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Diversity in Sport: my experiences.

"The more diverse your collection, the more interesting your output becomes. Pick up a magazine or book about a subject you know nothing about. Attend a different industry's conference. Surround yourself with people from different professions, backgrounds and interests. Instead of talking about the weather, ask, 'What's the most interesting thing you're working on right now?'" - Think Like a Rocket Scientist, Ozan Varol

A slide I presented for my PGCE interview last year. I tried to highlight the diverse set of experiences I have had in my career.

My experiences in Sport

As can be seen in the image above, I have been on a journey that I wouldn't have imagined was possible when I began my undergraduate degree in 2011. I have had exposure to both individual and team sports, with both performance (adult) and development (adolescent) squads, and across male and female playing groups. This post will dive into some of the collection of experiences, and some of the benefits of being exposed to a variety of people, in a variety of environments.

My journey started while completing my undergraduate degree, and I was lucky enough to land a placement at the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS). This was an awesome experience for me given that it was on the other side of the world, and I was working primarily in sports that I had never participated in at any level - Swimming, Diving and Gymnastics, with some exposure to Rowing, Kayaking and wheelchair basketball testing. This was a steep learning curve across everything, adjusting to a new country and climate (many times I was told to put on sun cream, even in an Australian winter), working with new coaches and athletes, developing sports physiology skills (collecting lactate data and analysis). While in Perth, I got an opportunity to experience two more sports that I had never participated in - Rugby Union and AFL. Although, as these were team sports, the learning curve was not as steep.

After this placement, I returned home and I worked as an Athletic Development Coach in Hurling. I had played Hurling at underage level, so this was a pretty comfortable environment, but there were challenges too - new coaching staff, new playing squad for the most part, but the most challenging part was coaching players who I was playing with at the time. Having to switch from teammate to coach sometimes on the same day was an interesting challenge, but it was great to develop that self-awareness and creating a coaching presence. This was only for a 7 month period before I again moved to another team, with another set of coaches and another set of players. Within an 18-month period, I had 3 significant experiences with 3 different groups, so I had to do my best to develop strong relationships each time, although this is something that I am still not confident in, as I share here. With the 3rd group in this period, I did not have any teammates on the squad, but I was a similar age profile to many players, and up to 10 years younger than some. Another steep learning experience on developing my coaching presence. If you don't believe in yourself, how can you expect others to?

"Fake it until you become it" - Presence, Amy Cuddy

From here, I moved to Hong Kong, which was the most significant experience of my career to date, and the foundation from which I have had a number of other notable experiences. Coming to Hong Kong meant a 4th significant ecosystem to mesh with in a 24 month period. While I didn't realise at the time (it was only supposed to be a 3 month stint), it was an environment I would call home for the next 5 years. During that time, I wasn't coming into other people's "home" environment, other people were coming into the environment that was my home. New coaches, new players, interns, new support staff was a regular occurance over the 5 year period. Now I didn't have the challenge of "fitting in" to a new group, but rather to help new colleagues settle in. I didn't do a great job of this:

  • One Monday morning, a new player arrived for his first day, and met with the Head of Performance and was given a program to complete. When he had finished his session, the Head of Performance was in a meeting, and the new player came to me and said: "I've done the session, but I want to do more, is there anything else I can do?" I didn't respond verbally (or with a smile or anything welcoming), I just picked up a program that was printed out on the table and handed it to him and said "Here, do that." The new player turned around to one of the senior players in a puzzled manner and he asked "I don't understand, did I piss him off? Have I done something wrong?" To which the senior player replied "Nah, he's just like that."

So making people feel safe and welcome in environments is something I have had to work on, and it is especially important now as a PE teacher where I am working with pupils who may not enjoy PE class or may be hesitant to get involved for a fear of making a mistake or possibly a fear of being ridiculed by others. Part of my job is to eradicate that fear of judgement, and create an environment where failure is not only ok, but is is welcomed as it is a vital part of the learning process.

My time in Hong Kong was the foundation for 5 of the best learning experiences I have had. Sydney in 2017, Melbourne in 2018, Melbourne 2019, Brisbane/Gold Coast in 2019, and ALTIS 2019. During these experiences, I was fortunate to speak with people from backgrounds and interests, as per the quote at the top of the page. Throughout these trips, I have accumulated varied experiences across AFL, Rugby League, Football, Track and Field, Mental Fatigue in Sport, Strength and Power research, and with various "pracademics" working in elite sport while completing/having completed their PhD. I have linked some of my visit above for a more detailed insight into my learnings, but this was an incredible period of time, literally travelling the world to spend time with some of the best minds in high performance sport.

Aside from the learning about some of the cutting edge technology and methodology within sports science throughout my time in Australia, Ireland, Hong Kong and the US, the real benefit came from the diversity of human beings that I interacted with over that period. I literally coached hundreds of people (elite to development athletes, in the gym, on the pitch or player education) and worked with dozens of coaches (variety of sports) and dozens of support staff (S&C, physio, performance analyst, nutrition). It is next to impoosible to not improve my "soft" skills from this level of exposure, and not to have my own thought processes challenged.

For all the travelling I did to see various practitioners across various programs, on reflection, I feel I was somewhat narrow-minded. I only spoke with people in similar roles to what I was doing at the time. The conversations I was having were very applicable at the time, and it meant I could return to my role and make instantaneous changes to my own processes and systems. But I was comparing apples with apples. Perhaps engaging in combinatory play would have been even more powerful. Combinatory play was a term coined by Albert Einstein: "It requires exposing yourself to a motley coalition of ideas, seeing the similar in the dissimilar, and combining and recombining apples and oranges into a brand new fruit." - Think Like a Rocket Scientist, Ozan Varol.

Different people, different backgrounds, different experiences, different viewpoints, different sports, different upbringing, different perspectives. different biases, different attitudes, and different industries. All combined with a radical open-mindedness. Is there a better way to grow?

"Asking others who are strong in areas where you are weak to help you is a great skill that you should develop no matter what, as it will help you develop guardrails that will prevent you from doing what you shouldn't be doing. All succesful people are good at this." - Principles, Ray Dalio.


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