‘I most enjoy being able to help people.’ Fergus Connolly – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 38

Christian: In this interview, I’m joined by Fergus Connolly. Fergus is a performance expert and has been working as a Director of Performance for the San Francisco 49ers and for the University of Michigan. Fergus has also been a consultant to Liverpool Football Club, New York Knicks, professional rugby teams and the military. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Based Optimization.

Welcome, Fergus.

Fergus: Christian, thank you very much for having me.

His background in computer integration based optimization 

Christian: Fergus you hold a Ph.D. in computer integration based optimization. What do we have to understand by that?

Fergus: My good friend David Epstein is bringing out a book called Range later this summer. It’s actually coming out on my birthday, May 20th. The book is based on how generalists are some of the most successful people in the world.

I think when I look back on my career and my pathway, I’ve been fortunate to learn from many different areas. Programming IT was one of the areas that I studied and learned and got a Ph.D. My original degree was in teaching, in construction, materials, and construction. This related to building, houses, architecture and in woodwork. That was my primary degree.

When I look back on my career and my pathway, I’ve been fortunate to learn from many different areas.

Then my Master’s was in manufacturing, Advanced Manufacturing Theory, which related to technology, just in time and quality control. Then I ended up doing a Ph.D. in Computer Based Optimization. And then for the next, almost 20 years, I’ve had a career in sport, drawing on and learning from just a wide variety of areas.

I have found the most interesting people to have been those who are most interested and I’m drawn to just learning and fascinated by human performance, how we learn and how we win as groups. That was just one of the points along my journey. It was very, very interesting.

I am fascinated by human performance, how we learn and how we win as groups.

It was very good at the time, as well, because programming was just starting. I had to learn a completely different mindset. This was a very analytical and structured mindset that the programming requires. I can’t say I was particularly good at it, but I understood it. I learned.

I combined it with a Ph.D. in my study, which was just in time, manufacturing and applying principles actually that are used in SAP, to small to medium enterprises. That was what my study was on. It was different, I’m not sure if I had a passion for it, but that was what my Ph.D. study was in.

It was very, very good and it served me well in many ways. For example, in sport, the logical and analytical thinking that’s needed, being able to understand and use technology and then also understanding the human technology gap. This is the bridge between a very analytical and then a very social and spiritual environment that clash that you see challenges in Sports Science today.

It’s important to understand and use technology and then also understanding the human technology gap. This is the bridge between a very analytical and then a very social and spiritual environment; that clash that you see challenges in Sports Science today.

Christian: That’s interesting. I feel we are starting to see that shift from purely analytical and number based approach in coaching gravitating back towards the need of understanding human interaction and focussing on the individual and their emotional needs as humans.

How he got into Sports Science and became a performance expert 

Christian: You are a performance expert. How did you get into Sports Science?

Fergus: It was just simply a passion. I played a sport. I started playing team sport a little bit later. I was a swimmer. That was my original sport. I wasn’t particularly good at it. I don’t have the build. I’m more a power based athlete, I never really had a great engine.

But I got involved in team sport late. I wanted to become good at it and I just simply studied everything I could about being better as a team sport player. I just loved learning more and more. What I would do is during, even while I was doing my Masters and my Ph.D., I would save whatever money I had and I would contact the best coaches I could and ask them if I could come and spend time and learn with them. And that just fuelled my interest, and it was my own Sports Science degree.

I wanted to become good in a team sport, and I just simply studied everything I could about being better as a team sport player. I just loved learning more and more.

When I went to university first, there was no Sports Science in Ireland. There was PE teaching, but there wasn’t any Sports Science. I didn’t think that there was a career in sport. So I figured I’d just become a teacher or become a lecturer, but I’ll do sport in my spare time.

On my travels to these different teams and organizations and doing courses out of passion, I was eventually offered roles. I thought that I would take a career break and try out these roles and it took off. I’m still on a career break from teaching.

Christian: Your first role was in Ireland and then later you went abroad. Is that correct?

Fergus: No, my first role actually was in the Premier League with the Bolton Wanderers, which I was very fortunate to work for a Premier League Club. I guess it’s a lot more difficult now for people to find careers. It was just timing. And because I had an interest in and studied these other areas, I guess I just had a knowledge base that others hadn’t. It was an opportunity in the Premier League and that’s where I started, in soccer.

Because I had an interest in and studied these other areas, I guess I just had a knowledge base that others hadn’t.

Then my next job was with the Welsh Rugby Union. After that, I ended up consulting for a number of teams, soccer teams, premier league teams, then NFL teams and NBA teams. I ended up deciding to go back full time with the San Francisco 49ers. I was there for almost two years and then to the University of Michigan for two years.

In between that, I did some work with various military groups and other organizations because the principles of human performance are the same. I’ve never really worked that much with Olympic sports directly. I worked with some boxers, but I’ve always learned from and tried to study the Olympic sports.

I’ve worked with a lot of Olympic coaches as well, of course. But I would learn from anything. If I was sitting in a shopping mall or a shopping center and was waiting for somebody, I would find something to learn about. It may flow through, ergonomics, placement or salesman. I would learn from anywhere. To me, there’s just so many wonderful learning opportunities out there.

His darkest moment

Christian: In your career, what was your darkest moment?

