Sustainable Winning Cultures in High-Performance Sport

Developing leaders that cultivate thriving systems is critical to creating sustainable high-performance cultures.

Sustainable Winning Cultures in High-Performance Sport

Developing leaders that cultivate thriving systems is critical to creating sustainable high-performance cultures.
November 15, 2023

What makes for a sustainable culture in high-performance sports? On October 24th, 2023, STRAAD was honoured to contribute to the inaugural Culture in Sports (CIS) Annual Leadership Summit, which was themed around exactly that question. With the help of STRAAD and Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick, LLP, Culture in Sports hosted insightful conversations with leaders in high-performance sport from across North America including Own the Podium, the NFL, Rugby Canada, New Balance, PeacePlayers, and more. Through panels moderated by Laurel Richardson and Megan Luu, we gathered valuable insights about the importance and complexity of culture and leadership in sport. We explored what culture means in high-performance sport, how do you talk about it, and why it’s fundamentally important. Each leader emphasized that culture is its own team sport, so whether you’re an athlete, a coach, a board member, a sporting goods manufacturer, an equipment manager, or the CEO, each member plays a key role in both building and sustaining healthy cultures for the sake of high-performance.

Here’s what you need to know about creating a sustainable winning culture in your high-performance sports organization.


Culture Starts with Seeing the Whole Person

When opening a conversation on culture in high-performance sport, you might expect that much of the conversation is focused on the team. How is the team is doing? Is the team successful? Does the team have a good culture? And indeed, the high-performance sport industry is often focused on team-wide outcomes. However, many of the summit panelists’ initial remarks were not about building a winning culture at a team level; they emphasized the importance of paying attention at an individual level first. “Athletes are people first” was a sentiment echoed by many of the panelists, meaning that every athlete is a complex and unique individual, with their own needs, goals, ways of being supported, and perspective. Historically in many high-performance sports settings, athletes were only seen through the lens of their performance. All that mattered was how well they performed on their team, and everything else came second. This is now recognized as an unsustainable culture because of the risks it causes for athlete wellness, the rapid turnover of results in such a high-pressure low-support environment, and the difficulties that it causes in developing strong and connected teams. Instead, high-performance sports organizations are evolving their strategies to better support and value the people that drive their success.

Dr. Andy Van Neutegem, Vice President of Performance Sciences, Research & Innovation with Own the Podium, illustrated the critical role of focusing on the people in an organization when he described Own the Podium’s philosophy of building a Culture of Excellence. He described a simple formula to explain what a Culture of Excellence consists of:

Culture of Excellence = People + Performance.

As Andy explained it, the goal is to “build a culture in which people value each other but also value performance”. When performance is the only goal, organizations quickly end up in a toxic mindset of chasing success “at all costs”, which results in rash decision-making, a lack of long-term planning, unrealistic expectations on individuals, and a fundamentally unsustainable system. All teams want to perform well, but holding both People and Performance as pillars of focus helps organizations to not lose sight of the importance of valuing their employees and athletes and ensuring that they are creating safe environments for individuals to grow and improve in themselves and collectively.

Providing a safe environment for individuals to show up and be seen as their whole self is critical for many reasons, including:

  • Trust & Connection: As Sue Hylland so wisely quoted Theodore Roosevelt, “no one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Athletes and employees cannot feel cared for if they don’t feel respected.
  • Growth & Honesty: Valuing individuals’ whole selves implies that people’s weaknesses and challenges are accepted alongside their strengths, which cultivates a culture of growth and improvement, both for individuals and for the organization overall. Setting a standard of honesty by acknowledging the imperfections and nuances of every person provides a foundation that encourages honest feedback and conversation, allowing organizations to have the tough conversation and address challenges instead of sweeping them under the rug.
  • Safety & Openness: Athlete safety was a key topic throughout the Culture in Sports Summit, and has been a top priority of National Sports Organizations (NSOs) across the world in recent years. Athlete safety is comprised of a variety of foundational needs to protect the overall wellbeing of individuals and teams—it also includes their emotional and psychological wellbeing. When individuals feel accepted in their team or organization, it is easier for them to come forward when they have a safety concern or health issue, because they don’t have to fear rejection from their community for speaking up.

Bringing the focus back to the individual is a crucial first step in your culture improvement journey. The next step is to bring individuals back together into a collective team.


A Resilient Culture is a Winning Culture

So, what makes an organization’s culture a “winning culture”? A winning culture in high-performance sport is often described as a place that holds both people and performance as top priorities, cultivating sustainable success and continuous progress. Above all, the CIS Summit panelists emphasized that a winning culture is a resilient culture. Every NSO and high-performance sport organization has faced immense challenges in recent years, battling with the COVID-19 pandemic, growing social unrest, financial instability, and more. The organizations that are weathering the storms best are those that have made intentional efforts to build resilience both within their individuals and throughout their teams.

There are many hallmarks of a resilient culture, but a few of the key traits mentioned by Nathan Bombrys, CEO of Rugby Canada included collaboration, innovation, adaptability, and a future-ready mindset. Resilient cultures are playgrounds for problem-solving, exploration, and growth. These traits build a culture of resilience because they encourage an organization to be flexible and responsive to the rapidly changing landscapes around them. Additionally, a people-focused mindset is also crucial to a resilient culture. This is because no one can do it all on their own, especially in difficult times. We need to see each other, support each other, and keep each other going. Connection and belonging are equally important to resilience as creativity and innovation.


