Sunderland talks High Performance as UCI initiates new cycling era
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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sunderland talks High Performance as UCI initiates new cycling era

by Steve Jones at 12:54 PM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Interviews

The cycling world is in a constant state of change. Technological advances in manufacturing have made equipment lighter and stronger, and even the riders are taking a more scientific approach to their training, now targeting only specific events during the year.

Somewhere in between the power meter and carbon fiber, the International Cycling Union's UCI Academy realized that certain areas of the sport, in particular areas that contribute to its growth globally, had been overlooked as skills that also need to be developed in order to take cycling to the next level.

Christopher Solly and Michael Cary, who are staff members of England's prestigious Manchester Business School, contacted Scott Sunderland in early 2009 about the possibility of developing a curriculum that would focus on professional development for Sports Directors in cycling. The course would target ProTour level Directors, but also be available for UCI professional continental teams in the future.

Having made the transition from an athlete to a successful Sports Director, Sunderland possessed the insight needed to build an effective curriculum for the UCI Academy. Not only did the pair from Manchester Business School realize the Australian's ability to build a team, but so too did Team Sky's Principal David Brailsford, the man charged with finding the person most qualified to architect Britain's bid to win the Tour de France.

Passion for something can often times cloud good judgment. Within the curriculum the UCI, together with Solly, Cary and Sunderland, convey a message that shows the fine line that must be walked in sports management in order to make the right decisions for your team. As the saying goes, "There is no 'I' in team", and the importance of working together as a sport, along with positive reinforcement to staff ensuring credit is given where credit is due, are both integral parts of winning. Attention to detail will go long way towards bringing together the powerful combination of morale and passion that will naturally lead a team, and along with it the sport, to success.

VeloNation sat down with Team Sky's Senior Sports Director, Scott Sunderland, to discuss his recent experiences participating in the programme at UCI Headquarters. For four days cycling's "Brain Trust", the Sports Directors driving the sport, gathered in Aigle, Switzerland for the UCI Academy's new programme Sunderland helped to develop entitled "Turning Passion Into Performance."

VeloNation:  What were your initial thoughts when you were approached about the idea?

Scott Sunderland:  My initial thought was, wow! You know, I thought it was fantastic. I considered this Programme as a great concept because I felt the ProTour had stalled a bit. I think we got off to a great start with the Tour Down Under (Pro Tour event) in Australia, with Lance's (Armstrong) presence there, but it didn't seem to move further from there.

The Pro Tour package needs another wrapping, a fresh presentation.

By running this Directors Programme now it will gain new momentum. This and the introduction next year of two new races in Canada are signs we are moving ahead.

Part of the evolution is looking at the people who have got key roles and who are driving the ProTour, and amongst those are the Sports Directors.

So often we're the buffers between Team and the sponsors, the race organizers, the media, as well as between senior management and the riders, and we play an important role there. This has been a great opportunity for the Sports Directors to learn more about the business aspects surrounding our sport.

VN:  What was the first day of "class" like for everyone, was there any nervous energy?

SS:  Think I was most nervous (laughs), first time I stood in front of my peers like this.
One of the things I said to my fellow Sports Directors was that if we're going to help cycling, this [programme] is one of the things we need to do for our credibility and that of the sport.

The information given isn't at all new to most, most directors already have the knowledge, the aim was to see it black on white and engage in discussion.

When they arrived none of the guys knew what to expect, they weren't sure how the UCI's Academy of Sports were going to go about this.

Majority of the participants have been athletes and are now Sports Directors multi-tasking on the job, so to follow some programme with actual testing was slightly intimidating.

For my Italian and Spanish colleagues, and we even had a Russian colleague there - it was maybe a bit daunting following the course in English.

But Passion has driven us all to get to where we are now and that won't and shouldn't change. Helping each other and working in solidarity will allow our passion not to misguide us and let us enjoy working together.

 Who helped with the course curriculum development?

SS:  Alain Rumpf, UCI Pro Tour Manager, and Chris Solly and Michael Cary from the World Academy of Sport (WAS), which is a part of the Manchester Business School (MBS), were the initiators. The WAS has five centers throughout the world. Michael Cooper, the Programme Manager and Rolf Woodward were also driving forces for this Programme.

The Academy does this [create a curriculum] for a lot of different sports, and the UCI approached Chris and Michael about running courses for the UCI Academy, the UCI's educational branch, that would cover High-Performance Management at the upper level in cycling.

My role was advisory, to provide insight into our roles and responsibilities as a Team Director in general terms, and also as a Senior Sports Director and Sports Manager; where you go from negotiating with riders, possibly right up until the actual signing of the contract - which will further be dealt with by the either the General Manager or the Financial Manager.
Some Sports Directors don't have that role, but in many cases they do.

I was asked to give the other lecturers feedback so they could put the most accurate course together for this programme.

VN:  What sort of things did they do to make the course more effective for the Directors?