Fergus: My darkest moment is about 18 months ago now [time of interview early 2019]. I was working at the University of Michigan and I took on two roles. I was Director of Performance overseeing Sports Science, as well as Strength and Conditioning, and I took on the Director of Operations role when the predecessor left because I wanted to make sure that everything was being run properly.

I was pretty busy, it was 16 and 18 hour days, seven days a week. That’s just the way it is. But I’d probably taken on too much and on one particular trip as I came home, somebody sent me a text message and with a link to a website, which was advertising one of my jobs online. They wanted to know if I had seen it.

I was confused and Ron, the Athletic Director’s assistant asked if I did not know about it and if I was not told. I told him that I was not aware of. I was on vacation for a few days. When I came back and I went to see the Athletic Director and asked what was happening since I had five months left on my contract, and he didn’t really have a good answer for me.

I left and then 40 minutes later I got a text message that they needed to use my office, but I would be moving to another office. He asked me to clear out my office and they would find me an office in a few days. I was going to speak to a donor group, so I drove in, cleared out my office and went home, gave the talk and came back.

I waited at home to hear back from the Athletic Director, where my new office was and whatever. And days went by, I didn’t hear anything and tried to find out what was going on. So days turned into a week, one week turned into two weeks.

I was getting nervous. I didn’t know what’s happening. As a self-admitted workaholic, I was stressed. I had nothing to do and I didn’t know what was going on. That was where I made a mistake. I should have tried to keep myself busy. Or I should have admitted that I was struggling with not having anything to do and the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not I was being undermined or what was going on.

I made a mistake, I should have tried to keep myself busy or I should have admitted that I was struggling with not having anything to do.

It just got to the stage where I couldn’t sleep. By the fourth week I was just cracking, ironically under the pressure of not having anything to do. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to take sleeping tablets and I started to drink.

It got to the stage where for three nights I hadn’t slept and I drank to fall asleep, which didn’t work. And I finally drove to my girlfriend’s house, which was only a few blocks away and I crashed and I got a DUI (driving under the influence). I was struggling with not having anything to do and now it suddenly just took a complete left turn as well, so things got even worse.

That was difficult for me because everything I had been doing, I’d been doing well and for the right reasons. Through no fault of my own, I find myself in a situation where I should have reached out for help or I should have spoken to someone. I should have tried to understand that what was happening was not my fault.

But again, when you’re a high performer and when you’re used to suffering through difficult times, you just assume this was one other thing that you are going to get through. And I didn’t. I found my limit. I was working 16 to 18 hour days. I was looking after my girlfriend who was going through a difficult time. I was looking after everybody else, but I just was not looking after myself and I just did not have the capacity.

I was looking after everybody else, but I just was not looking after myself.

It was a wonderful lesson for me because I had to deal with everything that came with that. But a few weeks later, I was working with a special operations group and ironically, I was presenting to them on stress and burnout. And I was standing in front of a group of about 200 high performers, military athletes, talking about stress and burnout.

I was explaining to them the things that were not to be done. I introduced them to the model that I’ve used for years on how to spot and avoid these issues presenting themselves in athletes, in the military in executives and CEO’s. And my friend who had asked me to come and speak, at the end asked if I would mind talking about my DUI.

It caught me off guard completely. It wasn’t that I was avoiding it, but it was very uncomfortable for a moment. And so what should have been a five-minute conversation, turned into over an hour conversation with these guys, who themselves were in their 30’s and 40’s. These are hardened warriors who started to put their hand up and admitted that this is exactly what they suffer from.

They said that they didn’t suffer from stress and pressure in competition when they were working. They said that they struggled when the stress and pressure are removed. It was kind of a nice Spartacus moment where I’m Spartacus. These guys were saying that they suffered in exactly this way.

High-performers don’t suffer from stress and pressure in competition, they struggled when the stress and pressure are removed.

It was a very powerful moment for me because I realized that it’s easy for athletes and high performers performing under pressure. And even if we fail, it’s not a failure. We’ve done exceptionally well to get to that stage and we can tweak it and turn it.

But what happens when the lights go off? What happens when you’re away from competition? What happens when that stress is removed? How do you handle that? It was like the final lesson for me in terms of high performers and stress that we prepare for the greatest moments but then suddenly when that’s pulled away, how do you mitigate and manage that?

Over the next number of months, what had been a very dark moment, became something else. I had so many phone calls from NFL players I worked with, from Navy Seals who I’d helped and were good friends and wanted to see if I was okay. When I told them what happened, all of these guys started to open up about challenges that they had that I wasn’t aware of.

It just made me aware that even the most successful athletes and the most successful high achievers are all struggling with something, but many are just afraid or unsure of sharing it. That was what I was going through. I didn’t even realize it in myself. So it’s a long answer about the dark moment, but sometimes it’s darkest just before the dawn.

Most successful high achievers are all struggling with something, but many are just afraid or unsure of sharing it.

Christian: It’s not so atypical, actually. In the Olympic sports, especially the year after the Olympic Games, a lot of athletes and support staff struggle with that, regardless of the success they had at the Olympics. It’s something that is not often talked about. We had a few athletes here on the show who admitted it.

It’s similar to what you just outlined, it’s hard to admit because people don’t fully understand. But I guess even as a coach myself, you go through that whole excitement towards the Olympic Games and then regardless of results, after that, you ask yourself what you will be doing next. You wonder if you have to wait for 4 years again. And the first year or first half a year, it’s quite challenging.

