Gareth O’Neill on the Elite Athlete

Managing the welfare of the Elite Athlete: Sir Dave Brailsford (Team Sky general manager)


Three students head off down the butchers to get some meat for their barbeque and they’re greeted by the man himself.

“Right lads!” he says. “Since the World Cup’s startin’ soon, I’ll do ye a deal. Tell me what team you support and if you can relate it to the meat, I’ll give ye that piece for free!”

The first student steps up: “I support Liverpool, so I’ll have a liver!”

Second student pipes in: “And I support Hearts, so I’ll take the heart!”

The final student reluctantly comes forward: “Well, I support Arsenal but…um… I’m not hungry”.

That was stuck in my head throughout the whole conference… They always say open with a good joke… or maybe in this case, a tumbleweed. I’ll let you decide!

I was privileged to be one of the attendees at the recent Sports and Exercise Medicine Conference at Arsenal Football Club and, whilst strictly not an Arsenal supporter, I’m now a huge fan of their set-up, player management, development and ethos on sharing training and treatment methodologies. This sharing of knowledge is something I believe in vehemently and is why I contribute to this page.

A lot of you reading this will undoubtedly work with aspiring athletes at differing stages of their development; however, not everyone will be blessed with a tertiary education in Exercise Science/ Strength & Conditioning. For the benefit of these athletes and coaches alike, I’ll always try to impart what (little!?) knowledge I have, particularly on the basic principles, paradigms and techniques of the field. After all, we all have to start somewhere on our CPD pathway, and it is this pathway that will influence the future sporting stars of our country.

As a strength & conditioning coach who’s returned to study a second degree in Physiotherapy, it was hard to resist the lure of the conference, what with the world’s leading researchers and practitioners in Sports Medicine, Physiotherapy, Sports Science and Strength & Conditioning all presenting under the one roof; essentially (and at lunch-time, quite literally) a buffet of information! In an ever-expanding field with constant regurgitation and plagiarism of practices, it was refreshing to see original thinking, methodologies and reviews from world leaders in their respective fields. Furthermore, it was surprising that they were humble enough to chew the fat with us mere mortal attendees afterwards!

Now that I’ve more spare time post-uni, I hope to impart some of the event’s key messages to you all, starting quite fittingly, with Sir Dave Brailsford’s presentation on managing elite athlete welfare. In his presentation, he spoke of concepts that I think Irish sports and their coaches, from club to representative level, could and should emulate. That is of course, if they want to succeed…

Sir Dave is general manager of the Team Sky professional cycling team, the former performance director of British Cycling and a two time winner of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year. His career honours speak for themselves, being hailed as the architect behind British Cycling’s 18 medals at the ’04, ’08 and ’12 Olympics, not including the multiple world championships also won under his guidance. Now, whilst the Irish leg of the Giro d’Italia wasn’t exactly successful for Team Sky, (particularly after that crash in Belfast), you can rest assured the team are in good hands; where Brailsford specialises, is in the holistic management of athletes and staff under his direction. It is this forward thinking, all-encompassing management that provides a formula for excellence and a potential formula for success for Team Sky.

Initially, according to Brailsford, it’s all about getting the right people for the right roles. Sir Dave took on very bright sports science graduates, not necessarily with experience in cycling, but those educated enough to adapt and think logically and laterally. In my opinion, this is a no-brainer. We NEED the right people in the right roles to facilitate performance. Since returning home, a frustrating observation of amateur/ developmental stage sport here is when people (including myself) volunteer to help local clubs in their athletic prep, only for said club to respond “oh, well “such & such” already takes care of the fitness” or technical coaches think they know more and simply point-blank refuse. Quite often, these people have a wealth of sports coaching experience, but aren’t S&C accredited, have no tertiary education in the field nor partake in any CPD or further learning. To these coaches, all I’ll say is:

Stale practices lead to stale results for your players and your sport.

Sports coaches should use graduates if they volunteer! Obviously, the issue of remuneration will arise at some point as no one can work for free forever, but this topic is article worthy onto itself. My advice is to sort that on an individual basis and come to a mutual agreement. Sir Dave said the following:

“Imagine if you were part of a team or staff, where EVERYBODY wasn’t just great at what they did… they were FANTASTIC. They were THE BEST at what they did. Imagine how that would feel. There’s no reason why teams can’t be like this, in fact, all teams should STRIVE to be like this. This is a major factor in predicting success”.

