Lessons from a High Performance Learning Environment with Jonathan Harding

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Jonathan Harding is an established writer and author - in his own words, "A sports writer who cares about the person and the player, the coach and the community. I speak German, am a father and try to look after the planet."


He joins Skye Eddy for the final High Performance Week interview, discussing what Jonathan uncovered about high performance learning environments while writing his most recent book:  'Soul: Beyond the Athlete." 


Leave your thoughts in the comments box below, and as always you can find the transcript below too.


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TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
Hi everyone. Welcome to our final interview for High Performance week. We are finishing this week with some golden conversation that I'm so excited about with Jonathan Harding, the author of a book, Soul, which is one of my new favorite books. I've so enjoyed it and I encourage you all to pick up a copy for yourselves.

Skye:
We're just deep diving into the environment in which our children are growing up within sport and Jonathan dives into the value and the importance of speaking to the soul of the athletes that are in front of us. So, Jonathan, thank you. Welcome to Soccer Parenting.

Jonathan:
Thank you for having me lovely intro there.

Skye:
All right. I really did love your book. You know that I reached out to you randomly. I love what you're doing here and you tell some stories of some places and some sporting environments that I am familiar with, so there is the connection there. But as we're kicking off here, I guess what I would love for you to do is just tell us briefly about the journey of writing this book and maybe start with why, like why you decided that this story was an important one.

Jonathan:
It's a good question. I think a lot of people have asked me that. I asked myself that when I started to write it. I think of the back of the first book that I wrote, it was the question that lingered and I kept asking myself. I've been around a lot of professional sporting environments. I've spoken to a lot of people who've worked in those environments. Do I have the impression that those environments care for people? And obviously it's a big question. It's a broad question. It could be answered and asked or posed in a number of different ways.

Jonathan:
But basically I was thinking about something that was performance related, but not performance focused entirely, and how can we lead to greater performance by maybe not considering performance in the first place, by just looking at the human being. And yeah, once I started to ask that question as is often the case for people who like to write and investigate these kind of ideas, you go down a rabbit hole of ideas and speak to lots of people. The next thing you've written a chapter and it runs away with you.

Jonathan:
I think once I started to realize that there was really interesting answers to this question and that in some ways it wasn't possible to answer it fully. I knew I had to write about it. One, because the timing. Right now it feels like we are changing into an age where athletes are really taking a lot more ownership over their own careers. But also the conversation around mental health and well-being has changed dramatically in the last few years, awareness has gone up in a lot of organizations and clubs. That's important.

Jonathan:
And secondly, because it's something I'm passionate about whenever I've written about sports, I've always wanted to consider the person.

Skye:
Yeah. Give us a little bit of your background, just so that those that are hearing you for the first time, seeing you for the first time, have like a picture of how you arrived to this space.

Jonathan:
Yeah. Okay. Well, I've been in Germany for 10 years now. I've written about, predominantly about soccer most of my life, played it when I was younger. Played a lot of sports when I was younger. Unlike like lots of young boys when they realized it's not possible to play it professionally, I wanted to find a way to stay connected to professional sport. And I've always had an affinity with writing. I've always enjoyed writing. So those two worlds came together. I was lucky that certain things happened along the way. Good timing, shall we sometimes such as Germany winning the World Cup.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
Fortunate timing there, not something I can control, but that definitely helped me along the way. And I think after the first book which was predominantly about German coaching and the influence of German coaches on modern soccer generally, I started to explore less country focused, more big picture focused. I had gotten to know quite a lot of people along the way who really helped form these ideas. And I think over the last few years, generally, I've started to question, "What is it that I want to do going forward? What is it that really interests me?"

Jonathan:
And that's why I ended up moving into this space generally to just enhance my knowledge. And then primarily once I started to write the book, to get the voices of these people who are doing this great work out there so that we can start a conversation so that the people who can make a difference, choose to.

Skye:
Yeah, no, I love it. And I think amplifying the positive voices of people within this space is so important because invariably what we hear in the news or what hits us as consumers is the negative stories, the bad things that are happening. And so just amplifying the positive certainly has a role.

Skye:
So would you say that the question that you were seeking to ask in your book, the hypothesis that it is possible to speak to the soul of the athlete and at the same time be in a very high performance environment? Did you prove that, without like giving the whole book away? Of course, you won't because there's so many great stories in it. What did you walk away with?