Fergus: Oh, absolutely. I spent some time with Olympic multiple gold medallists recently, and we were talking about those very same issues that they’re struggling with. It is very, very common. It’s an epidemic really among term high achievers.

It’s very interesting as well because, in the military, you have a team environment, but you’re still an individual. I don’t think it makes any difference. You’re not immune to it whether you’re in a team sport or whether you’re in an individual sport.

But I think that some of the Olympic athletes can be more isolated, because of the nature of their environment from time to time. The struggles are real and they are severe. Yes, I had a dark moment. Yes, I had an issue, but there are people who have to struggle in far more difficult situations than I, and some of the things that I have heard of are troubling and worrying.

But on the other hand, something that was terrible and negative has given me an incredible amount of joy when you can talk to somebody. You can tell them that you know exactly what they’re going through and let them know what they need to do to understand and manage it. When the environment changes, the perceived stress and pressure changes and athletes and coaches struggle to find something to hold on to.

On the other hand, something that was terrible and negative has given me an incredible amount of joy when you can talk to somebody, and you can tell them that you know exactly what they’re going through and let them know what they need to do to understand and manage it.

It can happen not just even when the competition ends but like an injury or a relationship. Those kinds of things would put you into that space as well. I describe it like driving a car very, very fast and hitting a speed bump or a pothole and you’re still traveling fast, but you’ve lost control of the vehicle. That is very, very scary.

So it’s something that I’m fortunate about. It’s indefensible what I did. I’m not proud of it at all, but I’m grateful that it has given me the opportunity to be able to help so many in the military, in sport and in the corporate world. It has definitely given me that opportunity to do that.

Christian: And how did you recover from that moment?

Fergus: I’ve had this conversation with a lot of persons, particularly in the Special Forces community. I think there are two things.  If you have a very good understanding of good and bad or right and wrong, that gives you a platform for recovery. I think that’s important.

If you have a very good understanding of good and bad or right and wrong, that gives you a platform for recovery.

If what you’re doing and you know to be doing is good, even if you’ve made a mistake that allows you to recover better. So I was fortunate. Yes, I made a mistake, but I was trying to help and protect other people so I could fall back on that.

The second thing is, I think over my career, maybe how I was brought up, I’ve never been afraid of facing the uncomfortable truth. So there was no sense of entitlement, disillusionment or trying to justify. I screwed up, I made a mistake. It’s my responsibility.

I’ve never been afraid of facing the uncomfortable truth. I screwed up, I made a mistake. It’s my responsibility.

I can blame working in a toxic environment. I can blame what other people did to me. I can blame the Athletic Director. Maybe that’s valid, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. I have to take responsibility for what I did. What you have to do is to sit down and have that brutal honesty with yourself. I’ve always done it.

Somebody close to me remarked about how you recovered exceptionally well from it. I hadn’t thought about it like that. They said you’ve gotten over this very well, not necessarily faster than anybody else. They told me that I should just write it down and just go through the process.

So I actually wrote a third book about how and why I got through this quicker and better than other people. I guess I’ve always been mentally tough. I’ve always had that. So maybe that’s what part of it is.

It is to have that brutal honesty in the mirror and tell yourself what you screwed up with. You know that this is what is right and these are the facts that you have to face. I actually use the experience to study it, re-evaluate it and write it down.

Also, I think that the realization that this is a hidden epidemic that so many people are struggling from made me understand that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of failing. I screwed up. I made a mistake. When I started to think about things in the back, I realized that there is a perception of me being very successful or a perception of me having done all of these different things and work for these different teams and written books.

Oh yes, those are achievements, if you run on successes. But when I look back on them, every single one of them came from an actual failure. You either lost a job or somebody did something that annoyed me. So I decided that I am going to do something.

I realized that there is a perception of me being very successful, but when I look back on the successes, every single one of them came from an actual failure.

I lost my first job in soccer and the only opportunity or the next opportunity was in rugby. I thought that was a negative. I didn’t want to work in rugby. It turned out to be one of the best roles I ever had.

So every so-called failure was never a failure. It was a learning opportunity. This, I could view it as a failure. I could get depressed about it, I could get annoyed about it or I could choose to use it, learn from it and become better and become even stronger.

That’s the only choice you have in life. I can sit, cry, moan and that’s not running from it. One of my good friends talks about most people running from gunfire. Well, you got to run to it. That’s what I did. I just ran straight into it. I decided that I wanted to figure this out and accept responsibility. I wanted to figure out why it happened and learn more about why I made that mistake.

I asked myself some questions.

  • Why did I choose to keep taking on more work?
  • Why did I choose not to acknowledge that the stress and pressure were getting on top of me?
  • Why did the people around me not notice it?
  • Was I hiding it from them for my sake or for their sake?
  • Why did I not have that support network around me to spot it and to help me?

Those were tough questions to ask. Many of the answers I didn’t like, but they were the answers and it’s made me a better person as a result.

His best moment

Christian: What was your best moment?

Fergus: My best moment? My best moment is yet to come. The things that I enjoy the most are truly being able to help other people. That has always been my passion.

My best moment is yet to come. The things that I enjoy the most are truly being able to help other people. That has always been my passion.

As I said, I hung up the phone a few days ago speaking with somebody who’s a high achiever who I admire and who I have a lot of respect for. They were in their car leaving work and struggling with issues. I was able to clearly talk them through what they’re going through and give them some guidelines and pointers for what they need to do.