“This notion”, he said, “helped establish our key principles”. They’re listed below:

1)     Outcome focus: Establish what it takes to win, how to win and truly understand the demands of your event (in S&C, this is your Needs Analysis). Reverse engineering can then occur and plans of progression can be formed, particularly for the long term. This is a concept fundamental to most businesses, so it’s surprising it isn’t applied as much to sports.


2)     Aggregating marginal gains: This concept is one that Sir Dave has spoke of frequently before. It’s rare to see a huge step change in performance from one event to the next. Typically, fluctuating improvements or incremental gains in performance present that aren’t necessarily linear. Brailsford advises a 1% gain in performance between events is A LOT more manageable for athletes and staff. This feeds back into the aforementioned philosophy based upon THE BEST people for all roles. If the best people are present, they’re more likely to engage fully and thereby build upon every single aspect to improve performance. Buying into this philosophy generates a contagious enthusiasm, momentum and positive environment. Team dynamics are also improved if everyone believes in the philosophy, as it helps eradicate feelings of scrutiny or judgement if/ when passing comment on others work i.e. everyone is trying to help each other, not criticise. In fact, Brailsford states that with Team Sky buying into the “marginal gains mindset”, people actually thank others for their input on their own tasks, EVEN changing tyres!


3)     The Human Mind: Sir Dave consulted Dr. Steve Peters (a consultant Psychiartrst and University Clinical lecturer) on managing his athlete’s psychological issues, particularly addressing athlete emotional response and it’s effect upon performance; something Dr. Peter’s refers to as “The Chimp Paradox” (covered later in this piece).

4)     Team Culture/ Environment: Finally, Brailsford wants the environment in which his athletes and staff operate in to be based upon their welfare; an environment that optimises performance for everyone in the team. Based upon Team Sky’s own observations, they’ve noticed that the environment in which their team/ staff operate can affect performance by up to 30%, evidenced by their race programme of different teams working with different staff. These different combinations produced different micro-environments, subsequently producing different results. The advice? Find what staff (coach) – athlete combinations work, as ultimately, they’ll have implications for performance success and consistency. Play around, preferably in off-season with coaching combinations, group dynamics and, what’s vital, gather feedback from the athlete(s) on their view of what/ who works.

Still with me? I hope so. We’re getting to the good stuff! The next principle is quite literally, the CORE of what Team Sky are about…

The CORE principle

Let’s forget cycling and sport for a moment and think about human beings.

Brailsford’s question was, “What environment would it take for an individual to achieve excellence consistently?” His answer was the CORE principle, which is used on both an individual and collective basis in forming Team Sky’s culture.

C= Commitment: The major predictor of success, according to Brailsford, is down to the talent and commitment of the athlete and coach collective unit. It’s not motivation that is important, rather, it is the DESIRE and WANT to suffer and to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. Breaking down what it takes and measuring up: what suffering, sacrifice, work and time will it take and will this person commit to it? If so, the chances of achieving that goal are much greater.

Ownership: Let’s be honest, only masochists truly enjoy being shouted at for encouragement. Ultimately, people know what will move them, push them, and drive them forward. Initially to Brailsford, athlete ownership seemed a crazy idea; however after consulting their riders (including Chris Hoy), it was apparent all they wanted was expert support and guidance. Consequently there was a shift in the management approach from athletes being TOLD what to do, to a NEGOTIATION of training with the athlete’s input. Team Sky athletes now create and negotiate their own annual performance plans, which result in increased motivation and enthusiasm. The counter-side to this, according to Brailsford, is ensuring that athletes have clarity over their responsibility, accountability and the potential consequences of what happens if they DON’T take responsibility for or adhere to, their plans.

Responsibility: Team Sky believe that athlete selection is one of, if not THE biggest cause for agitation amongst riders, particularly if they don’t understand what the coaches are looking for or want from them. This is a problem I’ve encountered many a time working in team sports. If I had a fiver for the number of times a player’s come into session outright p*ssed off over selection, I’d probably be sipping a mojito in a much warmer climate rather than drinking a coffee in my house with no heating. Sir Dave’s solution? Ensure your athletes understand what the selection methodology is; that way, they can evidence their skills against that criteria. Brailsford takes this notion of responsibility further, in that his athletes are encouraged to create their OWN rules and selection documents.