Jonathan:
Well, I found out that it's not necessarily possible to answer that question definitively. I think it would be easy to say yes or no. On the whole I went in with the idea that there would be probably more nos than yes. And that was probably true. But I think it's when you consider the question, Does professional sport care about people? I always like to break it down into two ways of answering it really. Are we talking about organizations or are we talking about individuals?

Jonathan:
Because on the whole, I found the organizations, the concept of organizations, caring about people is so big, that what you're really talking about there is philosophical atmosphere or environment. And that is often not always as it should be. I think a lot of organizations talk a good game, but how you implement that into an actual environment, into day to day interactions is a totally different thing. On the whole that's where I think the focus on performance in terms of only results has led to ignorance or a willingness to look away from the human.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
But the people that I've spoken to are almost always there caring about people. And so that's what's interesting for me, often in isolation in their environment, against structures that are not making it easy for them, but that was something that was really encouraging. And also just reminded me of an experience that almost everyone has had. There's always been someone in your life, whether it's a teacher, whether it's a coach in a sporting setting or in a music setting or somewhere, that has faith in you, sees you as a person and can ultimately change an enormous deal about your mindset, about how things go in life.

Jonathan:
And so it was really encouraging to see that on a individual basis, on a one-to-one basis, there were many people out there caring for people, looking out for them, whether it was in their job description or not. But organizationally it's a much harder thing to master because you really have to have an overriding philosophical agreement that everyone in the organization sees it this way and works towards it every day. And that's much harder.

Skye:
Yeah, no, absolutely. I say oftentimes at Soccer Parenting, this concept, leadership matters. I've written an article about that. I reference that a lot. Let's double click there a little bit and dive into what you experienced and what you learned about the leadership of organizations.

Skye:
Why don't we back up and talk about the structures that you did see that were positive and what was maybe the common denominator about those well-run sporting organizations from a structural standpoint, the ones that were doing it right.

Jonathan:
Yeah. I think it's always hard to say that there was one overriding format but there were-

Skye:
You mean there's not an exact answer to this. Like there's not a simple solution. Come on.

Jonathan:
... I wish there was, but in this environment it's obviously extremely complex because every person is complex. And so it's easy to say let's simplify the complex nature of things, but in doing so you never really find the real answer. I think accepting the fact that it's complex is a big start. On the whole, I found that there are some common traits even though when you consider what works for one organizational club is obviously deeply dependent on the culture, or the context, or the location of that place. And so it couldn't necessarily just be replicated and done elsewhere.

Jonathan:
I strongly believe that you can't just take something from A and put it in B and expect it to work. But on the whole, I think when we're talking about leadership in this situation, I have found that people who are willing to allow individuals to work the way that works best for them inside the framework that builds the philosophy of the organization, tends to be the most successful approach. For example, especially if you're dealing with cross generations, I've found some of the most successful leaders in this sense don't enter an organization immediately thinking that they will improve it.

Jonathan:
They enter with a recognition that there are lots of people here who have been working for a long time already towards a goal. They get a really firm understanding of what the organization stands for and then works with those people to make the changes that they feel will be beneficial. They lean on experts. They certainly don't come in and profess to know everything. I think that's really important. There are a lot of smart people out there. Ask them stupid questions because they're smart people and let them help you.

Jonathan:
This idea of using a framework, but letting people work freely inside it, I really am a big fan of this concept because that framework is built around the philosophy of the organization. What is it that we stand for? What are the values? How do we incorporate that onto a day to day basis? This is not just words on a wall. This is actions, manners, values, kind of things that we want to see all the time. How do we get people to do that in a way that works for them, not just by saying, this is how we do it.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
And that's a very, very, very fine skill because if you're working with someone who's 22 and you're working with someone who's 48, there is an enormous difference between both people. Not just age, not even considering gender, race, whatever it is. There are so many different reasons why someone might approach things differently. The true skill is being able to approach all of those things, recognize the difference and say, "Okay, you work best in this setting, and maybe home office is where you do your best work. Maybe this is how you do things more. You use your phone a lot, but actually in this setting this can be beneficial. How can we make it your work for you?"

Jonathan:
I think the people I've seen who really recognize that, to a certain point, obviously not letting people walk all over them, but to a certain point and say, "Look, we recognize this is how you work best. These are the things we think are important. Let's find a way to bring those two things together." So using the framework, but not pushing it, not saying you have to do this. That's what I found.

