By Kim Gilmour and Zach Chiaramonte
Around 20 percent of college performance staff change jobs every year. This creates a need to better manage transitions as your team loses some people and brings in replacements.
An Athlete Management System (AMS) can help provide continuity as part of a people-first approach that emphasizes connection, trust, and relationship building. Whether you’re adding new subject-matter experts (SMEs) to your performance team or are a specialist who is leaving one staff and joining another, this article is for you.
Getting to Know Your New Teammate
When a new SME joins your team, they are bringing knowledge in – and possibly even skills your existing team doesn’t have. But even the most rigorous interviewing process doesn’t reveal everything, so their talents might go unnoticed or underutilized because nobody bothered to ask about them.
To prevent this, make sure you do a deep dive into everything they’ve accomplished and discovered in previous roles. Also recognize that as well as your program might be doing, there is almost certainly room for improvement. Ask the newbie what they think is working well in your existing strategy, what can be enhanced, what should be discarded, and how they’d like to contribute their unique skillset to take your group from good to great.
Communication is key to getting new staff members up to speed. Encourage them to ask questions, get to know their colleagues as people, and ask players and sport coaches open-ended questions to better understand their needs and goals. This will build connection and trust and make it more likely that staff and athletes will accept direction from the new guy or girl.
As in any field, sports science can involve a lot of egos all jockeying for pole position. This can be exacerbated by specialties like nutrition, medical, and physical therapy wanting to establish and maintain their own silos, in which the SMEs with the right qualifications are the keepers of the secret flame and everyone else is merely an outsider.
One way to avoid this is to have everyone travel together when possible and for leaders to set an example of open communication between departments and specialties. If everyone from the athletic director and head coach down is willing to admit when they don’t know something and then seek out a colleague who might have the answer, that demonstrates humility and a willingness to collaborate. Staffers lower down the totem pole will see this example being modeled by their boss and, if they’re exposed to it often enough, will start to follow suit. This is when a strong culture based on shared values and desired outcomes will perpetuate itself throughout the performance staff and organization as a whole.
Knowing the Lingo and Putting Data into Context
Given the fluidity of the job market in sports performance, SMEs need to learn to lateralize their skillsets from one sport to another, or possibly expand from a single point of focus to a multi-sport setting. In an interview for the Pacey Performance Podcast, Rick Cost talked about the importance of learning a new performance language in taming his transition from an expert in field hockey player development to working with the US national soccer team.
“For the first year, I actually tried to find the terminology, which helped me to create everything I knew into a football [soccer] situation,” Cost said. “We don’t do gym sessions or weight training, no, we do football performance. Mobility work is functional football mobility. I really tried to dig myself into the terminology, which made it understandable for all these coaches, otherwise I would have been kicked out in six months.”
Cost went on to say that although he understood some of the statistical nuances of soccer, he had to put those aside during his upskilling process and learn more about the technical and tactical aspects of player preparation. He never looked at the data he was gathering and displaying via the team’s AMS with blinders on, but rather in the broader context of what the head coach was trying to achieve in both practices and matches.
“You can talk about running 11 or 12 kilometers in a game, but in the end, it doesn’t really mean anything – you could just go outside and run that far,” Cost told host Rob Pacey. “That’s not the game. We wanted to make sure that the backbone of training was the game. When I started evaluating small-sided games, I realized that I could put some parameters around five-on-five or seven-on-seven drills, and that these correlated to full-sided games with 11 players. Now we had five parameters, like percentage of high intensity distance versus total distance. These helped us to say that if we wanted to train the game well, we could measure these five parameters and help the coach by making sure that all the players are fit and that the last minute of the game looks like the first minute.”
Reducing the Learning Curve
By combining real-time and historical data, your AMS offers the new team member a window into where athletes have come from, what level they’re at now in their performance and recovery, and how they’re progressing or regressing. This insight will enable them to quickly gain context and accelerate their learning curve so they can start making a valuable contribution sooner.
This doesn’t only apply to performance and recovery metrics. Being able to see each players’ full medical history allows a new SME to better understand the obstacles that they’ve had to overcome to get to where they are today. And, if they’re dealing with a current injury, what they’re going through now.
This helps develop empathy and provides conversation starters that facilitate more in-depth discussions that bolster new relationships. Once a player can see that someone cares about them, they will be more likely to be candid, vulnerable, and open in ways that will foster transparent communication and ensure greater buy-in. When someone feels like they’re being cared for and have an advocate on the performance staff, it will increase their sense of belonging and encourage them to double down on their commitment to the team.
In addition to building strong relationships, it can be beneficial to have solid systems to fall back on when staff are constantly coming and going. The University of Texas has a world-renowned performance program. We asked Travis Vlantes, UT’s director of applied sports science how his staff maintains consistency and coherence when navigating through staff turnover.
“We have to ensure the level of service we provide doesn’t drop off. Every new athletic trainer goes through a sports science orientation, so they get to know what we offer and how things normally run,” said Vlantes. “Trying to keep good ties and have several contact points with each sport is key, so that as people move in and out there’s somebody that can validate the way we’re doing things. Smartabase is our AMS and EMR system. So, for example, a new athletic trainer can easily pull up force plate results and body composition data. This demonstrates that there’s a structure to what they’re going to be doing, rather than just handing them four years of spreadsheets.”
When there’s a changing of the guard in terms of personnel, it can feel very jarring to both players and sports coaches. They’re used to the performance team doing each thing a certain way, and now they’re unsure if this is going to continue or if the new person/people will shake things up.
Players and coaches also wonder if they’re going to keep receiving the kind of care and service they’ve come to expect. And why should they put in the effort of getting to know the new guys and girls, when they might be gone again at the end of the year? Such fears, doubts, and questions can be particularly acute if an entire staff ends up leaving to follow a head coach to a new position elsewhere.
Relationships are the key to putting players’ and coaches’ minds at rest. Sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow has talked about the need for “connection before correction.” What he means is that if you can get an athlete to trust you, they’re much more likely to listen to your direction on matters of performance, recovery, or injury rehabilitation.
There is no one set formula, except putting in time to get to know one another. Asking open-ended questions about where someone grew up, how they first got into the sport, what motivates them to keep going, and so on can help create a rapport and break the ice. The more you get to know about the other person, the stronger the bond between you will become, and the greater the level of mutual appreciation and trust.
It’s never easy starting a new performance role as the newbie. But with a willingness to ask questions, a commitment to developing relationships, and the realization that everyone has something valuable to contribute, expanding a performance team can be an opportunity to progress the program and enable a higher level of service to coaches and athletes alike.
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