“I went down to the Australian Institute of Sport as a nine-year-old for what I would describe as a national talent identification screening day. You walked in with hundreds of other kids and stood in front of a lady called Ju-Ping Tian – the ‘Dragon Lady’ – who was the National Head Coach of Australian Gymnastics at the time.
If she pointed left, you went and played in the foam pit for four or five hours and had lots of fun. If she pointed right, you went into a room with all the top coaches for a serious assessment of your aptitude. I went left.” So recalls Chelsea Warr on her introduction to the world of talent selection and development.
Despite that inauspicious beginning, Chelsea became a national-level gymnast. “I was OK; I wasn’t great, but I liked this idea of perfection,” she says. After a degree in Sports Science and several post graduate degrees, her career started as an exercise physiologist at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. She was then appointed to establish and lead the first state-based, systematic talent identification and development programme in Australia, resulting in 156 State and National Junior champions, 11 World Junior medallists and four Olympic champions within five years, before being recruited by British Swimming and Diving to develop and implement its World Class Development strategy. She then moved to UK Sport in 2005, where she consulted on high performance programmes, becoming head of athlete development in 2009, and eventually Deputy Director of Performance earlier this year.
Essentially, the remit for Chelsea and her specialist technical team is to constructively challenge, yet actively support, all Olympic and Paralympic funded sports to embed world-leading performance pathways that systemically identify, confirm and develop future medal winners. She says: “My key responsibility is to enhance the chances of Team GB winning more medals at future games. One such way we do this is by profiing and quantifying the effectiveness of how all funded sports are locating and developing medal winners for 2020-2024. I challenge myself, and my team – how can we enhance, innovate and accelerate the levels of sophistication by which sports currently unearth and construct their eight-10 year development programmes? How can we inject pace and greater scientific evidence into how they are operating? And given the backdrop of more countries now taking a greater market share of not only medals, but gold medals, our work is about proactively responding to this challenge. The answer is not just throwing money at it. It’s all about high challenge, high support, high accountability and a willingness to work in partnerships with sports to make that investment sweat at the frontline.”
Currently, that means investing in 714 development athletes (known as ‘podium potential’) across 44 sports who were identified back in 2012 and are already well into their journey for podium success in 2020.These athletes are supported by UK Sport, the high performance agency in the UK, through its ‘World Class’ programme which invests in sports based on their medal potential over an eight-year cycle and continually monitors and reviews performance against agreed targets through its widely admired ‘Mission’ process.
In effect, UK Sport chooses how to invest more than £355m of National Lottery and Exchequer funding over a four-year period to enable summer Olympic and Paralympic sports to enhance their own systems of performance development and ultimately build a stronger, more sustainable system. That investment is distributed in line with a ‘no compromise’ meritocratic approach which, as Chelsea explains, means that: “We invest in current performance, in sports that are winning now. However, as commonly observed in good venture capitalists, we also consider the relative future potential of that sport, the direction of travel – what they are capable of doing in the next eight years. In other words, how strong is the evidence to suggest the current athletes targeted for 2020 podium success could actually reach these levels of performance, and how strong are their systems and structures in place to enable this to happen? We want to invest in sustainable success, not one-hit wonders”
The ultimate investment decisions are based on a range of data and insights, some of which Chelsea’s team contribute to. There are currently four key workstreams that the Performance Pathway Team delivers, working in close partnership with the various sports. “The first workstream is benchmarking – we profile all 44 Olympic and Paralympic sports we currently fund twice in a cycle to try to understand, from a sports-specific perspective, how effective and efficient they are at finding and developing world-class performers,” Chelsea explains. “In essence, we compare and contrast the sports development systems against what we consider are world’s best. During this process we benchmark sports across more than 100 metrics that are determining factors in implementing a world-leading talent identification, confirmation and development programme. We then activate improvement programmes at either a system-wide level or sport-specific level – with more than 30-40 projects active at any one time in the cycle. The principle of profiling followed by support originates from a wise colleague of mine who taught me that critical challenge is three times more likely to be accepted and acted upon if immediately proceeded with help and support. That’s the underpinning principle of our benchmarking work stream.