Skye:
What's striking me as you're speaking is the correlation there between the leadership of the organization and how they're working with their staff, is ultimately the same way that the team will work best. If those same layers of meeting the needs of the players right there in the moment based on their experiences, if that trickles down, those will be the organizations that are really supporting players and caring about them.

Jonathan:
And that's exactly it because therein lies the truth. And ironically, I think a lot of these organizations do, do that deliberately because there's another layer of understanding there. If you can say, "Well, this is how we play on the pitch, and this is how we operate off it." You get such a great synergy if everyone in the organization sees that.

Skye:
Yeah. Yeah. I found myself a little bit on a seesaw. Do you know what a seesaw is?

Jonathan:
I do. Yeah.

Skye:
Okay. Sorry. I didn't know. I think that might be an American term. Is there a European term for it?

Jonathan:
I also know seesaw.

Skye:
Oh, okay. All right.

Jonathan:
All good.

Skye:
Okay. I found myself a little bit on a seesaw reading your book because I would to get so excited about this story you were telling about this organization, and then I'd be a little bit deflated thinking, " If only that were happening more." So it was like this up and down journey I was on. Did you feel that way writing it?

Jonathan:
Yes and no. When you go in with the consideration, just asking the question puts you in a certain space. If I'm writing something focused on the idea, does sport care about people? There is a certain element of the question alone that suggests that you think it doesn't.

Skye:
Right.

Jonathan:
Otherwise, you wouldn't be asking the question. So I think more often than not, I didn't necessarily find myself so deflated that it wasn't common. I was actually more excited about the fact that there were so many people doing so many different things, approaching it from so many different ways and yet still being very effective in a way that was best for them. I think that's what ended up being a feeling for me.

Jonathan:
Every chapter, every time I spoke to someone else, I thought, "Right. Okay. So there is a way to do this." There are a couple of chapters in there where I thought, "Wow, we really haven't made any progress, or there are things we really do need to improve on." Those areas were definitely food for thought, but in the chapters and the people I spoke to who had frameworks and were working in environments, I was like, "Wow, okay. This is completely different from chapter two and yet still very effective." That was exciting.

Skye:
Yeah. No, I agree. I realized that we're talking about this and we haven't explained this book. So why don't you explain what you did? You went on this journey to investigate some of the most well-known sporting organizations globally, across different sports.

Skye:
One, I guess I'm curious. How did you choose them? How did they come to the play? Because it's very varied from soccer to baseball to... And then I guess, tell us about a couple of your favorite ones that really resonated with you.

Jonathan:
Tough, tough favorites, you never want to take sides [crosstalk 00:14:47].

Skye:
Most relevant to this conversation I should say.

Jonathan:
Yeah. Okay.

Skye:
Of course, they were all your favorite.

Jonathan:
Oh, of course. Yeah. How did they come to me? I think it's an interesting thing. When you go down a path of investigating stuff like this, I think you can start to spot the more that you do it, the genuine difference between performance related human approaches and genuine human approaches. I think a lot of organizations say that they do work in this area. But when you get down to what that work is, the bottom line is, it's performance.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
I was interested in the impact on performance, but not necessarily this laser focus, everything has to be about winning. I was interested in what are the organizations and who are the people who are saying, "I see you as a person then as a player and all of the things that come with that." I think it was a natural investigation really that you start because you have to wade through quite a lot of different organizations that say that they do.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
But every time you speak to someone who does do that, they know someone who does it too. And so you start to speak to them and then you speak to more and more people.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
You speak to some people and they tell you that they do this and you realize at the end of the conversation that they don't and that's fine. But on the whole it was like a down a rabbit hole. And then you find another one and you find another one. It's funny, but like Alice in Wonderland. I'm going through all of these different places. It was a lot of fun.

Skye:
So what were some of your favorites?

Jonathan:
As for favorites, yeah-

Skye:
The ones that resonate. Sorry, let's not use that word. What are some that are really relevant to this conversation?

Jonathan:
No. No. I think there are obvious favorites in terms of what really resonated, what's relevant for this conversation in terms of really thinking about youth football and how can we look after children more? I think it's obvious that the one when I was in Denmark, speaking to Nordsjælland, character development really struck a chord with me because it was such a clear step away from performance. That's what really interested me.

