I was dismayed to read in yesterday’s Sunday Times that the British Olympic Association (BOA) is drawing up plans to pay bonuses to athletes who win medals at the 2012 Olympic Games in London (Team GB to be rewarded with gold for gold).
This is not to say that our athletes don’t deserve recognition for their sporting achievements and a generous reward for their efforts. Far from it. But advocating a crude form of performance-related pay as part of the strategy for securing more medals seems to me to miss the point on several levels:
- First of all, it suggests that those advocating this approach believe that our athletes would have tried harder and performed better in Beijing had they been promised a bonus for winning. This shows a naïve appreciation of what makes athletes ‘tick’ and is an insult to all of those in “Team GB” – medal winners and their team-mates – who committed four or more years of their lives in pursuit of their Olympic goals.
If athletes were motivated by money, many would never get involved in their specialist sports at all. Of course they and their sports need to be properly funded. This is especially the case where the need to commit time to practice and competition means that individuals’ earning capacities are reduced. But it also means recognising that the burning desire to be the best at what they do will not be enhanced by the promise of a ‘win bonus’. Indeed, ‘muddying the motivation waters’ by adding differential pay into the mix might reduce overall performance rather than enhance it. As Alfie Kohn writes in Punished by Rewards:
“Pay people generously and equitably. Do your best to make sure they don’t feel exploited. Then do everything in your power to help them put money out of their minds.”
- Secondly, my experience of elite athletes suggests that their motivation and rewards when they were competing came from stretching themselves to their personal limits in the sport of their choice; performing at their personal peak; beating records; and, yes, winning medals, where their performance exceeded the best that others could summon up on the day.
All that any athlete can do is to perform to the maximum of their ability – “to be the best that they can be”, “to run their own race” and to "control the controllables", as their coaches might put it. If that level of performance is good enough on the day to win a medal, great. If not, no amount of financial ‘incentive’ would change the result. So, if the aim is to maximise the medal-winning potential of the Great Britain team for 2012, money needs to be invested up front - in facilities, equipment, performance-coaching and so on – so that an individual athlete’s personal best is given the best possible chance of beating the world's best and delivering a medal.
- Thirdly, and allied to the last point, it is important to recognise that success in modern sport depends not only on the performance of the competing athletes but also on the leadership and support of a whole raft of other people. Apparently the proposed incentive system would recognise the contributions made by coaches and others in the back-up team. But it is also the presence, performance and feedback of other athletes in a particular discipline – including those who don’t make the final team or event - that help to push the competing athletes to new heights. A colleague of mine, himself a medal winner at a previous Olympics, refers to the required condition as one of “healthy competition”.
The competitive, winner-takes-all ethos is properly reflected in the award of medals and in the particular adulation reserved for gold medal winners. Today, this typically carries through into medal winners' post-performance years, where lucrative careers are often assured through such routes as sponsorship deals, motivational speaking, broadcasting and coaching. However, as I’ve suggested above, gold medal success and ‘on-field’ competitiveness requires a behind-the-scenes collaborative spirit and healthy competition within the wider team. And this is hardly likely to be strengthened by the BOA’s proposals, which would put further distance between the winners and other athletes in the team who had contributed to the medal success.
- Fourthly, in those sports where unprecedented medal success has been achieved by British athletes in Beijing – most visibly in the cycling, rowing and sailing events - it is primarily the investment made in facilities, equipment, training, skills enhancement, mental preparation, and the development of a ‘one team’ ethos, that has enabled the talent of individual athletes to come to the fore. If BOA have money to spend, to build on the success of Beijing and to increase the medal tally for 2012, they should use it to take these lessons into other, currently less successful, sports.
Besides providing talented athletes with the best conditions in which to hone their craft, investing in state-of-the-art facilities is also a far better way of meeting the equally important goal of providing a long-term sporting legacy from the London games. Paying bonuses to the nation’s sporting elite would contribute nothing to this.
- Finally, elite sport offers many potential lessons that business managers can benefit from in organizational management. And no doubt sports managers, coaches and athletes can learn many useful lessons in return from the experiences gained by business managers in leading their organizations. However, this superficially attractive but overly simplistic approach to performance management is not one of them.