March 2023, Articles - Events

Mapping the Future of High Performance Sport

The clues are all around us - glimpses of the future that are already playing out in the present. When plotting a pathway to success in High Performance Sport, taking the time to scan for these clues and factoring them into planning could provide that vital edge.

“We are no longer in a world that we can predict and control, have one plan and assume that will be resilient for the next 10 years,” says Reanna Brown, an Australian futurist and former cricketer who addressed delegates at Performance Summit 2023, cohosted by HPSNZ, Paralympics New Zealand and the NZOC.

In a time of pandemics, climate change and a sporting landscape where athlete activism and wellbeing are hot topics, it’s easy to feel as though the future is descending upon us a breakneck speed.

But, says Brown, referencing a quote from fellow futurist Andy Hines: “the future is not as fast as you think”.

“Change only seems fast because we are not looking.”

When we do look, pockets of change are all around us.

In the sporting context, Brown cites the commercialisation of women’s and youth sports; the rise of athletes as workers, activists and content creators; environmental impacts; the intersection between data, technology and gambling and fundamental changes to pinnacle events as just some of the major themes of the future that can already be spotted today.

“I always talk about change as big and small cogs,” says Brown.

“These big cogs are slow and large but they have all the power. So the upstream things, when they move, it has a significant downstream [effect] on sport. The small cogs get all the attention, but they don’t have all the power.

“That’s why we are talking about athlete wellbeing, athlete activism and climate change. Because when we are thinking about change in sport, we need to look upstream.”

What does this mean in a practical sense for folks who work in high performance sport?

“When we change the way we think about the future we change the way we think about action in the present,” says Brown.

“I always talk about a 10-year mindset. If we make decisions with a one-year or two-year mindset we only see a very narrow range of possible changes occurring today.

With a 10-year mindset “all of a sudden the decisions that we make in the present grow exponentially”.

“There are new ideas, new opportunities to think about things differently.”

Brown suggests a three-step process for considering the future.

We should ask: What? So what? And now what?

The ‘what’ is ‘what is happening’? ‘So what’ is what does this mean for us? And ‘now what’ is the “what will we do about it”?

“We know that the future will not be the same. So the first instinct should be to say what is changing around this topic?” says Brown.

“It’s always about change. But it is not about managing change, it is about anticipating change. It is about navigating uncertainty.”

Doing nothing in the face of looming change is an option – but not one without consequences, suggests Brown.

“The future is shaped by our actions and inactions in the present. Every time we decide not to do something, either as a coach or administrator, that is a decision about the future.

“My view is that every time we choose not to do something in response to a change we are likely to end up in a future of constraint.”

Brown quotes ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky when suggesting the best approach to tackling the future: “Skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been,” Gretzky famously said.

But picking where the puck is going isn’t always that simple.

“The future doesn’t happen in a straight line,” says Brown. “We don’t just go from the past to the present to the future.”

Brown quotes perhaps the most famous futurist of all, Jim Dator, when assessing the challenge for high performance sport.

“Any useful statement about the future should at first appear ridiculous – but not all ridiculous ideas are at first useful.”

Reanna Browne, Founder and Principle Futurist Work Features keynote speech during The Sport NZ Performance Summit, Auckland, New Zealand on Wednesday 15 March 2023. Mandatory credit: Lynne Cameron /