Freedom, what does it mean in a performance or player development environment and can it overwhelm or confuse your players? Co-founder of myfastestmile and top PDP contributor, Mark Upton shares his excellent blog post on managing this cultural and environmental shift.

“You can’t get sustained exceptional performance from a controlling environment – push autonomy down the hierarchy”

I’ve recently spent some time on performance cultures and environments, fortunate to be able to share experiences with a handful of exceptional people working in a range of roles in sport and other domains. The above quote is a paraphrase from one of those conversations.

Somewhat related to this, there seems an emerging (or long-running?) narrative regarding people who bemoan youth and senior players not taking more ownership/responsibility for improving themselves. An immediate reaction might be to nod in agreement. Yet if we dig below the surface, often the environments these same people are involved in creating suggest (sometimes subtly) a desire for control, compliance, docility and fear of challenging The Hierarchy.

(I’ve written about this issue in a different context previously)

If we consider players have likely been exposed to these dynamics in both an educational and sport setting for some period of time, is it any surprise when they a) fail to engage as they’ve long seen through the illusion of autonomy, and/or b) when autonomy is genuinely fostered and encouraged, they stumble and flounder with this freedom? This latter case is the one I see and hear of coaches struggling with (it is a story that has been told at least once in every one of our #relearn events).

Taking the leap into the unknown of devolving responsibility and decision making to players, in some cases both coaches and players are not just floundering but drowning.

You may or may not find this reassuring, but this catch 22 is evident in other domains. Take this case study of an organisation framing itself as a Complex Adaptive System and moving towards greater freedom for employees…

It was impossible to move to this way of operating straight away because people needed to develop the skills and confidence to handle freedom, but on the other hand you can’t develop those skills and that confidence without having the freedom. So, as we began gradually removing the controls on people we introduced a wide ranging development programme under the banner of “Being Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

I like this framing as a starter. A next step, that may help to keep your head above water, is to understand the history of the player you are working with (and perhaps your own).

If you used a continuum of Total Freedom<–>Total Control, where would all their life experiences and environments (home, school, work, sport) fall on this continuum? This could inform your starting point (working from the evolutionary potential of the present rather than an idealistic notion) with a general direction of moving towards greater freedom.

Interesting questions to then consider

  • Where do you believe is the “sweet spot” on this continuum?
  • Is there such a thing as too much freedom?
  • What/who could you seek out to help with this approach if it is new to you?
  • What to do if your efforts towards enabling greater freedom creates conflict with others at your club or in your sport? (tip: keep a lookout for threats to the power/status/authority of certain individuals)


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