3 case studies on high performance

In the last year I have met with many organizations that are inquiring about what exactly a high performance program is. High performance models are not new to the world, but they are new to the professional sports scene in North American. The success of the Australian Olympic team through the 2000 Olympic Games was followed by the success of the British Olympic Team at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. This has led to a wave of interest in North American teams to create a better performance environment and find ways to give their organization an edge.

With interest in any topic comes some bastardization of the original idea. The phrase “High Performance” has become a buzzword that many businesses have jumped on the bandwagon to financially capitalize on this recent surge of interest in North America. Other terms like “sports science” and “analytics” can add further confusion to organizations that are scrambling to not fall behind what (they think) other teams are doing. The result has been a select few organizations getting it right, yet many still taking uneducated plunges with haphazard hires and technology purchases that they regret sooner than later.

I was fortunate to be with the US Ski Team at the tail end of the high performance program that was built by Dr. Andy Walshe until 2008 and continued by Dr. Troy Flanagan until 2015. Both came from a background of being involved with high performance models internationally, including at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) during their rise to prominence at the end of the 20th century. The US Ski Team was a perfect fit for that model to take hold as it looked for affordable, innovative and strategic ways to succeed, so it was no surprise that the team experienced their most successful years at the 2010 and 2014 Olympic games.

A true high performance program is not based on a sports medicine model, nor is it a sport technology model. It is not defined by one discipline, but by how it successfully uses and all disciplines and tools to solve problems that limit performance. This is not an easy model to implement: it is a massive undertaking for an organization to align their staff, facilities and resources to strategically find creative solutions to existing problems. However, there are several examples of successful high performance programs that are worth looking into. They share common threads that made them successful. In particular, three books highlight three different organizations that got it right.

Game-changing military technology

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed by Ben Rich (1995) details the inner workings of Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works program that was responsible for “game-changing” innovations for the military. It’s a fantastic read about a small group of innovative, collaborative engineers that worked together to solve problems that allowed them to lead the world in military aviation technology. They set a goal, identified the barriers and obstacles that were present and then systematically found creative solutions to solve them. There was also immense collaboration between the various staff members, so much so that they preferred to have exceptional generalists who were open to new ideas and problem solving rather than hiring specialists. There are excellent analogies to successful sport organizations here: finding the right people that can work together rather than the best specialists who can’t see past their expertise.

In addition, the staff at Skunk Works was always looking for the “next big thing” in innovation, which led to the U-2 spy plane (which flew higher than any other plane), the SR-71 Blackbird (which flew faster than any other plane) and the development of stealth technology and its integration into the F-117 and F-22 Stealth Fighters. In the early 1990s, they were already designing and working on a new project they felt would be a game changer: drones.

The rise of British cycling

Project Rainbow: How British Cycling Reached the Top of the World by Rod Ellingworth (2013), who with Dave Brailsford laid the groundwork in the early 2000s for the rise of the tremendously successful British Cycling Program, details the talent development program and planning involved. Team Sky, the professional cycling team created by Brailsford and Ellingworth in 2011, has had three British riders win six of the last seven Tour de France titles. Considering Britain’s lack of success prior to this era, the book is a fascinating insight into how both British Cycling and Team Sky became dominant in the sport in such a short period of time. Despite being known for their “marginal gains” strategies, their success is more a result of bringing modern practice and planning to a sport stuck in old traditions. Yes, they sought out small gains in performance that may have only factored in a 1-2% edge, but only after they had instituted practices and a culture which was an epic increase from the archaic practices that existed before. They identified where those jumps in performance could exist and strategically targeted their implementation.

Sailing to success

The Billionaire and the Mechanic: How Larry Ellison and a Car Mechanic Teamed up to Win Sailing’s Greatest Race, the Americas Cup, Twice by Julian Guthrie (2013) shows the mind-boggling variety of disciplines needed to succeed at the highest level of sailboat racing: the America’s Cup. Teams of designers and engineers are needed to design and build the boats and then successfully integrate with the sailors (whom are amazing athletes themselves!) and support staff. This book details Larry Ellison’s quest to build the team that won the America’s Cup in 2010 and then defended it in 2013. As the Chairman of tech company Oracle and an accomplished sailer in his own right, it was fascinating to see how he knew when to step aside and let better qualified people make the right choices at the right time.