THE BLOG

The Inside Track: How to Turn a Struggling Sport Around

01/08/2014 11:51 BST | Updated 30/09/2014 10:59 BST

As the swimming comes to an end at the Commonwealth Games it is clear that there has been a stark contrast in the fortunes of British swimmers since the disappointing performances at the London Olympics two years ago. At the Olympics, Great Britain only managed to win three medals, one Silver and two Bronze, falling short of the medal target of five to seven. However, at the Commonwealth Games the Home Nations have managed to rack up a staggering 45 medals, with 15 of them being Gold.

It is clear to see that there has been a huge improvement, but why has this happened? In our latest Inside Track blog I take a look at three reasons swimming has managed to turn itself around since London 2012:

Changing the leadership

One of the ways that they recognised as a way to improve was to change the leadership and coaching in the organisation. They identified people who had been successful in the past and appointed them to senior roles in the organisation. The new Head Coach was Bill Furniss, the coach behind Rebecca Adlington - the most successful British swimmer in history. They also hired Jon Rudd as a coach, specifically to work with English Swimming and focus on success at the Commonwealth Games. He had coached Lithuanian Ruta Meilutyte, 16, to Gold in London 2012. There has been immediate success following Rudd's appointment as he coached Ben Proud to two Gold medals at the Games. British Swimming had made a conscious decision to go out and appoint winners, people with proven track records of getting results and it appears to have worked.

They also gave opportunities to a number of younger coaches who were coming through and using new, innovative training methods. One of these was James Gibson, a previous World Champion himself, who had spent 6 years learning his trade around the world, picking up techniques from different countries. He was appointed as a sprint coach and has worked with a number of swimmers based at Loughborough University. The swimmers he coached have gone on to win 12 medals at the Games, 4 of them being Gold.

Businesses can learn from these appointments. It is clear that people with relevant experience and a track record of success have a good chance of being able to transition to a top leadership role in an organisation and bring success. However, it is equally important to believe in the talent in your organisation and not be afraid to promote younger individuals who can bring fresh ideas to the table.

Using 2012 as inspiration for success

One of the stand out features of these Commonwealth Games is the number of young athletes that are coming through and medalling in the big races. The likes of Sophie Taylor, 18, Ross Murdoch, 20, and Adam Peaty, 19, all winning Gold medals at these Games is evidence of this. None of these competed at London 2012 but have stepped up to the big stage when it matters and achieved success. They were all great junior swimmers and on the verge of competing at senior level two years ago but maybe the fact that they don't have the disappointment of the Olympics hanging over them has allowed them to compete without fear. Also, many of them have spoken about watching the London Olympics and being inspired to compete at that level in Rio in 2016. They have clearly used this to help set out a vision for themselves which will have helped them set goals that they want to achieve. In business you should encourage leaders in the organisation to set a clear vision that can inspire employees and help them to set personal goals so that they know what they're working towards.

Developing resilience in athletes who failed in London

Bouncing back from failure is often one of the hardest things to do. I had to do it in my own career after I finished fourth in the 1984 Olympics only to come back and win Gold in 1988. It took focus, willpower and a strong personality to overcome the negative press reports and my own disappointment in order to motivate myself to go through the four year cycle of training and competing again.

Equally, the swimmers who failed to deliver in London 2012 will have had the same things going through their heads. There were a lot of negative news stories around and the organisations funding was cut due to poor performance at the Olympics. They needed to show resilience in order to bounce back from this failure and come back stronger. In particular, one athlete who stood out is Fran Halsall. She had been tipped to medal at London 2012 but out of the five events Fran competed in she didn't manage to win a medal in any of them. However, she has been able to re-focus and turn things around, winning two Gold medals and two Silver medals at the Commonwealth Games.

One of the main reasons they have been able to develop this resilience is because they've been given the opportunity to do so. All the way up to the Commonwealth Games, as recent as June, the British swimmers have been travelling around Europe competing in races with the top swimmers in the world. This has allowed them to experience race pressure and develop strategies to cope with this. In contrast, in the run up to London 2012 the only previous competition where the British swimmers were under real pressure, against world class opposition, were the World Championships in 2011, so it's no wonder they didn't look race ready at the Olympics and failed to handle the pressure.

Having personal resilience and being able to bounce back from failure is as crucial in business as it is in sport. People need to be encouraged to try things again, even though they may have failed in the past, and they need to be given the opportunities and also the right amount of support to do this. A culture of resilience should be instilled in your organisation so that people don't fear failure and see it as more of a learning opportunity meaning that they'll be able to grow as a result.

British Swimming has made great strides in the last two years by recognising that things had to change following a poor showing at London 2012. In making the right changes at the right time they have been able to turn things around and really develop the talent they have available, maximising their potential at putting them in a great place looking forward to Rio 2016. There is a lot that organisations can learn from this approach and if they were to follow some of the examples outlined above then they could find that they too are achieving great things in the coming years.

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