Shifting the system for success: further lessons from GB Short Track

Nicola Waterworth // 31 January 2018 

Back in October we reflected on the learning about team working from our project with the GB Short Track speedskating relay team. With the winter Olympics about to start in Pyeongchang on 9th February we’re offering further lessons on developing the culture of success necessary to fuel a dream for Olympic qualification, or any other team goal. For the first time Short Track are sending three women for all three individual short track distances at the winter games, including European and World Champion Elise Christie.

While the women’s relay team was not one of the only eight teams to qualify, to focus on qualifying, let alone winning in this Olympic cycle was a big shift; no British women’s relay team has been to the Olympics before. And while out of the running now, they were there and this leaves much to learn from their experiences. Throughout our project we’ve been speaking to Stewart Laing, Performance Director at GB Short Track about the importance of team culture, his “winning team habits” and creating a, “psychologically aware system” if you really want to talk about winning, and be prepared for when things don’t go to plan.

It’s no surprise that for Stewart winning started with shifting the mindset of individual athletes, support staff and the organisation as a whole; a core shared ethos around ‘winning’. This kind of focused and intensive effort towards specific sporting goals can bring risks, Stewart acknowledges a school of thought that, “talk about winning puts more pressure on the athletes”; like society at large when you “shoot for the moon” you risk a continual cycle of success or failure based in raised expectation.

Unfortunately we’ve heard a lot over the last eighteen months about the detrimental impact on sports organisations, and importantly the mental and physical health of athletes of this kind of unwavering, “at all costs” determination. But with Stewart’s strongly held belief in optimising learning and development environments for success Short Track navigated this with consistent, clear and simple messages promoting a bold vision and goals, but in a culture moving away from a “fear of failure” to one that has the “confidence to explore”, is able to “be bold to try” and “making errors to learn”.

The second thing Stewart has not been shy in instigating is raising the bar on the professionalism of the entire team approach; acknowledging candidly the importance of investing in both the athlete and support team, no easy challenge for a small, minority sport. Yet he credits a a move for the entire organisation to premises where all staff had sufficient work space and athlete space could be co-located as reaping significant benefits for changing the organisation’s behaviours and culture. In the space called, “our short track world” there are minimum expectations about the levels of professionalism and communication for everyone to get the job of being a world competing team done properly.

And dealing with things when they don’t go to plan? While acknowledging you can’t literally scenario plan for all occurrences, Stewart is keen to stress how important looking at every possible opportunity you can is. In talking about a culture of planning Stewart cites the impact of the top-down approach we have heard a lot about in the success of Team GB over the last decade; when we spoke to him in January he had just returned from a strategy meeting for Beijing in 2022. To constantly plan is to constantly, “reflect and learn or tweak stuff along the way”, not letting issues build up. As Stewart puts it to not do this would be something akin to “holding your breath for 4 years” and then working out where you went wrong.

And importantly the unending running of scenarios with the team means you are “not hitting the panic button” when something doesn’t go to plan. Regardless of whether you ran that specific thing you have a culture of thinking around it to find a solution, even under pressure. For the women’s relay team a wide range of injuries and other unfortunate obstacles during qualification was testament to the fact that to keep going you need to both be prepared to explore and just well prepared.

So when things don’t go to plan, you need to move to what you do next to achieve that goal. But for Stewart it’s not about ignoring the emotion. Elite sport inevitably remains a highly charged and emotional environment, specifically in the 4 year cycle of an Olympic dream at Short Track and this applies for both athletes and coaches,

“There are consequences that they won’t be going to the games as well, so now some of their ambitions are as coaching athletes to deliver medals and so it was managing the emotion across the whole system.”

Emotion needs acknowledging but the team has worked hard to understand both their own reactions and those of others around them only as symptoms and to focus on understanding the roots of the behaviour. In common with all national sport these days Short Track work with highly qualified sports psychologists, and with the English Institute of Sport, importantly in short track world,


“what we’re trying to do is equip the system to be more psychologically aware.”

This “psychologically aware system” sits within a more holistic approach to well-being for the whole team. The need for a clearer and more focused duty of care in elite sport and the real and sometimes highly damaging impact of a culture of winning at all costs have attracted a lot of attention and scrutiny over the last eighteen months in the UK, only this week Michael Jamieson spoke openly about this. It’s refreshing to hear a Performance Director talking about his success in terms of the work-life balance he has achieved for himself and others and the importance of health and time with family,

“We are more effective in our roles if we have good balance or we have invested the time in our own personal well being, fitness, health things like that”

And together the support team have invested in their own physical well-being by cycling, running and swimming the equivalent of the 11,000 miles to Pyeongchang in just over 6 months.

Even with the women’s relay team missing out on one of those few places at the Games, the results are clear,

“I’m hugely proud of the fact that we’ve got experienced athletes and debutantes going to the games. It proves that we’re not just a one trick pony creating the likes of Elise Christie and Charlotte Gilmartin,,, [we’re] serial Olympians. We’ve got people coming through, we’re nurturing and developing talent, we’ve got a really strong women’s programme and I think we can continue to push through for more medals and more results…… the potential for Beijing is hugely exciting.”

So not only do we wait on tenterhooks over the next three weeks for news on medals but it’s evident that this success at elite level is inspiring others to get involved. To have a minority sport star such as Elise Christie shortlisted for SPOTY at the end of 2017 was a significant step in putting the sport on the map, and for Stewart the potential for people to try the sport is huge,


“There’s so many ice rinks across the country, there’s so many opportunities to actually get out there and give the sport a go.”

We’re proud to have had the opportunity to document a small part of this journey and wish the athletes at the Olympics great success, and all of GBs Short Track athletes success for the future.