Excellence: Hopefully, the above will result in excellence! Excellence is judged on a personal level, most of the time against the pre-determined and agreed criteria stated above. During crunch time when decisions need to be made, everyone is expected to have an opinion; this isn’t an expectation, but a professional OBLIGATION, according to Brailsford. Then wherever possible, these opinions form a collective opinion on the issue.


The next concept is something grossly overlooked in amateur/ aspiring sports here. The best example I can recall, is a football (soccer) coach GULDERING at a team of U10’s who were using our facility, shouting things like “That’s stupid, Mark!”, “for f*ck sake that’s terrible!” etc etc. (I think we all know the type). Now, granted this fella had given up his Saturday morning to head down and coach the youth, however, I think we’d all agree that reinforcing/ punishing behaviours in that manner, for that age group, simply isn’t on. Our actions, behaviours and mood as coaches affect our athletes and players. This is something that should be remembered regardless of the LTAD stage coaches find themselves; furthermore, it is an aspect that Brailsford deems critical to performance.


Athlete Welfare

Health, happiness & wellbeing: Brailsford says we need to remember that athletes aren’t robots. Anxieties can be displaced from our behaviours onto others, particularly in a hierarchical manner from management/ staff – athlete/ player. I’d like to think it’s common sense that an anxious athlete/ person who feels under-scrutiny won’t perform to their potential. Therefore, we need to control or modify our own behaviours to facilitate the performance of others via a positive environment that is conducive to the athlete(s).

Medical and Psychiatric model: Theinterface between medical and psychological practitioners is key, according to Sir David. Team Sky try to mould this into a single unit, known as the Rider Development Team (RDT).


The RDT: Rider Development Team

You Allied Health Professionals out there will LOVE this one. (I guess the NHS has done something positive after all!) THE RDT is based upon the NHS model on case conferencing, i.e. practitioners from different disciplines meet every 2 weeks to share their expertise and ensure their inputs with athletes are coordinated. During this meeting, they are professionally obliged to raise concerns to avoid any issues going unaddressed. Brailsford, however, realised something was missing from the RDT and, based upon on a gap analysis, he identified that the MDT gap should be filled by the athlete themselves. It’s all well and good talking ABOUT someone, but maybe talking TO them would be more beneficial? Now, Team Sky’s athletes feed into the RDT process, thus providing a forum for development and ensuring everyone is on the same page. No issues are left unresolved.

There are numerous benefits to this approach: preventing mixed messages; isolation; unsanctioned actions and opinions, whilst promoting team unity; openness; a fixed opportunity for formal discussion and appropriate delegation of responsibility.

The notion of the Rider Development Team is DEFINITELY something that should be extrapolated within sport here. Essentially, it is your Club Committee/ Panel staff, however (speaking from personal experience), these don’t always include the view of the player. At the end of the day, this is who we are dealing with and making decisions about, so, let’s deal WITH them and provide them the opportunity for their view to be heard.

The next concept is something Brailsford calls the Winning Behaviours Program, where it subjectively identifies what staff and athletes believe is helpful to making Team Sky successful.

The Winning Behaviours program (WBP): Looks at the culture of Team Sky, it’s evolution and continuing personal development. A lot of sports psychology literature focuses on the positive aspects of behaviour; employees are asked what they consider are winning behaviours, however, the WBP also tries to identify negative aspects of behaviour on group dynamics, culture etc. and what people think will stop them winning. Brailsford says his athletes and staff will then adhere to and be assessed or judged by these criteria. The criteria is then broken down into each department, with behaviour and individual development plans established to implement key winning behaviours and priorities.

Inter-departmental management is organised with minimal positions of authority to remove the idea of performance scrutiny. If people don’t want to communicate/ talk/ complain UP the chain about practices or problems, often they’ll vent their frustrations to people they perceive as their equal (particularly if it’s ABOUT a line manager!) A “safety valve” is therefore present in the form of a neutral person allocated to that department who they can approach with any issue, thereby managing the environment and atmosphere by preventing gossiping.


Finally, the one I found most interesting. I must add that Sports Psych is not my Post-grad specialism or forte; my knowledge is limited to the basics covered in several modules of my first degree e.g. the “Inverted U hypothesis”, managing the coaching environment via ABC’s/ APC’s (Meiz & Booker, 1998; covered later), so please excuse if this comes across as disjointed. Nonetheless, this was the area that I found most interesting, particularly as a Physio student completing modules in Neurology who constantly tries to relate aspects back to sports performance!