I was able to tell them, that I know exactly what you’re going through because I’ve gone through it. I told them that I was glad they called me. I also told them what they needed to avoid doing to prevent them from going down the path that they’ve started. Most importantly, I asked them to trust me.

Hanging up the phone after something like that, that’s what makes me happy. I know I’ve helped someone. I’ve helped the person who’s going to go on and do great things. That’s the most powerful thing.

You can talk about winning trophies and writing books or whatever. That’s fine, but it’s the stuff that nobody’s going to hear about. That’s where I get the most happiness and that’s a selfish thing, believe it or not, as you know, hanging up the phone and just smiling knowing that you’ve made a difference to somebody.

You can talk about winning trophies and writing books, but it’s the stuff that nobody’s going to hear about. That’s where I get the most happiness, it’s knowing that you’ve made a difference to somebody.

Christian: You said your best moment is still to come. What do you mean by that?

Fergus: I think that over my career, I have been fortunate. I’ve learned from so many great people, who’ve passed on things to me. I think I’ve realized that there are more people that I can help and continue to help perform and win. Win in sport and in life. That’s how I look at it.

Young coaches will call me and say they want to do what I did. I’ll ask them what they want to do and they would just say they want to be like me. Or they’ll say they want to work for the Patriots or the Warriors. They often ask how I did it, but I never had a plan. I have a passion or somewhat of a vision, but I never wrote down concrete goals.

I never had a plan. I have a passion or somewhat of a vision, but I never wrote down concrete goals.

I have a vision of being able to help high achievers find happiness and find that contentment, which is very, very rare. Like you’ve said, many of the very successful, whether it’s Olympians or business people or the military, they’re quite unhappy behind it all. So it’s being able to help them find and understand what happiness is. That’s what I look forward to doing and being able to help people do that in the future.

His advice to young aspiring performance experts

Christian: That’s an interesting one. That also leads perfectly into the next question. What advice would you give younger aspiring performance experts who want to be a member of a support team, for example? What advice would you give them to start out their career?

Fergus: I think in general you have to protect the passion that you have. So, when we were starting out, we had a huge passion for what we did. That has to stay with you because if you lose that or you become disillusioned, you’re done. You’ll hang on for a little bit, but you’re done. So love it, enjoy it and protect it. I think that’s the first thing.

You have to protect the passion that you have, if you lose that or you become disillusioned, you’re done. So love it, enjoy it and protect it.

I think one of the things, though for the current generation coming through, is to understand that traditional education is not a guarantee of success. In fact, in some ways, it can actually be negative and it can be a disadvantage.

I’m not using myself as a role model, but many of the great coaches who have been truly successful have not come through traditional routes. The reason for that is that the most important skill to be successful in sport, whether it’s an Olympic sport or team sport, is the ability to solve problems. And that comes from a foundation of critical thinking.

The current education system does not encourage or inspire that. It’s very structured. We generate grade-A students. We generate people who can recall and who can study something, learn it, but we don’t inspire creative thinkers. We don’t inspire critical thinkers. That is what’s going to separate you. That’s what’s going to determine whether or not you can adapt to the challenges of the future.

The most important skill to be successful in sport is the ability to solve problems, which comes from a foundation of critical thinking. That’s what’s going to determine whether or not you can adapt to the challenges of the future.

If you were to graduate tomorrow, you’re very well prepared for what the industry was five years ago, but you’re certainly not prepared for what the industry is going to be in 10 or 15 years. That only comes about by developing critical and creative thinkers who can solve problems. Those are the most important skills I think that the young generation coming through need to have.

Christian: And how would you go about developing it?

Fergus: I would encourage young professionals today to start working earlier. Like I did, the pattern was, and still is, to stay and do Masters and Ph.D. Now, because I wasn’t working in the sports area and I never studied traditional kinesiology or sports science, I was never indoctrinated into a structured way of thinking about solving problems.

So if I take any graduate from the kinesiology program and ask them to solve a problem, they’ve all been conditioned to one or two ways of thinking and problem-solving. I don’t want that. I want critical thinkers. I want thinkers who are going to think differently. I want people who are going to think better.

If I take any graduate from the kinesiology program and ask them to solve a problem, they’ve all been conditioned to one or two ways of thinking and problem-solving. I don’t want that. I want critical thinkers. I want thinkers who are going to think differently. I want people who are going to think better.

I’d actually given a presentation to an organization in Australia about true innovation. What is true innovation? What is thinking differently? Where are your sources? Who are your sources? Where are you going to get inspiration?

Like I said earlier, you can be sitting in a shopping mall or a restaurant and you can learn concepts, ideas, and principles that you can apply to sport. Those are the things that I think would separate you.

And again, one of the best questions I was ever asked at a meeting was when we were preparing a team, planning for a four-year cycle for a World Cup. We were asked how we would prepare the team for the games that were going to be played in four years since we were not preparing them for how the game’s being played now. It was a brilliant question. It caught me off guard. That’s what you should be inspiring, critical thinking and problem-solving in young people.

One of the best questions I was ever asked was how we would prepare the team for the games that were going to be played in four years since we were not preparing them for how the game’s being played now. It was a brilliant question. It caught me off guard.