Culture is the Summation of a Thousand Small Intentional Actions

After discussing what a winning, resilient culture looks and feels like, our panelists turned to the challenging question of how teams can create such a culture. Today more than ever, organizations, and particularly high-performance sport organizations, are forced to operate at breakneck speeds. Keeping your organization’s head above the water requires urgency and innovation, which means that anything that isn’t directly tied to the bottom line, like culture development, can easily get left behind. Future-focused leaders recognize the importance of keeping a steady hand on their culture at all times because If they don’t, their culture will shape itself. As Ron Wuotila, President of RW Sport Performance Consulting, emphasized, culture is changed indirectly through all the organization’s actions.

For example, Tim Reynolds and Hélène Juillard of New Balance spoke about the importance of New Balance’s strategic selection of brand partners and ambassadors as an extension of their culture. Their brand ambassadors are not only key levers in effective marketing, but they also allow New Balance to connect with their communities and support athletes whose values are aligned. Similarly, Sally Nnamani, Co-Executive Director of PeacePlayers United States, shared that PeacePlayers has made efforts to flatten their leadership structure and establish a local Board of Directors in cities they work in. This help PeacePlayers increase their impact because they now have leadership that reflects the cities they work, bringing crucial insights about how best to work with local communities.

As Laura Watson, High Performance Pursuit Lead at Own the Podium, noted, it is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work, so it takes intentionality to set aside the time to have the important conversations and ensure that the day-to-day work is also contributing to building the resilient, sustainable culture. Leaders need be intentional in creating safe spaces by asking questions, openly accepting feedback, and valuing the people around them. Laura’s work in the Pursuit leadership development program at Own the Podium is focused on helping coaches and leaders switch from a technical mindset to a leadership mindset. Investments like this produce direct impacts on team performance, since research has shown that teams have improved performance on tasks when team members feel that their colleagues respect and appreciate them.


Shaping Culture Through Leadership

Leaders play a critical role in culture development, particularly through modeling positive behaviours and helping teams establish shared language to align on their strategy and values. As leaders attempt to organize their organizations around a central goal, clarity and establishing a common vocabulary around your shared values is critical. Nathan Bombrys has spent this first year as CEO of Rugby Canada listening to this teams and paying particular attention to the language used within the organization. Intentionality in language choice is a great way to support your culture, since “what you say affects what you think,” shared Nathan. Therefore, it’s worth taking the time to provide clarity within the organization on where you are headed, and how the organization will work together to deliver the results in order to steward collective alignment.

Coaching in high-performance sports is a high stress and all-encompassing role and as such, Laura Watson shared that research indicates that coaches often have burnout and turnover. Because of this, it is critical that coaches and leaders practice self-awareness and leading inwards for themselves as much as they are leading outwardly for others. When leaders can look inwards and truly understand their own strengths, barriers, challenges, they are setting the example for everyone around to do the same.

The Pursuit program at Own the Podium teaches organizations to “lead up, out, down and in”, which is a mantra meaning that all members of a team have the opportunity to lead both others and themselves, no matter their position. Ron Wuotila emphasized the importance of distributing leadership among athletes as well, encouraging athletes to set an example for their team, practice their values, and hold each other accountable. Coaches and leaders hold much of the responsibility to lead culture for their organizations, but ensuring that everyone has the opportunity and responsibility to lead from their location in support of the bigger vision allows for scale and shared accountability.


Your Actions Matter: “No matter what role you’re in, you have an opportunity to lead the people around you.” – Laura Watson

All our CIS Summit panelists had great advice to share on what you can start doing today to cultivate a sustainable, resilient, winning culture in your organizations. Here are a few key take-aways:

  • Laura Watson: Find time to prioritize taking care of people and helping people do better.
  • Sue Hylland: Nobody cares what you know until they know you care, and never give up, things change, we are better than what we used to be now.
  • Dr. Andy Van Neutegem: It’s about People AND Performance, keep leaning into that algorithm, keep trying to understand what that algorithm means to you.
  • Nathan Bombrys: You’ve got to lean in, you’ve got to ask questions, and then you’ve got to listen to the answers.
  • Tim Reynolds: It’s all about people and balanced coaching; make sure athletes experience the high moments of their success but also help them to recognize that there may be lows as well to prepare for and learn from.
  • Ron Wuotila: Get your clarity, value, and purpose right so that when pressure comes on you don’t get derailed and you can focus on what matters.
  • Sally Nnamani: Name your values upfront. And naming them when things aren’t going right is important for keeping culture top of mind.
  • Tom Telasco: Alleviate the pressure on your athletes, let them know that their whole self, family, and community are welcome and an important part of the organization.


Building sustainable and resilient cultures in high-performance systems is one of our great passions at STRAAD, so we are honoured to have been able to contribute and collaborate with Culture in Sports for their inaugural Leadership Summit. If you are interested in working with STRAAD to further develop your own organization’s high-performance culture, then we encourage you to reach out to [email protected].

Authored by:
STRAAD intelligence™

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