SS:  Some incredible presenters were brought in for us, some of the world's leaders in business...not including myself there! [laughs] The different presenters gave us some alternative views from other sports that can be of use to us, but generally give us more tools to improve our jobs.

Patrick Nally shared an amazing story about how he brought marketing and sponsorship into the world of sport in the 70's. Hearing how he accomplished this gives you useful insights.

The presenters also advised on the benefits of networking between ourselves [fellow Sports Directors].

For my presentation "Team Function" the goal was to set the tone for the programme on the first day, highlight our current roles and responsibilities and engage the other Sports Directors from the start. Highlight the Team structure, Mission, Planning Cycles, etc.

These aspects were then individually targeted by the other presenters and all of it was brought home on the last day by a psychoanalyst demonstrating that the structures are very much alike.

VN:  How did they address the culture within cycling?

SS:  The fact is that culture and personality makes people perceive things differently. It is important to be clear when you're delivering a message, say to the media. What we were taught opened up our horizons, really.

We've got a lot of cultures here in the sport, so we need to take that into consideration. Maybe there's a damn good reason why Italians are doing it that way and American teams or British do it another way, but that doesn't mean you can't learn from every one of them.

VN:  What effect has the Internet and the speed of information being released had on cycling?

SS:  There was a presenter from the BBC on the last day, Steve Ireland, the Director of OPTU. He does a lot of documentaries about sport, and explained do's and don'ts, and how to keep the schwung in an interview, very helpful (laughs). One of the things Mr Ireland commented on was the Internet. How to use digital media like Twitter and Facebook and how your team can benefit from this technology.

VN:  There is a lot of talk from the UCI about bringing the sport to the "Next Level". How was that addressed?

SS:  Dr. David Bamford, who is the Senior Lecturer for Operations Management at MBS shared a lot information on research methods for businesses to improve on production and save money. He showed us cutting-edge ways to work with your stakeholders, and he addressed a lot of things we could take away and put into practice.

Daniel Meyer, Managing Director of Winners Sports Management, gave a lecture on leadership and personal development. He shared some great ideas. We also had Andrew Logan come in. Andrew is an old friend of mine and the Manager of Sport Science and Sport Medicine for British Swimming. Andrew showed some new technologies for looking at athletes, and what traits to look out for and how to stay on the cutting edge with training for athletes.

VN:  One of the themes for the programme was Passion. What sort of discussions took place about how passion can affect decisions?

SS:  Turning Passion into Performance was the key phrase. Making the right decisions comes down to certain skills you need to acquire to do your job well, particularly good to have in crisis moments. Quite a few of the Directors in the room have had similar experiences. One example of many: you have a rider who's crashed and meanwhile you have the leaders jersey in the team, so the focus still needs to continue on in the race, while you have one of your riders laying on the side of the road, the doctors are trying to treat him and he needs to go in an ambulance, where will they be taking him? The team doctor is at the hotel and you need to get information channeled...this is all happening at the same time, in the race. What are the first steps that need to be taken? You need to think on your feet. This is where experience comes in.

The UCI has recognized that we're High Performance Managers and that we are the experts in our field.

We're expected to do and know a hell of a lot...a lot of things that aren't seen [by the public]. There have been comments from the press that we are merely the chauffeur of the team car. I tell you that it's far from that, and it's really demeaning to us to say that. I think the people making such statements should follow a Sports Director around during the off-season and up and into the season, and they'd be amazed at all of the tasks that we cover along the way; 24hours a day!

VN:  How about communications and dealing with athletes, and the different personalities?

SS:  You can learn how to recognize people's different traits, and to look at effective and positive ways of going head-to-head with them when needed. The psychological part of it the "EQ" (Emotional Intelligence), having those people skills and be able to use a strategic approach with all aspects; whether it's psychological, physical, business.

We talked about ways to deal with the Team's stakeholders. And about our own personal development, recognizing in yourself the weaker aspects of your personality and what you need to get to a higher level. All the different operations, the managing strategies, how to keep control of your operation. It was all addressed during 4 intense, concentrated days of discussing and learning.

VN:  You've been a Sports Director since 2005, so you already understand what the job requires. How has the programme helped you get a better grasp on what you do as a manager?

SS:  We touched on many topics most Sports Directors are already very aware of. It's what we do, but actually now we've begun putting names to it.

That's one of the points I addressed. I made a whole list of tasks and responsibilities and asked: 'Guys can you add to this list', and this initiated a very open and informative discussion.

Our job asks us to multitask within minutes, and people say 'Yeah, so why don't you have more people'? Well, first of all, we're on the road, on top of a mountain, or we're descending down a hill, we're five minutes from the start time, we're five minutes from the can only have so many people in the team car, you can only have so many people in the team bus, and there's just not enough hotels in remote areas - like mountain top finishes - to be able to bring along the whole back office with you. [laughs]

That's what this sport is all about, that's what makes it such a unique experience for the riders. They don't have all this support staff sitting in the locker rooms when they come in off the field like with football, or baseball, or basketball. It's unique, and that's part of what's so amazing about the sport.