The role of artificial intelligence and technological disruption in the future of sports

Christian: That leads me to the question, which is especially important for sports science and performance experts, what will be the future role of artificial intelligence and technological disruption in sports?

Fergus: We could talk for a long time on this one. I’ve made this point many times. When I look at the use of technology, there has always been sports science, much of it in Europe and Australia. But what you have now is you’ve got a sports science industry, which in itself is somewhat of a pink elephant. It’s a Ponzi scheme where the actual return from the technological use and implementations are minimal.

I’m going to show my age now, but there is a term used many years ago, nobody ever got fired for buying IBM. So when computers were coming out first, when people were wondering what computer they should buy and people would always buy an IBM, nobody got fired. You don’t know anything about computers.

You just look at what the next guy did and they buy an IBM, so you buy an IBM. I’m not going to get fired for doing that. So there’s a fear of missing out, but people latch onto technologies because that’s what everybody else is doing. They don’t want to be seen to be left behind.

But the true impact is minimal, in many cases. And actually, they are disruptive in a negative way. So for example, in team sports, one of the trends is using GPS. GPS can be very, very helpful. But there comes a point where it can have a negative effect on performance.

There’s a fear of missing out, but people latch onto technologies because that’s what everybody else is doing. They don’t want to be seen to be left behind. But the true impact is minimal, in many cases.

This is where critical thinkers and innovative solution providers provide a benefit and an advantage. It’s knowing where that tipping point is in the use of sports science and technology. That’s where the challenge comes about. But artificial intelligence, yes, I’d be happy enough just to have common sense and basic intelligence before we worry about artificial intelligence in sport.

Christian: I can fully agree with that.

His advice to a younger Fergus Connolly

Christian: If you could go back in time, 10, 15 or 20 years, what advice would you give your younger you with all the knowledge you currently have?

Fergus: I wouldn’t change a single thing, Christian. Even the bad moments and even the things I’m not proud of, I wouldn’t change them. As I said, some things or one thing, in particular, is indefensible.

Maybe the one piece of advice I would give is just to do what you’ve done, is learn from mistakes. I’ve failed so many times. I’ve lost jobs, I’ve been fired and I’ve lost games and made mistakes. I’ve done all those things. But having the strength and courage to sit down and learn from it, that’s what resilience is. I think that that’s the most important skill.

I’ve written an article about this is and one of the challenges we have particularly in recruiting staff is that current education system. In order to be a critical thinker and to come up with innovative solutions, many of those are going to fail. It’s about being able to accept that failure is part of life and responding and learning from it, that’s what builds resilience.

In order to be a critical thinker and to come up with innovative solutions, many of those are going to fail. It’s about being able to accept that failure is part of life and responding and learning from it, that’s what builds resilience.

That ability to fail, fail often and fail well and go again, that’s missing more and more in society. It’s missing more and more in life. That’s something that we need to encourage in younger athletes. Failure is not fatal and inspiring that, I think is important. Maybe I was just too stubborn or maybe I missed that lecture on failure is fatal. So I’ve just been stubborn enough to keep going.

Christian: Yes, I’m not sure who said it, but there’s also the concept of ‘failing forward’. Which talks about failing forward because every failure brings you closer to where you actually want to get to.

Fergus: Yes. Failure is a learning opportunity. That’s not being flippant. It’s not understanding the gravity of failure and the gravity of making mistakes, not at all. I think the people that I’ve seen the struggle the most are those who have failed to recognize the mistake, the error or the issue and have ignored it and not sat down and processed it.

There are two things, particularly when it comes to PTSD, is that not having a model and an understanding of trauma, that’s important. The second part is not sitting down and addressing it and processing it. And so those people in life who make mistakes, who don’t sit down and address it, process it, understand and learn from it are doomed to repeat it.

But more importantly, it haunts them and creates a sense of guilt and shame that they carry with them. So when we talk about shame and things like that, it’s because you’ve not sat down and processed it and understood it in its proper context. A lot of athletes and high achievers struggled with that.

Christian: Very interesting.

His philosophy on supporting a team

Christian: When supporting a team, what’s your philosophy?

Fergus: Many of the athletes are very, very good at their game. One of our greatest challenges is freeing them up to play the game. So I find that very often the greatest impact that you can have in a team sport is being able to facilitate the performance, not necessarily to directly improve it. Yes, you can do that, but the fastest way is actually just simply to facilitate the team sport performance.

The greatest impact that you can have in a team sport is being able to facilitate the performance, not necessarily to directly improve it.

What can I remove from the program to free the athlete up to do what they’re capable of doing? This was something I learned from Charlie Francis many years ago. Can I reduce stress and pressure or challenges that are incidental to allow them to perform well? Not make it necessarily easier for them, but just remove issues that perhaps are preventing performance first. That’s the first thing.

As a Performance Director or as a Performance Consultant, it’s being able to come in and decide what we take away or manage so that we can actually free the athlete. Very often we can free the coach up as well to allow the athlete find their optimal route to performance, and particularly with Olympic athletes as well, you know they’re very good at what they do. So how do you free them up and allow them to find that space where they can be truly, truly great and achieve those great performances?

What can I remove from the program to free the athlete up to do what they’re capable of doing?

Christian: I can see that. There’s also this one leadership model from Blanchard, where it starts in the early stages with authoritative and directive and in the later stages with facilitative, as a culture. I can see that. I can’t get my head around how to apply it in your context, but I can fully see that.

