Man with tattoos bearing fists covered in rings

A few nights ago I accidentally caught a recent BBC documentary about the culture within British Cycling's elite programme.

Not counting the disquiet in the news over the last few years, I've been aware of murmurings about the culture within British Cycling due to some of my work with athletes.

I found the documentary a really interesting watch. For me, the most fascinating parts of the documentary were Shane Sutton and Sir Dave Brailsford, because to me, their statements reflect exactly how leadership and culture can be corrupted by personal biases.

I've always felt uncomfortable about the approach used within the elite programme, despite British Cycling's successes over the last decade or so. This documentary confirmed some of my felt discomfort.

Fear and insecurity

In this documentary, Sutton is quite adamant that there was nothing based in fear in the coaching regime. He's also very firm about how tough the world is out there. There's no doubt that this is his justification for a tough coaching regime.

The same goes for Brailsford. He talks about the ruthlessness of the world and how athletes need to be prepared for that. He also explains that his approach has delivered winners, which is what everyone wants. I think he says something along the lines of: you can either be a winner, or a mediocre loser (the contempt for mediocrity and being a loser in his demeanour was palpable).

It's clear in this documentary that both of them think they're entirely justified in their approaches and the coaching culture they fostered. There were certainly no apologies for any detriment caused.

And so it goes: the ruthless world demands a ruthless coaching regime that weeds out the week for the survival of the fittest. There's no room for softness, weakness, or those mushy touches of humanity. The fallout we can ignore....or only for so long as it turned out.

It seems to me that the whole thing reeks of both fear and insecurity. But it's the fear and insecurity of both Sutton and Brailsford about the nature of the world according to them.

And in all this there appears to be little reflection on their part about how their personal biases have played into it. Even worse is that it prevents any concerted inquiry into whether any other approaches may actually work equally or better without the level of human cost.

Wider leadership and psychological oversight

The wider leadership in British Cycling could, of course, let things run. The results were there to be seen around the world. The fallout and dropout, the burnout and erosion of wider talent pools that didn't fit the regime were allowed. They were maybe even encouraged towards the door.

The psychological support clearly didn't play its part, either. Other than to foster some kind of pseudo-science (or in my opinion, produce some entirely fictional models of the mind, brain and function in what became 'the chimp paradox'). I wonder where the checks and balances were for the leadership team, but then perhaps they didn't see a need to explore their own personal development-due to the successes they were seeing.

Sadly, this reflects some of the influence this kind of coaching has on the world of business where leaders fail to learn how their personal biases drive them in how they behave and how this taints the cultural milieu of their organisations.

Having courage

So my main question has to be: how they know that a nurturing, caring, inclusive and supportive environment couldn't, in fact, produce better and more sustainable results?

Maybe even results that could demonstrate to the world a different performance and success ethos with a deeper and wider pool of talent?

Big questions, I know, yet it seems to me that providing such a human 'home' environment could actually enable and support competitors to perform better out there in that ruthless, unforgiving world. This may improve their psychology, recovery and restoration when they need it most, ultimately making them stronger.

Questions which are worth pondering, perhaps...but to do it would require some courage.

My perspective

I have worked with world-class athletes and my philosophy has always been to provide a safe place for them to bring themselves for their development. This is because I don't believe that creating a harsh, tough, or ruthless training and development environment is the way to go. What I have found is that creating a safe place enables athletes to openly explore what is going on for them and to be critical but in a supportive, kind and developmental way.

Despite working with athletes who have sustained serious life changing injuries as well as career threatening ones, I've never come across a single one who doesn't have the motivation and drive they need to succeed at their world-class level. Psychologically it has always been other stuff, sometimes the very thing they miss: a bit of nurturing through a supportive relationship (in a lot of elite sport the rehabilitation process is the opposite, often a lonely experience of exile by the athlete).

Isn't about time to seek out different coaching approaches and cultures, even in the world-class programmes? Or at least make a concerted effort to explore alternative possibilities?

If you have got something useful out of this post, or even enjoyed it, please consider sharing it or letting other people know about it.

Has it touched upon something close to you that you'd like to talk about? Then please get in touch, I welcome new conversations and clients all the time.

Clem Onojeghuo