“Nothing brings families and people together like sport,” says San Diego Padres director of player health and performance Don Tricker.
But it also has the capacity to drive them apart.
“We have our backs to our families for large periods of time in high performance sport,” says Tricker, a keynote speaker at Performance Summit 2023, cohosted by HPSNZ, Paralympics New Zealand and the NZOC.
“That is just the reality of what we do. When we spin around, we have to add serious value to our families. And it has to be guilt-free.”
Tricker’s steadfast belief in the value of family backing for both athletes and staff who work in a high performance environment dates back to his time at New Zealand Rugby, where he served as head of high performance over two successful world cup campaigns.
“We sat down and said ‘if our families truly loved us working for New Zealand Rugby, what would that look like’? says Tricker.
“Our number one priority was that our families loved us working for New Zealand Rugby.”
Tricker has taken that approach to the Major League Baseball – an environment that is peak family unfriendly. Tricker’s Padres are currently in the midst of a seven-week pre-season Spring Training camp in Phoenix, Arizona that sees the team play 31 games, and club staff work daily from 5.30am to 9.00pm.
It’s a system designed to have players battle hardened for a 162-game regular season, during which MLB teams will play most evenings and just about every weekend, with half of the games on the road.
“What we were pretty good at was getting the athletes to the start line at the start of regular season, refreshed and good to go – but we killed the staff,” says Tricker.
So the Padres tweaked things to make life more family friendly. Each staff member gets two blocks of two days off during spring training, and everybody starts work a couple of hours later on a Sunday.
Tricker acknowledges that might not sound like much – but in the MLB context such a move is borderline revolutionary.
“It’s almost like you are married into baseball and it is what it is, so get used to it,” says Tricker.
In performance reviews, the first question Tricker asks staff is: are you happy?
“If we want sustained success, we have got to be happy. We’ve got to be enjoying ourselves or else why are we doing it?”
A big part of finding that happiness is accepting that a job in high performance sport is not comparable to a regular job.
“Our people need to understand the inconvenient facts of high performance,” says Tricker.
“Expectations must be aligned. [Athletes] have to understand what it is they are walking into.
“High performance comes at a serious personal price. You need to find that price that is personal to you – and you need to be able to pay it guilt-free. Or else you will always be saying ‘why am I doing this’?
“You hear a lot about balance. Balance in high performance sport is absolutely possible.”
But it won’t look anything like what people who have nine to five jobs would consider balance.
“When we talk about work-life balance, I don’t like that word because it implies that we are an accountant – and we are not,” says Tricker.
“It is very, very different. But you have got to have times to laugh, you have got to have times to chill, time to reflect, recover and escape. If you don’t have that then you are not going to have a balanced life.
“You’ve got to work out ‘what do you need to do to give yourself the best chance of success?’. And it is very personal.”
For Tricker, the world titles he notched as coach of the Black Sox came at the expense of his family drifting away from him.
“I had a choice. I stay as a coach, or I flag coaching and re-integrate with my family. I chose my family.”
Athletes who felt their wellbeing had been compromised in the pursuit of sporting success were likely to have not been well informed about the sacrifices they would have to make to achieve their goals, suggested Tricker.
“I’d say that we haven’t inducted those individuals well enough. They’ve entered an environment where they don’t understand what that environment entails.
“If we get better at sharing ‘this is what it is, this is how it is going to roll out’, we have got a better chance of aligning expectations. And with aligned expectations we have got a better chance of understanding where everyone is coming from and delivering an environment that is going to get the best out of each other.”
Tricker quotes Dr Ceri Evans, the former All White and forensic psychiatrist who designed the All Blacks’ mental skills programme, when summarising the demands of high performance sport.
“You can’t have high performance without pressure. High performance equals high stakes plus small margins plus frequent changes plus pain and discomfort.
“Pain is inevitable – but suffering is optional.”
A quality high performance environment “allows people to be extraordinary”, says Tricker.
“There is only one non-negotiable – and that is respect. If we are respectful, we are going to be on time every time, we are going to be honest, we are going to tell the whole truth, not just enough of the truth to get ourselves out of trouble.
“If we respect ourselves, that enables us to respect our teammates, the game that we play, and the community that we are a part of.”
It should also be fun.
“When I am working in an organisation if I don’t hear laughter it is a massive red flag. How do you sustain wellbeing and performance is everyone is miserable?”