Olympian Lesley McKenna on high performing teams

Wandering Workshops_February Workshop_by Hannah Bailey_00047

Lesley McKenna is a three time Olympian, having competed in the snowboard halfpipe, and she now works in high performance UK Sport as a ‘coach developer’, supporting coaches’ personal development, so they in turn can get the best out of the athletes in their teams.

Coach developers are playing an increasing role in high performance sport as the need to support coaches, who are under pressure to facilitate their team to achieve, is increasingly recognised.

Last year McKenna was named ‘Coach Developer of the Year’ by Sport Scotland, and she is also currently studying for a PHD in Ethics in High Performance Sports Coaching. As such, she is the perfect person to speak to about how to get the best performances out of team members operating under stressful conditions, without compromising their wellbeing, as well as how the corporate world could better support line managers to do this, too.

She believes that forging a strong connection to yourself, and others, is at the heart of developing full potential, which is one reason she also now runs ‘Wandering Workshops’, which facilitates these experiences in nature through shared outdoor sports experiences.

Lesley on achieving high performance:

“The most important thing when you’re asking people to perform better, or do more, is that they have the support of those around them.

An athlete’s coach is a pivotal part of this support. He or she works in collaboration with the athlete, to support  the learning process, a bit like the way a line manager who is focused on supporting the learning and development side of a team member would do.

Everyone learns and works differently, so a coach has to be flexible enough to help people understand how they work, as well as supporting them to learn different ways to work, and to appreciate difference in general.

Every team member needs something different

When I talk to coaches about their high performance teams they are very aware that each one of their team members needs something a bit different from the other. There is no one size fits all. It goes right down to the physical environment they want to train in, to such granular details as the steepness of the slope, the shape of the slope and the condition of the snow. Then there are the mental and emotional aspects of the learning environment – again every team member needs something slightly different.

I believe there’s much that the corporate world can take from the high performance sports world with respect to the individualisation of support and delivery of training. Also, how coaches – who are supporting their athletes – are supported. In sport, coach developers like myself are playing more and more of a role as, again, each coach needs a different approach in order to learn and become a better coach, in order to support athletes operating at the highest levels.

But supporting the athlete is not just about support from their own coach or team members. It’s much wider than this. In high performance sport, especially at the very top end, it’s well known that athletes working together – even with their direct rivals – is the way they get the best out of each other. 

Collaborative working, even with rivals

When the stakes are high, an environment and approach that involves collaborative working and sharing learnings together is essential. That’s how you grow potential and the capacity for pushing the boundaries of achievement.

Obviously when you apply this to the corporate world, it’s challenging to imagine competitors working together. However, I’m an eternal optimist and I believe that it’s possible. However, there needs to be a greater value than just the bottomline. 

Some parts of the corporate world are already talking about a new model of capitalism, or a different model [Heathrow Airport CFO Javier Echave talks about this in this article]. Certainly, especially when it comes to expecting high performances, we need to prioritise human sustainability; the only way to get more out of people is to put human flourishing at the centre of what you do. It may sound counterintuitive to some, but if you do, you will get higher performances.

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Huge importance of DEI in high performance

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about in the context of high performance snowsports. I was recently working with an action sports coach working with an athlete that has produced multiple Olympic medals in multiple cycles. Now, the funding partner wants more; not just one, but more athletes from their country on the podium. This is similar to the idea of corporate growth.

The way to achieve this is genuine and authentic collaboration with competitors at your level. Why? Because it’s working with people at your high level where you will be able to, together, find the next ‘thing’, the next game-changing evolution, for the sake of everybody. People learn better from other people doing the same thing, as long as there’s diversity in the group, which is where the huge importance of DEI comes in.

But this way to raise your game has to be done in a genuine way because if it’s exploitative or instrumental in any way, it actually falls flat quickly. There has  to be  a communal value based on the shared standards of excellence related to the work and values of the context.  

Corporates can look to sport for inspiration

Corporates can replicate this model by finding common ground around issues that are important to people. So, for example, if stress and burnout are important issues in an industry – where is that coming from? Senior leaders need to reach out to other senior leaders and have a genuine conversation. They need to ask – what can we do for the common good here that we can all benefit from?

It could be something as simple as a twist on ‘employee of the month’. Why not have team of the sector? Or initiative? And genuinely celebrate progress together, as a community not individuals. 

There’s a great example of this from the snowsports world when Zoi Sadowski-Synnott competed in the Winter Olympics finals of the women’s slopestyle in 2022. She did one of the best runs anyone had seen, putting in some technical tricks that had never been put together in that way before, and landed really cleanly. 

Genuinely celebrating the collective success

When she got to the end, all the competitors celebrated, running up to her and genuinely celebrating her achievement and success, even if that meant they weren’t on the podium themselves. Even the women she beat into second or third place were happy because it was seen as a communal achievement for the discipline.

Everyone understood what went into the success. It felt like a shared success. And I think the corporate world can learn from the athletic one on this front.

Yes, it’s a big ask, but corporate responsibility opens the door to endeavours that will actually move the dial. It’s about taking it seriously and authentically, not about ticking a box, like has happened with greenwashing, for example.

A good question for companies, and managers, to ask themselves is: if the outcome of growth is the marker of success, what is the value and relevance of our success to society? To humans on this planet? If you don’t know, or have nothing to contribute then, to be frank, I’d say you’ve got some soul searching to do.”

Picture is of Lesley McKenna guiding a group as part of a self-development ‘Wandering Workshop’ taken by photographer Hannah Bailey

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