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  • Troy Flanagan

When Things Fail: Taking risks and making mistakes


Professional sport is a pressure cooker. People are expected to produce results and are held accountable for the goals and targets that they set. When a team fails or goals are not met, it’s usually the head coach that is held accountable. Performance staff can also be held accountable due to excessively high injury rates, lack of physical performance or general dysfunction in their department. There’s a balance between holding them accountable and giving them the space to experiment, fail, learn and grow.

Teams should play the long game and let the staff develop their knowledge. It takes 2-3 seasons before new support staff really hit their stride, particularly if they are coming into the team from another sport. Their understanding of the sport and it’s requirements always improves. Where possible, existing staff and coaching staff should be generous in helping the support staff understand their sport and some initial leniency for not knowing the intricacies of the sport should be afforded.

The faster you can transition new staff in, the less likely they are to make mistakes. Therefore, they need information and to learn quickly. When onboarding new staff, teams should consider the following:

  1. Walk through player histories and what has worked.

  2. Discuss philosophies - the why.

  3. Provide access to documented procedures and protocols.

  4. Coach and mentor new staff as they experience their exponential learning curve.


With respect to project work, it is often the case that the first prototype of anything never works. Even some of the most impactful technology projects on performance usually fail first. It is important, therefore, to set expectations early that projects and even new staff will fail first before they succeed.

Some key things that I have learned that helps keep the confidence in new technology prototypes and projects when they initially fail:

  1. Use the technology well in advance - if something is going to be used at a major competition, trial it at a number of lead up competitions. Aim to test technology (full dress rehearsal) at least a year or even two years in advance if you can. This gives you time to adjust.

  2. Educate key people about the likelihood of the first prototype‘s chances of success and the expected number of iterations before the technology will probably work and operate in a robust way.

  3. Build confidence amongst athletes and coaches. Show them the tangible benefits. Athletes are creatures of habit and don’t want to change. You might find a lot of energy is needed to convince athletes that the new technology is better and even to break superstitions.

  4. Gossip can kill a technology project if information is leaked, particularly in sports teams. Be careful who knows the key information.

  5. Almost every good technology project I have been involved with has taken at least three years to full maturity. Educate people around timelines for completion.

In short, don’t just work on the technology. Spend time communicating and managing expectations.

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