Part of the programme was defining what we do. We could then get our "arms around the job" and become more efficient so we can perform at a general higher level.

VN:  How was your transition from an athlete to a director?

SS:  I was very fortunate when I came into professional sports management because Kim Andersen, the Senior Sports Director for CSC had been my manager for three years at Fakta, so I already had a solid relationship with him. He is a very skilled Sports Director in the way he goes about things and his approach for structuring and planning, he's efficient and very meticulous. And then there was Bjarne Riis and his vision, Bjarne has a fantastic vision for the sport. I learned a lot from him.

With those resources combined I was able to move ahead very quickly. I think the vital thing I had was the confidence I received from Bjarne and Kim. They were convinced that I had what was needed to do my job, and do it well. As for everyone, that was a big boost to me.

Not everyone has the opportunity to start on a team like that, but now with this programme new sports directors can take a leap.

There is a lot of discussion among the Directors for the future. Most feel that in order to work for a ProTour team there should be an avenue one needs to follow. If you haven't been a professional cyclist for 'X' amount of years, it would be advisable to be a Sports Director for a Continental or a Pro Continental team for a period of time first. Standardize in professional cycling like some of the other sports would be a good idea. There need to be certain criteria met, because understanding of the sport is crucial.

VN:  What was the biggest change you had to make when you became a director?

SS:  The biggest change for me was time management. I used to work for so many years with the time management of an athlete, and suddenly I had to manage everybody else's time.
I think that was the biggest thing, to make sure I could manage the time and schedule for everybody who needed that on the team. I had to get up to speed on that as quickly as possible, and I did, it actually went very fluently. Alan Peiper and myself have discussed it and I don't know if it's an Australian trait (laughs), but we're both slightly Freudian "anal" about getting things right from the start.

VN:  What would you recommend a rider nearing retirement that wants to get into a DS role?

SS:  If you want to be a director and you haven't had a long active cycling career, I would suggest you take some coaching courses and some management courses. You need to have a wide range of skills to work within cycling, good time and business management etc. You have to have a strong knowledge of cycling, and you could start by working with smaller teams, and work your way up until you have a position in Continental and then Pro Continental teams so you can do the bigger events.

VN:  What was the most gratifying part of working on this project?

SS:  Just being part of this has been a great experience for me. When Michael, Chris and Alain Rumpf addressed me in the start-up phase, I was honoured and happy to jump in. I have known most my fellow colleagues for decades. Like Herman Frison, he came up and thanked me and said, 'You know; this week was great'.

I enjoyed it a hell of a lot. Everyone helped the guy next to him if there were language obstacles or explanation needed. It was great, the solidarity that was generated in that room; it has been a fantastic experience for all the Sports Directors and the UCI.


Along with Sunderland, his fellow Sports Directors were all impressed with the direction cycling's governing body has taken.  A focus that includes developing the finer aspects of the sport with the new programme will help provide a solid foundation on which to cultivate the ProTour.

Around the room the message was clear, and the key now for the UCI will be to continue on with the momentum gained to build a stronger, more united sport.

Reactions from Attendees:
Team Columbia-HDC, Technical Director Alan Peiper:
"After over 100 years of competitive cycling, the first organised course for Sportief Directors can bring recognition to the jobs of the men who are actually the architects of the Pro Tour Teams. In the course, we have been presented with tools to develop our capabilities, to be more effective in the field and help to advance the sport of cycling."

Milram, Sports Director Raul Liebregts:
"With the DS Programme, the first step is made toward a more professional Professional Cycling. There are still things to be done, but the most important one has now been made with the Sports Directors programme. It gives essential back-ground information which any Pro Tour DS needs to have knowledge of."
Omega Pharma - Lotto, Sports Director Henrik Redant:
"It has been a challenge for the UCI to get this programme started but they have met the demands. The concept is beautiful, improving the future for the sport of cycling. For us it will create a more professional atmosphere to work in."

Team BMC, Sports Director John Lelangue:
"I know that we will all see improvements in how we handle our relationships with our riders, with the organization of our staff and with our interaction with the media.  This has been a very satisfying week of networking and finding more clues to solving the challenges this profession offers."
Columbia-HTC, Sports Director Valerio Piva:
"The course is very informative and educational. I am convinced this initiative will give our sport more credibility."

Programme Schedule included:
- Team Function, Stakeholder Relations, Leadership and Personal Development, Operations Management, Technical skills, Riders Contracts and Negotiations, Financial Bookkeeping, Athlete Services,  Media Relations and Training,

Programme dinner speaker
- Session: Evolution of Sports Sponsorship, Mr Patrick Nally, Founder WestNally
Programme Director:
Chris Solly, Director, World Academy of Sport
Programme Design and Management:
-Michael Cary, Programme Director Education, World Academy of Sport
-Rolf Woodward


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