Fergus: Yes. It depends on the level. So I don’t like the term Performance Director and I’ve used the term Performance Facilitator from now on because I see the role as a director as really the job is to facilitate the coaches and the other staff being the best that they can be. Not necessarily to direct them, but to facilitate their development personally, professionally and technically so that you free them to do the best job possible.

So if I’ve got a strength coach who comes in, whose wife’s pregnant and he’s struggling to take care of her. He’s got a lot on his mind and he comes into work and he’s not just present. Well, how can I facilitate? How can I enable him to come in in a way that he can be present and can do his job great?

Can I sit him down and let him know that I’m going to take a few hours off his plate? I can tell him to come in an hour or two later, take care of his wife, but when he comes in, he is expected to just come in for those few hours and deliver. If I can free him up to come in without stress, he’s going to keep delivering to the very high standard that he is.

This was how, ironically, the high-performance model, that I spoke about with stress and burnout that I have used, it came about by working with teams and athletes who are struggling on the field. It wasn’t the game that was the issue. It was a lifestyle. It was all of the other things around the game that we’re impinging on their ability to come, learn and perform.

That’s where a lot of it comes from. To quote Lance Armstrong, “It’s not about the bike.” It’s not about the game. It’s usually about something else outside of life that’s affecting our ability to come to work and perform. That’s why as a Performance Director, very often your job is as a Performance Facilitator.

It’s not about the game. It’s usually about something else outside of life that’s affecting our ability to come to work and perform.

Now you do have to implement professional development models. So being able to sit down with coaches and help them identify the areas that they can develop and improve more in, that’s very important as well. But I find some of the greatest improvements have been in helping people in personal development and helping them come to work in the best possible way.

The person that has influenced him most

Christian: Which person has influenced you most and why?

Fergus: There have been so many people, that have helped me. Dan Pfaff has been a great support. There are many guys in the military community who’ve helped me. Charlie Francis Al Vermeil and all of the greats. Even Charles Pollock, who people like that I’ve learned so much from and were very kind and generous to me.

There are coaches and players that I’ve learned so much from. Many of them taught me things without necessarily intending to do it. Even Colin Kaepernick, when I was at the 49ers, he was always polite and respectful, not just to me, but to everybody in the building. So you learn from watching, observing people like that.

There are coaches and players that I’ve learned so much from. Many of them taught me things without necessarily intending to do it.

Justin Smith of the 49ers had a wonderful sense of humor. Win or lose and that confidence was infectious among the groups. You learn from that. Watching Nicolas Anelka at Bolton Wanderers or Gary Speid as a football coach, Sam Allerdyce, all of these people I learned so much from.

Has any one person influenced me more than anybody else? No, only my parents. One guy who is very close to you, Henk Kraaijenhof, has been a huge influence as well. Charles van Commenee also, another great Dutchman have been huge influences and great thinkers.

How to deal with decisions you don’t agree with 

Christian: When we’re dealing with individuals also in a team of support staff, everyone wears his own head on and knows what should be done in what way. So if there’s a decision being taken that is not aligned with your idea of things, how things should be done, how do you bring your point across?

Fergus: It’s a great question. So my model for high performing teams is a little bit different than most. The very first thing that you must do in any meeting or in any organization is to understand the perspective of the other person. If you want to be truly successful, that’s the first thing.

If you want to be truly successful, you must understand the perspective of the other person.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree with them or not, but if you understand their perspective, you can understand the threats that they see and the fears, not just the point they’re making, but why they’re making it. If you think the point is unreasonable, but you understand the fear that they’re trying to protect or the threat, and you can remove that threat, then you remove very often the passion with which they were going to present that argument. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is that we create a lot of these problems by encouraging a silo mentality. We encourage small, disparate departments and we don’t encourage groups that pull together and that have multiple responsibilities. So in high performing teams, I focus on responsibilities, not on roles and I call each of the coaches a performance coach.

In high performing teams, I focus on responsibilities, not on roles.

So you’re not a strength coach. You’re not a physiotherapist. You’re a performance coach with primary responsibility for strength and conditioning, the primary responsibility for therapy, but a secondary responsibility for nutrition or for athletic training or for strength and conditioning.

When you’re free, you’ve got the responsibility to help the other person in the department. It needs to be recognized that as a strength coach, you have an incredible influence on some of this rehabilitation, on their psychology and on their nutrition. The labels create more of a barrier to holistic development, sustained success, and rehabilitation than actually anything else.

You recognize, that you have a primary skillset, but you also have a contribution and a responsibility to these other areas. So for example, if you’re the strength coach and then you protect your weight room and you do a really good job, but in the cafeteria or at the restaurant, you sit down and you eat a poor diet in front of the athletes, you’re undermining all of the good work that the nutritionist is doing.

But if I give you the responsibility, the clear secondary responsibility for nutrition and for a while, that removes your ability to say that’s not my area. As a performance coach, your responsibility is to improve the holistic performance of the athlete, not just strength and conditioning. So your job is not just to put five more pounds or five kilos on somebody’s bench. It’s to actually win the game or win the event. So these changes, you would slowly start to see them become more and more common across performance groups.