Jonathan:
So the idea here is that there are seven character traits that the club wishes to focus on. I think it's from, I'm trying to remember, under 10s all the way up to first team. I think it's once a week that they focus sometimes in the classroom, sometimes it's an experience, sometimes on the field, taking the seven traits that they think that are core values of the organization, talking about them and giving the kids the autonomy to understand and make decisions about how to improve those areas of their character.

Jonathan:
And of course they are related to how you play football, but they are also invaluable for however you end up and wherever you end up, whether you make it as a professional player or not. Nordsjælland does pride itself and they do a great job of also sending a lot of young players to colleges in the US to get great degrees and to set themselves up.

Jonathan:
That really resonated with me because there was a clear path there of saying, "Professional football isn't everything. We are also aware of that from a very young age." That was cool.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
I think also in Australia, speaking to the work that Steve Johnson's doing down there with the national rugby league, the fact that they've come up with a framework around well-being where every club has two well-being officers, one is an ex player to help with transition during the career, so it's not just like, "Oh, you've retired. Now we will start transition," that proactive way I really like. And also then the other person's there strictly for well-being. I thought that was really good working inside a framework, making it work for them.

Jonathan:
But I think if I'm thinking about youth football, really, I love AIK in Sweden and the work that Mark O Sullivan is doing and James Vaughan, such a great group of people, Dennis Wharton. I think what they have done and I think is really genius is that they focused on the cultural significance of the area. They've made sure that kids have so much autonomy and that they're not in the pressurized environment, that they are having to make so many decisions for themselves.

Jonathan:
Ultimately this decision to late professionalization as it were, even then I don't like professionalization as a term and I'm sure Mark will be delighted that I'm making sure I'm not saying that, but I think letting kids make a decision as late as possible at 14 or 15, making sure that if they want to train more or less, they get to decide it. Again, giving young people the freedom to work inside a framework is really fantastic. Sometimes that framework can be very broad and very flexible.

Jonathan:
And I think that's really necessary because too often I've seen and heard about young people from the ages of 11 or 12 already on a career path and a lot of the language around this is very dangerous. And so seeing an organization that recognizes things as significant as language, as environment, as atmospheres, as day to day interactions and changing that and making sure everything is about the children, the enjoyment, whilst all the development is happening subconsciously not on this very rigid path was just really fantastic.

Skye:
Yeah. Yeah. So Mark's been, I guess the Soccer Parenting a couple of times now. And so for those of you listening, we'll link in an interview that we did into the High Performance hub, the conversation that Mark and I had. It was my first conversation with Mark. I'd never spoken to him before and I was trying to follow along. He was like operating here, and I was like treading water in that conversation.

Jonathan:
He's a snob, man.

Skye:
Yeah, but I was really fascinated and excited to read the chapter that you had about AIK and knowing a lot of the backstory of the organization. But something else struck me when I was reading that is your mention of the fact that the AIK model and their framework is really board driven. Like this framework will not change if Mark leaves or one of their other directors leaves. It's actually embedded into the culture of the organization at a board level. You want to talk about that a little bit?

Jonathan:
Well, I think that's important. You can't just rely on individuals. We were talking earlier about the fact that individuals care, but if you can do it on an organizational level as well, then you really are cementing a legacy. And ultimately then parents and kids are aware that this isn't just because one or two people are there, it's because the nature of the organization. And it's important to say that we're talking about AIKs academy here, the first team is obviously something different.

Jonathan:
But having the support on that kind of level, it gives you freedom as a coach as well, because then you know that you're not having to fight to justify this stuff all the time.

Skye:
Right.

Jonathan:
You know that you have the backing, so it changes the way that you operate as a coach. Because you're not, and I think a lot of coaches are, understandably, always slightly worried about how their performance review might be, or am I doing well enough? They don't have to worry about that because they know that the board thinks the same way.

Skye:
Yeah.

Jonathan:
I think it's good for coaching, but I also think it's good for the legacy of the institution, because what you are doing is you're also telling parents and kids, "This is who we are. Whoever is here, this is who we are." I think that really matters.

Skye:
Yeah, no, absolutely. I couldn't obviously agree more on that statement. I hear that sentiment a lot from youth coaches in America saying, "I want to do these things, but if I don't focus enough on winning, then the parents are going to revolt. They're going to go to a different team or going to see all this club hopping." A lot of the work that we're doing with Soccer Parenting is similar to what we started this conversation with. It's amplifying the positive voices. It's giving parents, and a lot of this week has been about giving parents some clarity and some confidence in the decisions that they're making for their children and what's most important.

