Better culture creates a stronger system, says UK Sport CEO Liz Nicholl

Published 24 October 2017

2016 Getty Images

From the CEO of UK Sport, Liz Nicholl

It is widely acknowledged that the UK’s high performance sport system has been incredibly successful in terms of winning medals on the Olympic, Paralympic and world stage. This success is unprecedented for a nation of the size of the UK. 

Every day, on the track, pitch, pool and in the sports hall, water or gym over 2000 talented and committed leaders, coaches and support personnel are working in teams across the system supporting over 1000 athletes to help them achieve their dreams of being the best in the world.

Success to date has shown that the system knows how to develop winners and as a consequence more young people than ever are choosing to pursue this challenge believing, if they have the talent, the UK system can make them into winners.

Within the UK’s high performance system there is a constant drive and desire to be better and to learn from others, to celebrate success, to make fewer mistakes and to learn swiftly from failure. As the challenge increases and performance breakthroughs are sought-after, the human and personal challenges intensify.

In this context, good leaders and coaches in our system are committed to creating the right environment, providing equal levels of support and challenge while also being extra vigilant in caring about the well-being of athletes who everyone wants to get to that start line feeling positive in both body and mind. Protecting the well-being of all of the people in the high performance system is a key ingredient to sustained success.

Over the last 12 months a light has been shone on some wholly inappropriate and unacceptable behaviours in some Olympic and Paralympic sports and in other sports. Each individual case is in itself deeply disturbing and the shock waves have been felt right across the system. It is important that we know the truth and these voices must be heard and the grievances must be dealt with fairly, effectively and promptly.  

Where UK Sport is a significant investor in a sport, we are committed to using all of the powers available to us to ensure that these matters are dealt with appropriately and to ensure that any underlying cultural issues are also addressed.

The re-building of trust and visible changes in behaviour and culture, where it is needed, could take some time and so there are still likely to be some rough waters to navigate but we are committed to the challenge.  Getting this right is a top priority for us to protect well-being and to ensure we can continue to deliver on our vision to inspire the nation. It is in this context that UK Sport has stepped up progress on a number of initiatives:   

Established a Sport Integrity function at UK Sport to provide us with the assurance that issues, when identified, are being dealt with appropriately within sports; to advise sports on policies for whistleblowing and reporting unacceptable behaviour; to advise on procedures for identifying, investigating (engaging independent experts)  and resolving cultural or behavioural issues in world class programmes.

Developed a ‘Culture Health Check’ process that is now being delivered across all sports to collate insights provided by athletes, staff and stakeholders. This will help create positive winning cultures; shine a light on what is working well and provide a better early warning system to highlight problems within sports and enable early action to be taken to address them, as well as a secure an anonymous way for athletes and staff to report problems and seek support.

Progressed work on establishing a framework of values and behaviours for the high performance system to provide guidance for sports on what a healthy, vibrant and successful culture looks and feels like.

Reviewed and revised our People Development Strategy, adding value to the responsibility of each sport by accelerating exemplary leadership and management skills across the high performance system, enhancing education on organisational cultural development, alongside basic training into Duty of Care and Safeguarding and including effective induction and exit of athletes and staff.

Increased focus on strengthening UK Sport’s case management of world class programmes to ensure full and effective accountability for good governance, leadership and culture, as well as athlete performance.

Used our funding agreements to drive improved leadership and governance aligned with the new Code for Sport Governance the most advanced set of sports governance standards in the world – and to address some key findings of the recent Duty of Care Review. These funding agreements enable application of our Eligibility Policy to athlete support personnel.

Initiated work with the British Athletes Commission to review the support required to significantly enhance athlete voice, support and representation across the high performance system.

It would be a huge disservice not to recognise and acknowledge that within our high performance system we have some of the world’s most talented, committed, ethical and inspirational coaches and support staff working to help our athletes achieve their dreams, to represent their country and make us all proud.

We remain committed to the further development of a high performance system where UK Sport and every other organisation and individual within the system learns from their successes and failures, from the best in the world in sport and other industries.

Sustaining success in the Olympic and Paralympic arena requires sports to make difficult choices about which athletes they support, and will continue to require us to make difficult choices about how we prioritise investment in the high performance system. However it is clear that we must work together to ensure that these tough decisions that lie at the heart of any high performance system are made with absolute transparency, are sensitively and respectfully communicated, and the impact of these decision is understood and carefully managed.

We are committed to understanding more about the impact of the system on athletes and sports, and to understanding how we can better support those who are negatively affected.

We feel confident that the serious behavioural issues that have occurred are isolated and certainly not endemic.

We will continue to focus on solutions to challenges that can be applied in support of the further development of sports and their World Class programmes.

We fundamentally believe that good culture, leadership and governance within sports will lead to better management, administration, coaching and communication; and ultimately enhanced performances.

We are fully committed to developing a high performance culture that is truly inspirational and one that will once again set us apart from our global competitors.  

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