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Athlete trainer meets organisational leader

Recently I was privileged to listen to the wisdom of David Slyfield, one of the most sought-after athletic trainers in New Zealand.  He had just finished training the world-renowned Emirates Team New Zealand sailing team.  There are some strong links between the athlete trainer and the organisational leader.

Having also trained some of the New Zealand greats from a range of sporting codes such as Sarah Ulmer, Rob Wardell and Lisa Carrington, he is well positioned to talk about what makes winning individuals and a winning team.  By winning he means being the product of excellence.  That is, it is the result of a lot of relentless quality work.

David sees his role as helping to steer the conversation relentlessly to performance and align the decision-making.  He knows enough to challenge decision-making and of course David has the credibility to do so.  Winning has got very little to do with luck, it’s attitude that counts.  Talent is only one factor in winning, i.e. talent creates good, not great.

Interestingly, he is very selective with who he takes on.  He will not take on those who are defensive and who ‘know better’.

When working with his athletes, David avoids instruction on where ‘the problem is and where the solutions lie’.  The learning that occurs in the athlete is more through ‘a chat’.

He not only has the experience of training athletes, since 1984 he has been gathering information on a winning mindset.  It takes brutal honesty within yourself and an attitude of learning.  Winners also have an incredible work ethic and are in it for the long haul.  As the saying goes, ‘some days are like diamonds, whilst others are like stone‘ and it is the acceptance of that which is important.  David talks of perseverance and commitment, such that you are “willing to put grand-ma on ice if she dies”.  As part of commitment, being able to accept ‘where you are on the journey’ helps athletes to move forward and upward.

Another part of commitment is the day-to-day grind of following the athlete’s programme.  David says that ninety percent of the performance is won before the competition arrives.  The remaining 10% is delivering under pressure.  On the day the athlete needs someone who gets the best out of them, not more technical information.

As I continued to listen to his presentation, the links between the athlete trainer and the organisational leader became obvious:

  • Accept where you are, where your staff are and work from there
  • Avoid instruction where you can.  Get staff working, and owning what they do.
  • Provide technical information where relevant, and when the pressure is on, work with your staff to get the best out of them
  • Know enough to challenge decision-making, and steer the conversation relentlessly to performance to ensure aligned decision-making
  • Know your critical success factors
  • Focus exclusively on processes and programmes that lead to performance
  • Be a role model for commitment and perseverance.






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