How to manage expectations

Christian: This is a similar question, but a slightly different twist on it, because now we’re not talking about the multidisciplinary team, but more about athletes and beliefs. When you’re working with elite athletes, very often they are also very strong individuals, with their own characteristics and they have an idea how things should be done. If this idea of how the athlete thinks things should be done and your idea differ, how do you make the athlete aware of what you think is the best way forward?

Fergus: I think the very first thing is very often to listen carefully to what the athlete is saying. Because as good as you might be, sometimes the athletes have some very valid points and understandings and intuition or an instinct for what works for them. And I learned very early on not to dismiss, particularly, what some very successful athletes were doing.

Listen carefully to what the athlete is saying, the athletes have some very valid points and understandings and intuition or an instinct for what works for them.

So, for example, with some older athletes when I started working in soccer, the diet was important, so I would work with some athletes on fixing their diets. So we had these superstars at Bolton and we would go in and change their diet. But I found that some of the best players started to perform worse, even with a better diet.

I slowly started to realize that while I might be right, making sudden changes had a negative effect as opposed to helping the athletes evolve and come around to my way of thinking. That was a very, very important lesson for me. So it was part listening carefully to the athlete to what they liked, in terms of their taste, what they were used to, and their habits. Then understanding that and putting myself in their shoes and then slowly making small changes and educating the athlete and slowly bringing them around to my way of thinking.

It’s like the Titanic. You just can’t lift the hand brake and swing it around. You have to slowly turn the ship if you want it to stay on course. Now you can go in and make sudden changes to an athlete’s diet. I’m just using diet as an example. You will get a sudden change, but you won’t get the long-term sustainable buy-in and you won’t get steady progress over a period of time. So it’s always about understanding where the athlete is coming from and then making slow incremental and sustained changes that will have a positive effect.

I slowly started to realize that while I might be right, making sudden changes had a negative effect, it’s about understanding where the athlete is coming from and then making slow incremental and sustained changes that will have a positive effect.

Christian: How do you do that?

Fergus: A lot of it is through understanding where they’re coming from, listening to their language, communicating with them, building a rapport and gaining trust, so they trust and know that you’re going to do that. I use a lot of animation, cartoons, visual imagery, jokes, and nursery rhymes, believe it or not. I would come up with catch phrases and some happened by accident.

I was giving a presentation at the San Francisco 49ers and apparently, I used the phrase, ‘take the shake’ four or five times in the presentation. So as I’m leaving the talk, all I can hear are the guys are teasing me and imitating my Irish accent going ‘take the shake’. But the end result was that after practice, the guys were going to ‘take the shake’ and they all started to do it. And it was just like a small penny dropped.

You use a catchphrase if you can, get buy-in and use humor. One of the best pieces of advice I can give any young coaches is to get them to ask how Nike, Adidas, Pepsi, Gucci sell. How do they get you guys to buy something? You can be with them for eight hours a day and can’t get them to eat a piece of broccoli. Like how do they do it? Like how do they sell what they’re selling?

A lot of it comes down to an emotional attachment, visual representation, humor, short, impulsive signs, and notices. So that’s what you do. Copy them, steal from them, steal their ideas, but use them to your benefit. And that’s what I’ve done. That’s how I get buy-in.

A typical day in the life of a performance expert

Christian: How does a typical day in the life of a performance expert look like?

Fergus: It varies quite a bit. At the minute I’m preparing a talk. I’m going to Arizona next week to give a talk on team speed for a week, and then I’ve got an event in London. I come back, I’m finishing off another book. I’ve got some consultations with the military, so it varies quite a bit. Then I’ve got to talk in Cape Town to prepare for later on.

It varies quite a bit, I enjoy the variety and problem-solving.

Like we were speaking about earlier, I enjoy the variety and the problem-solving. I’ve got three calls after this, later on, today. So, it’s travel and a lot of work, a lot of variety and just making sure that I get enough downtime as well. I’ve learned from my own mistakes of doing too much work and looking after everybody else except myself.

His motivation to write books

Christian: You’ve published two books, Game Changer, and 59 Lessons. What motivated you to write these books?

Fergus: The industry has become an industry of specialists and an industry of different books. For example, there are books on strength training, rehabilitation, tactics, and skills. But I wanted to write a book, Game Changer, that pulled everything together and answer one simple question. How do you win games?

I wanted to write a book, and answer one simple question. How do you win games?

That’s what I wanted to know. It was the book that maybe I wanted to read 20 years ago. I could find a speed book, strength book. I could find plenty of Olympic speed coaches out there and strength coaches. But when I went to apply the principles to a team sport, I had to adapt them and adopt them and change them.

So it was learning and applying those lessons. That’s why I wanted to write that book. But as I was writing it, there were so many anecdotes and so many people I’d learned lessons from. As I said, people like Hank, Charles, Dan, all these different coaches who I’ve learned from and I wanted to share those lessons and thank many of those people that I’ve learned lessons from.

And that’s why I wrote 59 Lessons: Working with the World’s Greatest Coaches, Athletes, & Special Forces. It was to share those stories and anecdotes and also to give a pathway for the next generation coming through, that yes, academic endeavors are important, but learn from the masters who are out there if you can. So that was my main motivation behind those books.

It was to share those stories and anecdotes from the masters who are out there.

Christian: Can you quickly take us through what the two books are about and what the reader can take away if they read it?

Fergus: So Game Changer essentially starts by asking the question, what does it take to win and win in a team sport? The very first section looks at the game but looks at the game in a very different way that has been done before.

