5 keys to a successful debrief

A key component of a successful high performance program is the ability to identify obstacles that are limiting performance and then implementing solutions to overcome (or avoid) those obstacles. Regardless if you are an operator (an athlete or coach for example), director or in management, all are searching for processes to improve performance in an ethical and measurable manner. When such obstacles are clear and the resulting payoff of overcoming those obstacles in substantial, targeting such “low hanging fruit” should be an immediate goal.

Finding the low hanging fruit

Let’s take an example from coaching: you have an athlete with a history of high injury rates, poor performance, and no routine of physical preparation prior to training or competition. The coach identifies this, implements an athlete-specific routine that is utilized on a consistent basis, and the athlete’s availability and performance both increase the following season and beyond. Identifying such low hanging fruit should occur on a regular basis at the micro level through daily interactions between an athlete and his coach, medical staff, strength & conditioning coach, registered dietician, sport psychologist, etc.

On a macro-level, there exists similar low hanging fruit which should be addressed on a regular basis. One stands out to me: the team debrief. By bringing together all involved parties–whether they had immediate interaction with the athlete/operator or not–is easy to implement and critical to identifying limitations to performance and implementing strategies to overcome those obstacles.

Learning from after action reviews

This debriefing process, although not novel, has recently been popularized by military after action review (AAR) meetings. Although the honest and open post-mission meeting by the involved members of the mission has garnered a majority of the attention in sport and business circles, the AAR actually begins with identifying the intent of the mission (measurable goals) compared to the outcome of the mission. Within that framework, brutal honesty is encouraged between all involved parties–regardless of rank–of what actually happened and why it happened. All of these conversations are documented and then converted in actionable information: how can it be done better.

Here are some key takeaways from this process which should apply to organizations in sport, followed by an example that includes all:

  1. Inclusion of all affected individuals. There are countless interactions between the athlete and the coach. The athlete and the medical staff. The athlete and the strength and conditioning coach. Then there are periodic conversations between staff, usually informal in passing or via email or text. However, it will be key to include ALL members of the staff that works with the athlete in a group discussion. Even if an included staff member doesn’t have content to contribute, their inclusion will give them insight that will enhance their future interactions with the athlete.
  2. Honest interaction. Just as rank does not matter in a military AAR meeting, nor should any member of the staff feel awkward or embarrassed to bring up information they see as important to the conversation. Whether it be an intern, an assistant medical trainer or a video coach, they should feel free to contribute data, ideas or opinions to the conversation. This atmosphere of openness can be difficult for some to embrace, as some feel that conflicting opinions or ideas is unhealthy confrontation, but by promoting a positive culture of healthy debate and the sharing of ideas, and avoiding negative repercussions for such contributions, the debrief and planning process truly becomes a group process where the best ideas are produced.
  3. Measurable goals. What were the measurable goalsf? These may be goals of an event or competition, of a training camp, or of an entire season. It will be critical to identify those goals BEFORE the event. Keep the goals realistic and can be impacted directly by the operators or staff.
  4. Actionable outcomes. Following the meeting, what are the next steps? If the event went well and outcomes were achieved, is it realistic to repeat it in the future? If the goals were not met, where did we fail? Document the entire debrief and what the measurable actions are coming out of the meeting. Tying into the first key part listed here, by having all involved staff involved, in the room hearing and contributing to the debrief and resulting action plans, then everybody is on the same page with what needs to be done, who is going to do it, when and how it is going to be accomplished.
  5. Involvement of directly affected individuals. This may sound like a repeat of the first item listed, but it is amazing how many debriefs don’t circle back to include the actual affected individual, in this case, the athlete. Results of the debrief need to be brought to the athlete with a thorough analysis of what happened and why and a clear game-plan of what happens next and how you are all going to go about it. You will be surprised how much athletes will appreciate such a thorough process on their performance, the honesty behind what happened and the confidence they will gain from an extensive plan going forward created by their entire support staff.

Putting it into practice

One of the best examples of this process, both in its successes and shortcomings, was with an organization I consulted with recently. At the end of every season, they would gather the entire player operations staff together for several days in one room to evaluate each athlete’s performance over the prior season. All staff were present in person, even if they needed to be flown in for the meetings. In the room were the entire coaching staff, medical staff, S&C coaches, registered dietician, and sports psychologist. If needed, the team’s physician would also be present for specific medical cases.

One-by-one, the entire group would discuss each athlete. The meeting would start with a review of the pre-season goals set by the staff and athlete and compared to their results at the end of the year. Then, every person in the room would discuss their interactions. For some staff, the contribution was minimal due to limited interactions or observations. For others, it was quite extensive. Sometimes, it was easy to identify what happened and why and over the course of 15-20 minutes the review would be complete and an action plan created including goals for the following season. For other athletes, the meeting could be quite extensive and in-depth, with debates and discussions, and it would take 1-2 hours to complete the process. This process was exhaustive but thorough. The resulting, documented review of what happened and why was impressive, and the multi-disciplinary goals created were known and embraced by the entire staff.

Where the process failed, however, was in its final implementation: the athlete. Although the entire staff and management knew what happened and why as well as what the next steps were, there was no mechanism to deliver this information to the athlete and regularly follow progress. The existing process was for each staff member to chat with the athlete at some point in the future by a variety of means: text, email, phone or in-person. Sometimes they followed up immediately, sometimes they didn’t for a few weeks. Amazingly, some athletes didn’t even know that the entire staff met to talk about them!

As a result, a new process was implemented by which athletes were presented with the results of the debrief meetings within 24 hours of the meeting. More often than not, they not only agreed with the discussions and results, but the appreciation they had for such an exhaustive process about their performance enhanced the confidence they had in the staff’s ability to deliver the needed services.

Easy path to success

A comprehensive, multi-disciplinary debrief is critical in evaluating the success of implemented strategies on measurable goals. This is low hanging fruit that any organization can implement to quickly improve performance. Utilizing an inclusive, honest and thorough process that results in actionable, deliverable steps going forward should be a staple of any program or organization.