EPP and the Leaders Performance Institute ask Jeremy Bettle, Darren Burgess and James Thomas how they approach one of sport’s great imponderables.

By John Portch

When yours is a winning environment, what steps can you take to ensure that your performance levels bear the extra pressure of expectation that comes with success?

The question is on the mind of Jeremy Bettle, the Performance Director at New York City FC, who won the MLS Cup in December last year, when the Leaders Performance Institute and Dave Slemen and Anna Edwards of Elite Performance Partners [EPP] sat down with him to discuss the steps performance directors can take to become better leaders.

Joining Bettle in conversation are Darren Burgess, the High Performance Manager of the Adelaide Crows who also leads EPP’s search offering in Australia, and James Thomas, the Performance Director at British Gymnastics. The trio work in three different sports and geographies, with systems and structures that vary in their approach, but each brings a sense of vulnerability, self-awareness, and an understanding of the importance of the culture and context they are working within. Their leadership capabilities bind together a great strategy and strong culture, which is essential if teams and organisations are to retain their shape when pressure is applied. Of the expectations and pressure now thrust upon NYCFC, Bettle says: “It’s certainly going to be something new for our club this year.”

Bettle, Burgess and Thomas all have a deep desire to keep learning, which has driven them to the top of their fields and each played a part in a series of ‘firsts’ in 2021. NYCFC’s MLS Cup triumph was the club’s first, while Burgess was serving as Performance Manager of the Melbourne Demons when they won their first AFL Grand Final in 57 years. Also, under Thomas’ stewardship, Great Britain won their first Olympic medal in the women’s gymnastics team event for 93 years.

Thomas tackles the question of pressure from the athletes’ perspective.

“It’s been the biggest risk or success factor of the last four years,” he says. “When we look at our gymnasts, they’re phenomenal athletes. They have the ability to execute phenomenal technical skills and they can do it day-in and day-out in the training environment. Where I see the athletes either struggle or excel is that ability to step into a competition environment and deliver it there. With every sport, you’ve got great examples of people who can do it either in a one-off or can do it repeatedly, or they can do it in training and they can’t do it in competition.”

“We’ve actually put a lot of time and resource into different pressure environments whether it’s changing training set-ups, whether it’s manipulating timings just to put athletes under more pressure, less warm-up, less time between apparatus, we’ve brought in surprise friends and family to come on the balcony and watch and cheer. We try to exhaust almost all of our coaches and psychologists’ views of manipulating the training environment.” Nevertheless, as Thomas admits, “you can never quite replicate the actual competition environment.”

Burgess, who last year won the AFL Grand Final with Melbourne and previously worked in the English Premier League with Liverpool and Arsenal, finds the same applies to professional team sports. “It’s very hard to simulate pressure, especially with games happening every three or four days in the Premier League, particularly when you’re also competing in European competitions.”

His mind goes back to the two-week period in September before Melbourne took on the Western Bulldogs in the AFL Grand Final. The consensus amongst the fans and media was that Melbourne had the better team but were undermined by the fact that their route through the playoffs meant that they had played one game in 28 days.

“We decided to take the high risk of playing a match simulation,” says Burgess. “It probably cost us a couple of players who were on the fringe of being selected, but in the end, that was how we decided to simulate that pressure as much as we could. We had umpires in, full mouth guards, so it was part of our thought process to try and simulate that as much as we could. We even built up a bit of a rivalry between the ‘possibles’ and ‘probables’ and tried to manufacture that so that the ‘possibles’ put up a good fight.”

Bettle approves of such approaches. “I’m a big believer in exposing people to pressure versus shielding them from it,” he says. “I think there can be a balance there but you’ve got to get used to pressure and have strategies to deal with it. I’m a big believer in process and having done it before; and trying to make these environments a lot more automatic.”

He recalls his time working at the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets between 2011 and 2015 when there were few opportunities to generate pressure because the games came thick and fast. He was struck by the veteran players. “They show very little emotion win, lose or draw. I think because it’s so automatic to them, it really helps them to perform on a nightly basis.” By contrast, however, New York City practised penalties as they progressed through the MLS Playoffs. “Having the guys line up on halfway and having them walk out on their own; and because they’ve gone through it over and over and over again, when we actually get into the scenario, which we did twice in the playoffs, it just felt more normal to us. The guys executed it excellently when it came to it and maybe it helped, maybe it didn’t, but it made me feel better about it anyway!”

The approach is far from universal in soccer, as Slemen points out. Penalties are one of the few closed skills in football that can be practised but the prevailing culture has often been reluctant.

Bettle and New York City Head Coach Ronny Deila also tried to factor an element of fun into the team’s progression through the season and post-season. Though he has often been sceptical of organised fun in a team context, he explains that Deila’s decision to organise team dinners reaped dividends.

“I think the coach did a great job this year of recognising that our team didn’t do well when they didn’t have an opportunity to relax,” says Bettle. “So we started doing team dinners when we go on the road, on match day minus two. They’d have a glass of wine, and we’d have just a really fun night out that felt authentic and not forced.

Giving the players an opportunity to enjoy it and not be so disciplined was a bit of a departure from my mindset, but I’ve come to recognise it’s been one of the most valuable things that we did last year, to put a focus on joy and fun and enjoying the experience. I think building that environment, recognising who your players are and how they’re going to respond versus having some really rigid thoughts around ‘this isn’t high performance, we can’t drink wine two days before a game’ it actually helped us.”

Much like in soccer or basketball, Thomas explains that in gymnastics the success of any rituals largely depends on the skill of the coach. He says: “Where I probably see the magic happen it’s been where coaches have managed to really understand the team and the group of athletes they’ve got, where they’re positioned.”

“For the men’s gymnastics team, it was very clear in the build-up to Tokyo, they were probably fourth or fifth in the world, and it was very cleverly done by our coach to position them as the underdogs that were going to create the big upset rather than ‘we can’t achieve that’ or ‘we’re world No 1’. It was ‘let’s go on the hunt’. They really put this mindset into the gymnasts that this final 12-week prep was really just about closing the gap. You could see every day that the gymnasts came in with the bit between their teeth about closing the gap. It wasn’t necessarily about winning the medal, it was about ‘how do we get as close as we possibly can?’”

“There was a sense of realism, a sense of togetherness towards something and it really pulled them together. It did feel like a team and the feedback that we had from some of the gymnasts who had been to multiple games, said it was the best team environment because they had a really clear purpose and it was really cleverly orchestrated by the coach. That’s where I’ve seen it work its best, through the coach, with a little bit of a framework of what they’re working towards and that purpose.”

Thomas has witnessed scenarios where the use of rituals does not work and puts it down to authenticity, which chimes with Burgess’ views on the matter.

“It’s a really risky practice if there’s not authenticity about the ritual, the practice or the theme,” he says.

“If there’s not complete buy-in, then you really are in trouble. Let’s say, for example, that your ritual, your belief is ‘selflessness’ and you want everybody to act selflessly throughout everything, the minute that your star No 10 player decides to miss a training session or turn up late or act selfishly in some way, are you going to drop that player? You have to stick to it and then it becomes part of your team’s identity and everybody respects that. Yes, it can work, but it has to work in the right environment and I’ve seen both.”