So if you look at soccer, rugby, American football, and any team sport, they’re all actually the same. When you look at them through the model of game moments where you’re either attacking or defending, you’ve got moments for your transitioning from attack to defense and breaking the game down and helping us understand that we can learn from all sports.

Taking the athlete and looking at the athlete in terms of their tactical ability, the technical, physical and psychological ability and understanding that they’re the same athlete. The only thing that really changes is the skill and execution. But even that and learning that is the same.

Then understanding how you prepare in a weekly cycle so that the traditional period as models that work in Olympic sports don’t translate well to team sports that have to play each week. Then, finally looking at coaching and how we build high-performance departments, models, how we learned in new sports science.

Many of the ideas are empirical. They’re based on my experience, but trying to draw on the research and while it’s possibly presented as a textbook, it’s not meant in that sense. And it’s not meant as the final textbook. It’s meant to make people think, and present new ideas for people to apply.

It’s not meant as the final textbook. It’s meant to make people think, and present new ideas for people to apply.

And 59 Lessons, I sat down and I wrote done the 59 best lessons that I learned over my career, just random lessons I’d learned. So, for example, you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself. Like me, I made mistakes early in trying to micromanage everybody.

Somebody told me once that I should not buy a dog and bark myself. They said I should help the person do their own thing but not to do it myself. Those are the small things that I wanted to share as well and to thank a lot of people as I said, who’ve helped me.

Particularly after writing Game Changer and you get a lot of credit and a lot of praise from it, I didn’t want people to assume that there was something new. These are just ideas I’ve learned from other people. I wanted to give credit to those people who I’d learned from.

How to implement performance support services

Christian: If you implement your performance support services, how do you go about it step by step? So imagine you take up a new role with a team, what’s the first step and what’s the second step?

Fergus: Well, I actually learned this from Toine Gebranz who was at AZ Alkmaar at the time. One of the best lessons I learned from him was when you come into an organization, do not make any changes for 12 months. Watch, observe and allow each professional there to do their job and see if they align with and want to continue working with you.

See if you want to make a change. You can bring one person with you as an assistant. But allow everybody 12 months, because you don’t know what they’re really like. You can hear, but observe people and give them 12 months and understand what they do and what their limitations are.

You may have a wonderful strength coach that you want to bring with you. But you might get there and realize that the strength coach that they have is actually really, really good. So you are going to use him instead, and same with the medical team, but you might get there and want to make changes to the medical department.

So that’s the very first thing is to evaluate what they do well. I always start from the end and work backward. So look at the results, look at the performances and then understand what changes I can make to continue to improve them. Because sometimes if we start on the other side and decide that you’re going to put the best strength program and the best nutrition program and the end results can fail.

Start from the end and work backward.

So start from the end, but work backward. Understand well, be very respectful of whatever culture and organization you go into because they’re doing something well and you need to protect that. You need to respect that. When you go to another culture, another organization, the underlying themes of the organization are very, very important to understand and to be respectful of.

Christian: For example, if you take on a consultancy role, I would assume you would like to do something that has an immediate impact, but then also you want to move some big rocks later down the road. So how do you balance that?

Fergus: I think that in a consultancy perspective, the very first thing is to bring clarity to the strengths and weaknesses. That’s the value of having somebody come in with an outside eye. It’s being able to ask questions that can impact people and bringing that clarity and being able to ask critical questions.

The value of having somebody come in with an outside eye. It’s being able to ask critical questions that can impact people.

That in itself sometimes can have an immediate effect. You would slowly start creating a pathway for all of the things that you want to do and sequencing them. So if you take care of a problem, then the other one might go in time.

Identifying all of the things is fine, but then sequencing them is the next thing. So by programming or scheduling them, you’re going to make this change. Just observe it slowly then make this other change. One of the most important lessons in actual computer programming is you never change two pieces of code at one time because when you run the program if it fails, you don’t know which one failed.

So you implement one change, run the program. If it runs fine, that’s fine. But if you make the second one and it crashes, you know it was the second one. So make one change at a time and observe the impact.

His interview nomination

Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?

Fergus: I think Charles van Commenee would be a very interesting speaker and Henk Kraaijenof, two Dutchmen. Dan Pfaff would also be a fascinating speaker and a wonderful experience. There’s three.

Where can you find Fergus Connolly nomination

Christian: Where can people find you?

Fergus: Twitter is probably the easiest and my website.

Fergus Connolly’s social profiles

Twitter

Instagram

LinkedIn

Website

Christian: On your website, I’ve seen something that piqued my interest. You have an online foundation master class coming out. Can you tell us more about that?

Fergus: I started to write a book for Performance Directors and coaches. Coaches in the NFL and NBA come to me and ask me to help mentor them.  So I agree. I went through the topics that I thought they wanted and they protest. They said that there are other things that they want to learn.

When I ask what, I realized they were talking about the soft skills: management, communication, conflict resolution, teaching education, critical thinking and problem-solving. So I actually started to write a course based on that and based on the mentoring of those, those were the lessons that are most valuable.

Christian: It’ll be an online course?

Fergus: Yes. I’m hoping so. I’m running a beta now with some coaches at the minute and because I think that leaves it just easier for everybody else to access. That’s the best way for people to enjoy learning.

Christian: Fergus, thanks so much for your time.

Fergus: Christian, thank you for having me.

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