The Chimp Model- Dr Steve Peters

I highly recommend checking out Dr. Peters work. Simply put, he deconstructs the complex side of neurology and brain structure by portraying it as a machine. Brailsford (all too familiar with psychology himself from his own studies), wanted his athletes to understand what parts of the brain were most active or “thinking for them” during different scenarios, thereby helping them understand the interaction between individual, team and task behaviour. He therefore enlisted the help of Dr. Peters, a clinical senior lecturer in Psychiatry.

In layman’s terms, the brain has it’s own language that allows interaction with conflict, anxiety and our approach to competition according to it’s different areas. Dr. Peter’s and Sir David developed a simplistic language and understanding of the brain that their athletes could relate to which allowed them to convey what they were feeling, particularly when addressing performance anxiety, managing the environment and helping others optimise their performance. The result, was the Chimp Paradox ( The basics are listed below, with the main areas of the brain relative to performance as:

The Frontal lobe: where logical thinking, consequence and the “mind” itself reside.

The Lymbic system (the Chimp!): produces emotional responses only, reacts quickly and informs the frontal lobe.

The Parietal lobe: where all learned experiences are recorded i.e. where hours of training, preparation, skills are stored.

In short, according to the theory, we want to ensure our “chimp” (our emotional response e.g. anxiety) isn’t riding or playing the game for us as it’s not useful for performance. What we want, is the parietal lobe to play and instinctively perform and reproduce those thousands of hours of training and preparation. This is also known as “the zone”, which can lead to an autonomous performance. Sir David stated that this was evidenced in GB Cycling’s Beijing Olympics performance, where 22 athletes produced PB’s after implementing the Chimp Model.

The model not only helps facilitate performance, but also helps manage conflict between athletes, staff etc. If someone is agitated and can’t “control their chimp”, they are encouraged to vent their frustrations by saying “my chimp is furious” etc; they’re allowed to talk/ exercise it/ let it out but they do so in a detached manner by referring to their feelings AS “the chimp”. Listeners don’t engage with the content of this vented frustration as it’s recognised as solely an emotional response. Once finished however, they’re asked what they want done with that information e.g. facilitate the conversation with that person via the “valves” or “neutral people” under the WBP. Team Sky try to do this frequently as it helps with team dynamics, understanding performance and ultimately resolving conflicts.


Extrapolating and adapting these concepts for Excellence

And there you have it folks; Team Sky’s principles in managing their athletes, staff and environment to achieve success. The big question is though, “how can we learn from this to better OUR athlete and environments?”

Personally, I find my persona and approach differ when working with team and individual sports. I’ve always tried to manage the coaching environment to facilitate performance according to the APC model (Accountability, Performance & Consequences) based upon the work of Meiz & Booker (1998),however, following Sir Dave’s presentation, I believe S&C coaches working in a private/ consultative basis could implement the Commitment, Responsibility and Excellence components of the CORE principle. Let players establish their own rules and responsibilities for attending sessions at the beginning of the training block e.g. start times 5 mins before, penalties if late, not adhering to rest time or intensities etc. At the same time, liaising with head coaches regarding athlete work output, effort and attitude during sessions (if the coach isn’t present) will be beneficial, provided athletes are allowed to voice their own opinions too. Finally, technical and tactical coaches could implement the Winning Behaviours Program prior to commencing off/pre-season training as this could help formulate SMART goals for S&C staff.

The same can be said when working with individual sports, however, I try to create a positive environment that’s more personal to that athlete e.g. finding out are they in/ extrinsically motivated, what cues/ triggers calm them down/ fire them up etc. Now, excuse the double negative, but personally, I HATE negativity during session; we’ve all been through our fair share of sh*t in our lives, but you don’t walk your sh*t over the weight room floor or onto the training paddock when you’re about to perform. Using past experience for motivation or aggression is absolutely fine, provided athletes can detach from it, just DON’T LET EMOTION OVERCOME YOUR ATHLETES i.e ensure their Chimp isn’t in the driving seat during training or fixtures.

And so it is. In closing, just make sure you have effective management strategies in place, so your Chimps don’t go bananas.


Brailsford, S. (2014) “Managing the welfare of the Elite Athlete”. Presented at the Arsenal FC SEMS conference, Emirates Stadium. London; UK.

Meir, R. Booker, R (1998) “Managing the coaching environment to enhance performance”. Strength & Conditioning, (February): pg. 50 – 56.

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