This is the fourth article where we follow the British Skeleton team as they prepare for the next Winter Olympics. Today we are speaking to Matt Weston and Brogan Crowley, two of the British Skeleton athletes hoping to be selected for the team to compete at the Beijing Olympics next February.

We begin by talking about the key things that they feel will make the biggest difference in ensuring they arrive in Beijing ready to perform:

.

The power of one team

The first thing that stands out in abundance is both Matt and Brogan are highly complimentary about the way the wider British Skeleton team has developed over the last two years, and the impact this is having on their ability to perform.

“It used to feel like there were a number of ‘mini-teams’ focusing on different performance elements, for example the coaching team and the research and development team”, says Matt, “but now there is a strong feeling of us all being part of one single team, collaborating really well and fully behind a common purpose”. “I agree”, says Brogan. “When a number of new people joined the team, all strong characters with their own views, it took a while to get that feeling of us being one single unit, but that has now improved significantly”. They both emphasise how easy it is for athletes to engage positively and productively with the rest of the team, confident that they have a voice, and it is heard and fully respected.

They also talk about how key decisions are made with really high levels of engagement and discussion. We ask if there is a risk that this can make the team less decisive: “Of course there is the possibility for confusion with so many voices being heard”, said Matt, “but this is more than compensated for by the huge level of confidence we now have that the right decisions are being made with the right evidence and the right views and experience being taken into account”.

Brogan Crowley small

Honesty and openness

Again, Matt and Brogan are very positive about how things have developed over recent years: “It used to be a bit like the one with the loudest voice had the greatest impact”, said Brogan, “but now that has changed. Everyone that has a view, has a voice, and that is making a huge difference. Of course, there is a hierarchy in terms of Nat (Performance Director) being in charge and everyone being fully accountable for their roles, but this never gets in the way of us all being able to question things, explore options and bring our own perspectives”.

Matt talks about the style of leadership that is positive and constructive at all times. “There was an occasion when I was competing in a race and whilst well positioned I took the wrong line and came off the sled. Afterwards during the de-brief it was incredibly positive and constructive, focusing on lessons learnt and what could be done differently going forward. That could have been a situation that really set me back, however in the end I learned much from it and am now a much stronger slider, mainly because of the way it was dealt with by the team”.

Creativity

Brogan talks about what it feels like to be part of a team that is highly creative: “Everything changes every year. Nobody ever settles for how things are and everyone across the team is always looking for something new to give us an edge”. Matt agrees: “Trust is very important in an environment where we are always moving forward and trying new things. It is also important that we are all highly adaptable and that we respond positively to the opportunity to try something new”. “Everyone has the same desire to push the boundaries”, says Brogan, “from Nat right through to coaches, athletes, support staff and the R&D team”.

There are however inevitably bumps along the way when you are within a team that is so habitually creative. Matt again emphasises why honesty and openness are so very important. “There are times when I am trying to take on board something new and it is not working, and I just feel the need to go back to basics and re-set myself. I know that if I talk this through with my coaches this will not be a problem. It is great to be able to have this culture across the team.”

A trusted plan focusing on the things that really matter

Until recently Matt and Brogan did not realise just how much time and effort went into the development of detailed plans setting out everything that needs to happen to maximise the chances of success. It is a sign of how inclusive the team has now become that they not only know about the plans and their importance, but they also feel like they have had the chance to appropriately influence them. Brogan is keen to emphasise the importance she now plays on these: “We now all feel that we have a plan in place that ensures we will do all of the right things in the right way leading up to Beijing”, she says “and we have confidence that if and when things don’t go to plan, then the team have a response already thought through”. It is also clear from these conversations the extent to which space for innovation and flexibility has been hard baked into the plans, and how important that is.

Matt raises an example of how the planning works: “There was a time when the team were introducing new technology. The plan covered everything, including just how long it would take for us to adjust. Initially we really struggled to adapt and evidence its worth and many of us wanted to go back to what we were comfortable with. But the conviction of our coaching group and the trust they demonstrated that eventually the new technology would pay dividends, enabled us to persevere. That just showed us the importance of having a plan and sticking to it because the technology did indeed pay off and made a real difference”.

Keeping things familiar, and being ready for the unfamiliar

“We have got where we are through focusing on the things we do best”, says Matt, “and we must keep doing the things we trust will work”. Brogan agrees: “it is important that we make the season feel like any other season, even though it clearly is very special”. But they are also preparing themselves for those elements that will be less familiar. “We attended a briefing from past Olympians, including Lizzy Yarnold and Amy Williams”, said Brogan, “and it was incredibly helpful to hear about the things that might happen that we need to be ready for. Things like having a new roommate and ensuring that important relationship settles down quickly.

Also, recognising that some people find the Olympic village quite a lonely place, and therefore knowing how to prepare for that if it becomes the case”. Matt also highlights the importance of practical things like knowing where to get the best coffee and cakes, and how these small things working well make a strong difference in protecting a sense of calmness and familiarity.

One of the big things that will be unfamiliar is the fact that they will be competing on a new track in Beijing that they will not have had the chance to practice on. “We have been shown film clips where a Chinese athlete has walked the track and taken the video to show what it looks like”, says Brogan, “but at the moment that is all we have to go on”. Matt has invested a lot in analysing the video in detail: “I have tried to get clear in my mind all aspects of the track. The more familiar I can make it the better I will feel”. We ask what kind of track it is. “It’s crazy”, says Brogan. “It’s like they have taken the challenging aspects of all of the tracks around the world and brought them together into this one venue”. Matt agrees: “I imagine it will be really fast from the very beginning, so there is no opportunity to feel you way into it. Starts will be very important, but that is one of our strengths”. Both of them are really looking forward to getting to grips with it: “It will be an unbelievable feeling to master it” says Matt. “It will be fun”, adds Brogan, “and I just know our equipment will respond well to that kind of crazy”.

Looking ahead

We end by looking ahead to the Olympics and exploring what Matt and Brogan are most excited about. Brogan is excited by the whole team: “we have a team where everyone helps each other, we have common goals and we work really well together. I am really excited by what this team can achieve”. Matt agrees. “There is so much potential, and everyone has worked incredibly hard to ensure we are positioned in the best possible way as we head towards the season”.

So overall, what can we in business learn from their story? Certainly being part of a strong, cohesive team with lashings of honesty, trust and focus is high up there. As is creating and sustaining a genuinely creative culture and environment, ensuring that everyone is habitually seeking bold and imaginative opportunities to be better. The importance of having a plan that people understand and trust comes out strongly, whilst at the same time being adaptable and preparing for things not going to plan. Above all we see that you can establish and sustain a vibrant, winning environment in a fiercely competitive situation and preserve a culture where everyone has a voice, and that voice is genuinely respected. It takes brave leadership, but what British Skeleton has taught us, and continues to teach us, is that you can succeed against all the odds in a way that is open, inclusive, authentic and human.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to talk to these two young athletes and hear how actively involved they are in the wider team effort to get them ready. They are incredibly bright, ambitious and focused, but at the same time hugely humble and appreciative of everything that is being done to support them in this most important of seasons. We look forward to picking up with them again later in the year as the season kicks off and they start to see just how far their hard work and dedication has taken them in their quest for Olympic success. We will also continue to explore what more we in business can learn from the well-oiled machine that supports their path to Beijing.