Skye:
And that statement leads me to my final question for you. I really did want to wrap up this week with you because we've spent time during this week talking about the physical side, the mental side of the game for kids that have these high performance dreams, like what we can do to support parents who have children with these dreams. We've certainly focused a lot on the pathways for development and the up and down nature of it.

Skye:
But I think, think it's essential that we wrap up and highlight this concept of what really matters most. And that is the soul of a child, of our children. And I know that you're a dad yourself. We've spoken about your son offline a little bit. I'm curious about what you will be intentional about if your son grows to have high performance dreams of his own and how you'll navigate that journey with him.

Jonathan:
Yeah. It's a question I've asked myself already inevitably through the work. But I think the biggest thing is that I sometimes like to think of it as I'll be there but as little and as often as I need to be, which is a weird thing to say. But I think a lot of things about what his life will be like in the future and if he wants to play professional sport or any level of high performance as you say, giving him the opportunity to make decisions for himself.

Jonathan:
I would never be the type of person to say, "You must do this," always supporting him, making sure that the language that I use is really positive. Making sure that he understands that winning is absolutely not everything and how so many other things are potentially more valuable along the way, but really letting him make a lot of those decisions himself through his own experiences. Because really, whether it's a good decision or a bad decision, if he makes it himself, there's a lot of value there for him to learn from it. And I'll always be there to support him.

Jonathan:
But if I start making decisions for him, you're already down a dangerous road and I would never do that. So yeah, it's really hard because you think about it a lot and there are so many things you could say, "I want to do this. I want to try and help here." But honestly I think one of the best things that you can do when you're talking about soul or you're talking about character is let that form on its own. Be there as a support mechanism, whenever you can be. We all need that support.

Jonathan:
Whatever we do in life, we need to be loved. We need to be cared for. So I would always be there in that sense, but making sure that he feels he has control of his own situation and his own future. If he wants to do whatever he wants to do, I'll be there supporting him and I think that's the most important thing.

Skye:
Yeah, no, I love it. Thank you so much for sharing those words. I think if one word has come up a lot and in various forms, maybe we haven't said it exactly, but it is the concept of autonomy and how valuable that is. I guess it sort of makes sense because maybe the opposite of that might be control. And when we feel controlled, we're stifled and really if we're helping people be their best selves, it's helping them acknowledge who that is and who they are behind all the layers.

Jonathan:
Absolutely. And I also think that there's a certain element of yeah, you know we shouldn't be controlling, right? We shouldn't be making decisions. But I think young people, they do need some rules. They do need those boundaries to understand how far they can go because their concept of the world, when I think about when I was young, was only so far. You thought it was the end of the world if you lost something at school and I think having that security and understanding where you are in the world is necessary.

Jonathan:
So when I say autonomy, I'm not saying let them run around and do whatever they want, obviously. But I am saying, make sure that if you have a conversation with them and you are really honest with them, you're truthful with them about the situation, give them all the information that they need to make a decision and then they can make it. I think that's really important, because I think often we could have a long conversation about how often the pathway for young people, whatever they do is often almost predetermined.

Jonathan:
Go to school, what's your best subject, go to college. All right. Once you go to college, you get a job. And I think that's changing. I think it's changing right now. You have to figure out what works for you. If college is great, if it isn't great, what are you going to do? How are you going to make it work? And I think giving young people the opportunity to decide that for themselves can be very powerful so long as that support is always there, obviously.

Skye:
Yeah, no, absolutely. You're making me think about the foundation for AIK and I know what they push out a lot as this concept of as many as possible, as long as possible in the best environment as possible.

Jonathan:
Yeah.

Skye:
I love the fact that we're wrapping up this week with a conversation about the environment so that we're meeting the needs of our kids.

Skye:
Thank you so much for your time today. I'm so happy to bring your voice to Soccer Parenting parents. Definitely pick up the book, Soul. It's just a wonderful combination of some really powerful stories. I also love your writing style, like I was on the train with you between these trips and I felt really connected to you as you're writing it. So in addition to it being a great narrative of these stories, it was also just a great story in itself.

Jonathan:
Thank you.

Skye:
Thank you so much for being here and parents, thank you so much for being a part of high performance week. We hope that we have given you some guidance and support and how you can help your children in navigating the path to their big high performance dreams.

Skye:
Awesome. Thank you so much.