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May 2020,

True Innovation Requires Diversity

What do the All Blacks, the San Antonio Spurs, Yvette Williams and Callum Gilbert all have in common? To find out, read on. In this article, we explore ‘diversity of thinking’ and how former and current top athletes have harnessed its power to achieve success.

In a competitive world we need to find an edge to separate us from the pack. Successful people seek out diversity and utilise differences to innovate and progress. Richness of thinking is created from diverse viewpoints and has the potential to disrupt groupthink.

The All Blacks are a team well known for harnessing the power of diverse thinking. They’ve famously sought input from the Royal New Zealand Ballet and leaders in martial arts. NBA basketball team the San Antonio Spurs are another good example. They discovered the benefit of hiring a female coach, when Becky Hammon led the Spurs’ NBA Summer League team to victory in 2015. She was the first female NBA head coach, and a reminder that half the population had previously not been considered for top-level basketball coaching roles.

Athletes of today can still take inspiration from Dame Yvette Williams, the first New Zealand woman to win an Olympic gold medal. One of her coaches was an Estonian refugee who had fled war-torn Europe in the 1940s. Emmy Bellwood brought a wealth of sports training knowledge from Northern Europe that was largely unheard of in New Zealand at the time. Yvette Williams was quick to realise how much she could learn from this young woman with a thick accent, despite her being very different to the rest of the athletics coaches in the country.

Tokyo-bound canoe slalom racer Callum Gilbert is someone who has long been a lateral thinker. Growing up, his mother regularly challenged him to think outside the box. Then Callum found a fellow lateral thinker in his coach, sports physiologist Paul Macdermid. Together, Callum and his coach have challenged the norms of canoe slalom training.

Callum explains: “When I met Paul, he said why do you go to the gym? I said, to get stronger. He said, why do you want to get stronger? We explored it further and realised there were other ways of developing strength and power that suited me better. We now use a kayak power meter, and I’m able to measure my development on the water.”

Paul Macdermid isn’t a typical canoe slalom coach. He works as a physiology lecturer at Massey University and coaches Callum remotely. For Callum, his coach has become something of a “one-stop shop”.

“I don’t really need a strength and conditioner, or a lot of support team members,” Callum says. “I’m happy with a small team.”

Callum communicates with Paul via SKYPE even when he’s competing overseas at major events. “It saves a lot of money not flying a coach with me everywhere I go, plus it’s also better for the environment,” he says.

HPSNZ Athlete Life Advisor, Chris Arthur admires the way Callum connects with people who will give a different point of view. “Callum is a thoughtful and self-aware athlete that is independent but also understands interdependence,” she says.

As a member of Callum’s support team, Chris knows firsthand the value of a diverse approach. The former Olympic Black Stick well remembers the valuable lessons she learned from coaches that pulled in outside people. “As a Black Stick we didn`t have a comprehensive understanding of tight marking,” she says. “Silver Ferns coach Lois Muir was brought in to show us how they mark in netball. It was great to have a fresh perspective and apply it to our environment. Another example was the development of artificial turfs, which called for innovation. Wayne Smith took us for a session on diving to deflect balls into the goal from a rugby perspective. I believe the willingness of our coaches to bring in diverse inputs helped the development of our game in a way that gave us a competitive advantage.”

The key to innovation in sport and in life is to harness the energy of others and find synergies within your own sport. As an athlete taking ownership of your campaign, have you considered diversity in your support teams for sport and life? Who will challenge your thinking and provide different perspectives so you can grow, be innovative and have a competitive advantage? It’s certainly something to think (laterally) about.