Blame it on Rio? Choosing the frame, means choosing our experience

September 1, 2016

Power of the frame

Defeat or new beginning? Shame or glory? Heroine or loser?

How we frame things can have a very powerful effect on how we experience events. It can also determine how we interpret and recall them in their aftermath and have a big impact on what we choose to do in their wake. It’s true for elite athletes – and the rest of us too.

That came to mind as I listened last night to two senior Australian sports administrators reflect upon Australia’s performance at the Rio 2016 Olympics. NSW Institute of Sport Chairman, Gary Flowers, and Australian Sports Commission Director, James Ceely, were speaking to more than 70 executives at the Australian Institute of Company Directors in Melbourne.

There is extensive evidence from psychology and brain science that we interpret what’s around us through very specific filters based on our attitudes, we’re prone to forming our judgements quickly and we’re quick to accept the views of those in “our group” (and quickly reject those of perceived outsiders). Each of these responses by our brain cause us to erect frames – and those frames have a powerful effect what happens next. Worse, if we repeat those ways of experiencing things frequently enough they will become habitual – making alternate responses more difficult.

Responding to Rio

So, how Australians, their elite athletes and administrators responded to the Rio Olympics – and the nation’s aspirations – was a case in point. Now and for the future.

Take, for example, the Australian athletes who returned home and felt in some way compelled to apologise to the nation for their performance, Gary said. Compare that to the response of Brazilians collectively when one, against the odds, rose to win bronze, Gary said. Or to a nation like India that celebrated, universally, its achievement of two medals, and treated its athletes as heroes.

Surely, Gary said, it was unfair that we put our Australian athletes under the expectation of needing to make a public mea culpa and public confessional in order to find redemption. To whatever we aspire, he asked, was that not bound to be unhelpful?

Framing was equally important when it came to measuring success.

Should we, focus on finishing tenth with 29 medals? Or that in terms of our population Australia’s medal accumulation was 1:650K, more than three times better than USA and many times better than China? An adequate return on our $320M of taxpayer funds invested?

Should we as a nation we wallow, Gary asked, in the conclusion that Australia was lagging behind or embrace our competitive spirit and conclude that other nations were “catching up” and it was time to put the jets on. “I’m convinced,” Gary said, “that we can keep pace. Australia is used to punching above its weight. We can do it.”

But that could come at a price. We’d need to make some changes. Like ditching – in federated sports – our reflex for representational governance (put another way: we should rise to the old challenges over state boundaries, but if we have any rational aspirations to competing against better funded nation states then we’d better ditch that as a governance framework for making competitive or resource allocation decisions about our sports.

Win the crowd

Gary’s approach to an overtly emotional topic was reasoned, thoughtful and optimistic. As the evening unfolded it reflected a seasoned executive’s wisdom that winning the room was paramount, and that sharper tongues were for behind closed doors.

But Gary’s commentary was also combined with forthrightness. He openly questioned, for example, whether, it was realistic in terms of a modern Olympics, for a developing nation to reliably host a games (confiding how close Olympic authorities came as Rio’s opening beckoned to pulling the trigger on an alternative host city). He was equally candid when it came to reform.

Gary also acutely observed that when it comes to executive decision making and elite sports otherwise sensible leaders were prone to “leave common sense at the door”. Being passionate was a pre-requisite for sport, but at the board table could easily be confused at the executive level with the need to response objectively. What was needed, he said, was for a more welcoming and stable environment for non-executive directors in terms of joining sporting organisations in an executive role.

Optimism

Above all listening to Gary it was hard not to come away with a sense of optimism. A dialogue that was calm and future focussed, with a clarity that could rise above the cheers and boos and waving flags – but  not silence them.

Gary also appeared pragmatic when it came to an assessment of the the Australian Olympic team culture. In fact, was it possible to take more than 20 individual elite sports and unite them under one unifying and defining culture?

Could that work for universally to embrace athletes operating under a team based system like hockey through to individual swimmers? Could there even be an Australian Olympic contingent with ONE unifying culture?

Lyricist Billy Bragg observed that people are different, and you can borrow ideas, but you can’t borrow situations. Revolutions, he wrote, are as different as the cultures that give them birth. Belief needs identity – and culture needs some ground roots.

Likewise, what does not overcome us is likely to make us stronger. So, we can hope, like Gary and the Olympic athletes and administrators who survived and thrived in Rio. Hard for any of us to imagine what being “parachuted” into an environment where a foreign language, an alien legal system, sub-standard infrastructure, elite performance and intense public scrutiny were all fused in one moment.

Resilience was Gary’s forward-looking interpretation of that experience. And hence another frame.

Since setbacks – as any good coach knows – and Gary might have said – are our opportunities.

If only we let them be so.

By John John Carruthers