“The second workstream is front line solutions. The purpose of this work is to deploy key staff into the sports for extended secondment periods in order to answer questions like how do you create a talent profile capable of predicting future Olympic/Paralympic potential? How many athletes do we need in the pipeline now to achieve our medal ambitions in Tokyo 2020? Is it possible to transfer sporting talent from one sport to another? How old is too old and what sports transfer best? What does an exceptional development environment look like and how can we create, replicate and sustain it? What role does the art of science and coaching play in identifying and developing extraordinary talent?
The third stream is education. Chelsea says: “P3 – the Performance Pathway Education Programme – is designed to accelerate the knowledge and skills of our Performance Pathway Managers who have the lead responsibility to unearth and develop future Olympic and Paralympic medallists. The structured programme unfolds over an 18-month period and comprises of seven, two-day intensive residential modules delivered in collaboration with individuals and/or world-renowned institutions who are leading authorities in identifying and developing precocious talent. For example, we have worked with the European Space Agency to understand how they identify and develop astronauts, clearly a process they have to get right. We also collaborate with institutions of development excellence such as the Royal Ballet School, the Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Surgeons to constantly benchmark ourselves against ‘gold’ standard organisations. Finally, we will be taking our P3 Learners on a world talent tour whereby they will systematically study 13 institutions that can demonstrate sustainable success and a constant production line of talented individuals who go onto to be at the top of their game.”
The fourth workstream is about cutting-edge research in the field of developing expertise and translating it into real-life practice. Chelsea explains: “The benchmarking workstream generates some real killer questions that, if we were able to answer them and apply those answers to our methods, would enhance sport’s chances of identifying the right people and developing them in a more efficient way. We’ve initiated many different applied research projects over the years, with the results flowing back into the front line solutions team in real-time and, of course, into the P3 programme. It keeps the whole programme fresh and curious, and this is an important quality in a performance-based industry”.
One recent, highly innovative piece of work that will be revealed later this year across the World Class system is the Serial Medalist study (and the ‘nearly twin’). The developmental profiles of serial gold medallists, starting from the age of 6 years old to when they won their medals was reconstructed and compared to the profiles of their ‘nearly twin’, someone who should have made it, but didn’t. This world-leading piece of research has allowed Chelsea’s team a greater in-depth insight into the discriminating factors that are required to achieve not only success, but serial success in elite sport. Chelsea says: “The research team and I were constantly asking ourselves three questions about this very special cohort: what do we know? What do we think we know? What do we need to know in order to enhance sport’s ability to identify and develop future world-class performers?”
So, what does the future hold to help deliver that sustainable success? According to Chelsea, after having been recommended to read busines guru Jim Collins’ most recent work How The Mighty Fall – Sustainable Success Is A Tough One. Collins argues that it is not apathy and arrogance that is mostly responsible for the demise of great organisations, but hubris and “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” He warns that leaders assume their current success is automatic and turn their attention to the next big thing, leaping into businesses, products, activities where there is no advantage, taking actions inconsistent with core values and neglecting the core principles that created those values in the first place. Chelsea concurs with Collins’ analysis and provides both a warning and advice for all the sports with which UK Sport interacts. The key to sustaining and replicating the success achieved by sports such as cycling, sailing and rowing is, she believes, “to always pay attention to those really, really important things that got you there in the first place. Great athletes coming together with great coaches, not by chance, but by design, and engineering environments that worship the notion of constant progression and excellence. This is British Cycling. They understand about finding raw material, proactively connecting it to an intensive incubator with world-class coaches and support staff, and, most importantly, they value constant improvement.”
Chelsea concludes by recalling one of her favourite quotes which comes from T.S. Eliot, to explain the mission of UK Sport and her role in it: “The great ages did not produce more talent ; they simply wasted less.” And how do you waste less Chelsea asks? “Make less mistakes and therefore, learn faster than the opposition.”
By: Chelsea Warr