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Team GB: their approach on performance measurement excellence (interview)

Organisational & Team Performance 12th February 2019

Photo by Kolleen Gladden on Unsplash

Photo by Kolleen Gladden on Unsplash

Photo by Kolleen Gladden on Unsplash

James Hairsine was the strength and conditioning coach for Team GB Boxing and Team GB Paralympic Table Tennis teams. His work has taken him to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games and seen him work with the sporting elite – including Olympic Gold Medallist, Nicola Adams.

James recently met with Rubica, to talk performance measurement excellence at Team GB, how they do it to achieve greatness and how the approach can be replicated in organisations.

James, thank you for joining us today. Can you tell us a little about yourself? 

Most recently I have been working with the GB Boxing and Paralympic GB Table Tennis teams as their strength and conditioning coach.

My background is predominantly in sport, and it includes working with the South African and England rugby teams. I’m currently in a transition, and will soon be working with an international football team.

What got you interested in sport in the first place?    

I’ve always had a passion for sport, winning and being the best. Early on my ambition was to become an athlete, but I didn’t quite meet the criteria. I wanted to remain in sport, so opted to become a coach. That set me on my path through University and it’s taken me to some fantastic places, including the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Working with Team GB Boxing and GB Table Tennis, what does the role entail?

For the GB Boxing team, I work as part of a team in the physical preparation department. We basically look at the physical quality and state of our athletes. So, we take charge of strength and conditioning in the weights room and link this with our running programme. All this underpins boxing performance.

With the Paralympic GB Table Tennis team, I head up the programme from a physical point of view, and again its more about getting the team in the weights room, overcoming their disabilities and improving table performance.

What achievements are you most proud of from your time working in professional sport? 

One of my proudest achievements is stepping foot on the plane that went out to Rio for the 2016 Olympics. Wearing the Team GB tracksuit meant a lot to me, and then when we were out there hearing the National Anthem when Nicola Adams was stepping onto the podium was a real highlight.

That said, for me personally I will never forget the bronze medal that my Paralympic GB Table Tennis athletes won at Rio. They took the Chinese to over time, and it was just a real moment to see what a small Nation, with a small population can do with good systems and training when up against a Nation with a population of 2 million+ who love to play table tennis.

What does the word performance mean to you in the world of professional sport?

Performance to me, would be the realisation of the correct technical and tactical outcome that is achieved in the most efficient way possible. It is also about going above and beyond and being prepared to do what others aren’t. That is what gets success – it means going that extra mile and putting that work in.

How does your work in sports science, strength and conditioning, contribute towards an athlete’s overall performance and ultimately their success?  

For me, strength and conditioning underpins athletic performance. There may be some situations where if you improve ‘X’, it leads to a direct performance in ‘Y’. In other physical aspects, it’s not so clear cut, for example giving athletes the physical qualities and characteristics needed to make them more robust and train more effectively and frequently. So, I think there are many facets to strength and conditioning support and it can benefit performance in different ways.

You’ve worked with a lot of athletes and teams in your career to-date. Is there a stand out example of a performance challenge that you have faced? How did you overcome it? 

One of the biggest challenges I’ve found is the changing culture of sport. Some time ago we profiled the match demands of winning international boxing competitions, and with the rule change, our training demands didn’t fit the performance required.

As a result, we had to go back to the roots of the sport and address it from the foundations up. It meant having some difficult conversations and exposed the team to new training sequences. But we gained some wins quickly with key stakeholders. This gave us more freedom in prescribing our own programmes and tailor training demands to fit competitions. Looking at our success in Rio, I think that is the product of our improved systems and processes.

So it is about breaking down the fundamental causes of performance, instead of addressing symptoms of that; then building a programme of what it will take to get you there?

Exactly. We knew the end-point. We knew what the physical qualities at competition would look like, and where we were currently. So we had to bridge that gap to achieve success. It was a multi-stage process, but we had a clear path and we knew what we had to achieve.   In sport, there are so many variables that you could change to improve performance.

What is your approach to dealing with all these variables to maximise impact? 

We have a very comprehensive strength and conditioning diagnostic. This includes profiles of the type of Boxer(s) we want to create. The diagnostics we have filter this – providing markers that will achieve those profiles.

Alongside this and what we do really well is combining qualitative and quantitative information to assess performance. For example, we get feedback from the coach about ‘how were they performing in the ring?’, ‘what were they like at the last tournament?’, ‘what do they need to work on?’. We combine this feedback with our formal assessments – these are the two key pillars that help us to deliver an effective service.

The other thing we do well is trying to develop our Boxers – we don’t necessarily focus on fixing weaknesses. Instead we focus on their strengths and look at how to turn these into ‘super strengths’, so we are working with the guys at a very elite level.

We hear a lot about ‘marginal gains’ in sport. What does this mean to you and where do you apply it?

Marginal gains are all about looking for those 1% increases in performance, which add up and equal a massive improvement in performance. For me, it’s about getting the basics and doing the basics well. I don’t tend to focus on that extra 1% if the other 99% isn’t there in the first place. So yes, we look at marginal gains, but I think it’s also about having a complete picture before you start doing that so you can assess if it is worth the initial time and effort.

What approach(s) do you adopt to measure and monitor performance improvement over-time?  

We’ve got a very comprehensive testing battery which we look at quarterly. It gives a real snapshot of where any athlete is at any given point in time. What I prefer to do though is have an effective monitoring strategy, and get more consistency with our information and what we gather.

I also get to know the athlete and coach and understand what they’re looking for and how they are performing on a more acute basis. With that information, we can plan better and make effective changes rather than waiting 3 months before decisions are made.

Within that it sounds like there is a lot of focus on evidence and using it to inform changes. Would that be correct? 

Yes, we are very aware of accuracy in what we are measuring, and how much faith in the numbers and what we think they are telling us. That is why we like to get a global picture of the athlete – it helps us make decisions.

In sport, the goal you are working towards – for example at the Olympics – can be some time off. How do you sustain focus and momentum? 

It is a challenge. We obviously work in four year cycles, with the end goal and measure of success being how many medals we gained at the Games. But you must break it down, asking questions around, ‘how will we get seeded?’, which leads on to ‘how do we perform well at the Euros?’ then ‘how do we perform well at the Worlds?’ and the ‘how are we going to get success from the Olympics?’. Ultimately we must be performing week in, week out for GB domestic and international competitions. This keeps morale and focus up, because every time you step out, you know it’s one step closer to the Olympic games.

You are one part of a wider team. How do you get team alignment to ensure everyone works together and is aligned to achieving the same performance goals?

The whole team are aware of what it takes to win, and that’s our framework for achieving Olympic success in Boxing. This has very clear parameters of what we all need to achieve and work towards in our respective disciplines.

The other thing is how we make those parameters and goals real and tangible. We do this by keeping communication levels high, and following that up with individual athlete planning meetings where we compare that athlete to our ideal profile. From that, different disciplines and different practitioners can contribute, so the process achieves what is required for that individual.

Have you got any examples of where you and your team were ‘stuck’ in shifting performance and what you did to overcome it? 

One example that springs to mind is one of our Olympic Boxers who wasn’t responding to certain training stimulus. We weren’t getting the results we were expecting, 6 months out from the Olympics.

In response, we changed our approach entirely – focusing on his ‘super strengths’. This was a positive response, which the athlete responded well to. This enabled us to get the results we needed, and it obviously worked as he was successful at Rio!

The key was taking a step back from the situation, removing emotion from the equation and assessing the actual performance problem and its causes.