The problem with talent (and how to manage an elite performer)

11 October 2016 -


Obsessive, distant and often unaccountable, elite performers present very special management problems

Stuart Rock

For three years out of every four, elites tend to get a bad rap.

As the group that wield power and influence on account of their wealth and privilege, elites are held responsible for many of society’s problems. They are distant, unaccountable, decadent or shadowy – take your pick.

But in the fourth year – at least for a few weeks – we cheer one very particular type of elite as they row, run and generally grimace in pursuit of Olympic gold and glory.

Their triumphs become shared common currency.

Our perception of our standing in the world rises or falls on the performance of this chosen few. They become our standard-bearers. We admire and support this elite.

This is a group that is superior in terms of abilities or qualities, and whose name derives from the Latin eligere – to choose.

Elites are world-class performers. But we can still be ambivalent about what it takes to step onto the top of the winners’ podium.

After all, these people are obsessive – if magnificently so. They appear to have an almost brutal force of will. They are surrounded by a battery of expensive coaches, trainers and equipment. And, of course, they are just plain gifted.

There’s something about the elite performer that can be disconcerting – just as a fast learner in an office can be threatening. Not everybody will be comfortable working alongside an individual who can learn things quickly, ask hard questions and apparently absorb information that most find difficult.

An elite performer threatens the secure and comfortable. Yet, in order to prosper and succeed, every organisation needs elite performers. And that means knowing how to nurture a nascent talent into a world-class one.

There are some intriguing lessons from the extensive academic research into how successful athletes achieve their path to the top.

For one thing, there’s no set route; their paths are both complex and highly individual. The emphasis has been on how athletes respond to opportunities, setbacks and changes as they progress.

So-called “talent development pathways” aim to minimise the number and impact of these challenges – whether that’s with financial support, coaching or sports-science advice – in order to allow them to focus on their commitments.

In other words, smooth the path of the exceptionally talented; let them focus on what they are good at.

However – and this is critical – young talent doesn’t necessarily encounter stiff challenges early on. It is the response to such challenges that is seen as an essential characteristic of the athletes who make it to the highest level.

Ultimately, for the elite performer, it’s all in the mind.

In a fascinating paper in Frontiers in Psychology, Dave Collins and Aine MacNamara from the Institute of Coaching and Performance at the University of Central Lancashire, and Neil McCarthy from Gloucester Rugby Club, reviewed the factors that appear to mark out the ‘super champions’ – the elite among the elite.

Super champions have always had a love for and a commitment to their sport. But this is not at the expense of all other sports. They don’t just play and practise their chosen activity. While they are developing their abilities, they keep active in other areas.

They have “an almost fanatical reaction to challenge”, say the authors.

Whether that’s a minor injury, or being dropped from the team for a single game, this becomes the spur, the catalyst, for working out how to recover and improve.

Knowing that they will cope and learn from challenges before they even set out is a distinctive and established attitude that differentiates elite performers.

It is central to their development.

When faced with an injury, the elite performer sets out to learn from it; the average performer, on the other hand, is surprised and often angry, and will tend to blame external factors. The elite just don’t give up.

It’s the consistency of that drive that separates the elite performer from the simply good. They are also marked by an unquenchable dissatisfaction with the existing state.

There is always something else to be done, another goal to be achieved. Their internal drive is enormous.

Another distinguishing factor is the quality of their self-analysis. They are brilliant at examining their own performance. They don’t focus on what their competitors do; rather, they scrutinise relentlessly what they do themselves.

Super champions have a ruthless attention to detail. They are constantly perfecting not just the techniques of their sport, but so many other mental details. They will imagine holding that medal aloft, not just as an enjoyable daydream, but as a critical element of preparation.

The aim: to become mentally impregnable at the given moment of competition.

Their coaches and trainers are not the barking pitbull characters of Hollywood films. Instead, they are positive facilitators and subtle encouragers. The elite don’t respond well to being shouted at. It’s all about helping to frame the attitude of the player, so that they feel that they are in command of the situation, not the other way around.

So, in grooming an elite, managers have to address a twin challenge: they must facilitate their elite performers while not triggering feelings of relative inadequacy among the others.

If the victories of the elite raise the standards of all, you are on the march. The trouble really arises if the elites – hard of mind and hard of will – become the ruling group.

That’s when they become distant, unaccountable, decadent or shadowy. And you don’t want to take your pick out of them.

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