Michael Pavitt: Sutton case highlights challenge of managing and motivating in high performance sport

Despite allegations of having made derogatory comments, Shane Sutton's motivation skills have been praised by cyclists this week ©Getty Images

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Throughout the course of the past week Australia’s Shane Sutton has found himself at the centre of a storm, with allegations – which he denies – that he made sexist comments to sprint cyclist Jess Varnish, as well as derogatory comments to Paralympic athletes.

Rather than preparing the British cycling team for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games from behind the scenes as technical director, the 58-year-old found himself the centre of attention. Sutton claims that the focus on him, and in turn the distraction he could cause the team, was the reason for his resignation, which he announced on Wednesday (April 27).

While further allegations have continued to surface from riders during the week and will be investigated by British Cycling and UK Sport’s independent review, it has also been notable that numerous star cyclists have spoken glowingly of their experience of working with the Australian, such as six-time Olympic champion Sir Chris Hoy and Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas.

The latest backing came from Dani King, who saw her hopes of competing in the women’s team pursuit at Rio 2016 ended under Sutton’s reign. The 25-year-old told cyclingnews: "Shane's a no-nonsense kind of guy, you always knew where you stood with him. He would always tell you how it was, but I thought that was good. When it came to motivation, he was one of the best I've come across."

Undoubtedly it is clear that Sutton, who has been described as brash and abrasive in recent days, has proved to be a key cog for British Cycling during the most golden period in its history, having been part of the set-up since 2002.

However, back in 2014, Chris Boardman raised the question of whether he would be suited to the technical director role, which Sutton assumed from Sir Dave Brailsford, stating: "Shane is a good second in command, but perhaps not the person to be the big boss."

It appears Boardman may have been proved correct. Over the past few months, issues which may have been dealt with behind closed doors, such as an injury suffered by Katie Archibald, have instead been aired in public. The failure of Britain’s women’s sprint team to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics has seemingly proved the trigger for further grievances to be aired.

The Sutton case, aside from the allegations about derogatory comments, appears to reflect the difficulty of managing a high performance team, consisting of athletes with often widely different personalities. What may work for one person could have a detrimental effect on another.

Naturally, this is not restricted alone to elite athletes and the management of individuals is crucial to any school or workplace and in families.

In recent years, I have grown far more aware of the styles of people who have attempted to try to motivate me. To counteract my often laid-back and relaxed attitude to life, some of the best motivators I have come across have spent prolonged periods of time pointing out my faults in painstaking detail.

I remember vividly being torn apart by a lecturer, who I had never previously spoken to, during my first year of university. Inspired by a near-hatred of this lecturer, I eventually proved them wrong. In hindsight, their motivation worked.

In sport, where the margins between success and failure are often tiny, there have been many occasions in which some of the more volatile athlete and coach relationships have resulted in huge successes. Perhaps one of the best examples is 18-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps' long-standing relationship with his coach Bob Bowman.

Phelps previously referred to Bowman, who became his coach when he was 11, as being like a “drill-sergeant” - very disciplined and strict. However, the swimmer has also admitted that his coach has also become a mentor and confidant.

Similarly, Olympic heptathlon gold medallist Jessica Ennis-Hill and her coach Toni Minichiello are another example of a partnership that has continued to flourish. Often seen as an intense athlete and coach relationship - one Minichiello has described as being like “a bickering old couple” -the coach has managed to push his athlete to success at the Olympics and World Championships.

The likes of Bowman and Minichiello are often those seen in the background, while their athletes are scooping the honours, sponsorship deals and adulation. However, teams are often seen as the embodiment of their coaches in sports like rugby and football.

For instance, as this season’s English Premier League draws towards its conclusion, the surprise success of Leicester and Tottenham has widely been attributed to the hard-work and discipline installed by their coaches Claudio Ranieri and Mauricio Pochettino respectively.

While both aimed to protect their players from media attention throughout the duration of the season, the pair have been demanding of their players, with both teams receiving praise for their strong work ethics.

Their players have often praised their methods throughout the duration of the campaign, but by contrast, more high-profile managers like Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho have struggled. The former was perceived to have been too protective and less demanding of his stars, whereas the latter’s public criticism of his key players was believed to have been behind his team “downing tools” towards the end of his tenure.

Often, the idea of a “new manager” bounce is coined for when a team enjoys a resurgence in form when a new coach arrives.

Arguably, this has been the case for the England Rugby team, who endured a miserable home Rugby World Cup when they were eliminated under their coach Stuart Lancaster.

Hired after England’s 2011 World Cup campaign ended in disastrous fashion, with ill-discipline deemed rife in the team, Lancaster was seen to have restored the reputation of the squad but was rarely perceived as a leader.

Just months on from his departure, the England team were celebrating Grand Slam success at the Six Nations under Eddie Jones.

The new coach, who like fellow Australian Sutton has been seen as a straight-talker, is currently riding the wave of that success. If the success continues his motivational techniques will the subject of praise, but perhaps if the team begins to falter, his hard-hitting approach will be scrutinised.

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