Performance Management in Professional Sport


Before you start reading this particular blog post, I should let you know that this is littered with more questions than answers. This is my ‘ponder piece’. However if you work in HR within professional sports and have the answers to my questions, please, please, please get in touch. i would love to know the answers. If you don’t, hopefully you’ll find this interesting anyway!

This mixes two of my favourite topics – HR and Sports.

I often wonder how extremely well-paid football players (‘Soccer’ for anyone reading this from across the pond – i’ve realised from my wordpress stats that some of my readers hail from North America), get away with earning massive amounts of money whilst clearly underperforming at their football clubs.

They invariably either ;-

  1. Improve their performance and therefore thats seen as part and parcel of the game with players having good and bad spells.
  2. Remain a reasonable player, performing at a standard that their football club expects but change their status within the team, for example, from being someone who is in the starting eleven each week to someone who is instead used as cover for injuries, suspensions etc.
  3. Be loaned out to another football club, where that particular club operates in a way that might work better with the player, be managed by someone who feels they can coach the player in a different way to improve their performance, play in a different division where the football styles compliment the players’ particular style or play in a lower quality division where the underperforming players current ability, is still superior enough to be of value to the loaning team.
  4. Remain a poorly performing player who winds their contract down until it expires and they leave, attempting to secure a contract elsewhere or retiring from the sport. For this example, they almost always end up signing an extremely less rewarding contract elsewhere as their value has decreased due to their lack of acceptable performance.

I wonder why there is no fifth option, an option which most other good employers have in place in similar situations. I am of course talking about performance management or capability processes.

Your typical performance management process includes a manager objectively reviewing the performance of someone who reports into them, analysing specific evidential tasks and creating a plan for improvement but recognising that failure to create a sustained improvement could result in escalating disciplinary warnings up to and ultimately, unfortunately, including termination of contract.

Capability is, after all, one of the  potentially fair reasons for dismissal.

So why does this not apply in football teams where the fourth option above appears to be occurring?

At the CIPD conference in 2015, Sir Clive Woodward gave a lecture on the DNA of a champion. It was a fascinating lecture, the highlight of which for me was Sir Clive discussing the implementation and use of the Prozone software. Prozone gives an incredibly complex and thorough analysis of how teams and players perform, providing individual statistics on distance covered, tackles made, goals attempted to tactics being applied, birds eye view of the pitch to determine opportunities for one team to exploit. If you want proof as to how much this software is used in professional rugby for example, take a look at where international rugby coaches place themselves and how many monitors are in front of them during games.

So what does this have to do with performance management in sport? In my view, isn’t the information Prozone provides, the holy grail in terms of objective analysis of players performance. This software informs the user of almost all the information the manager would need to assess whether the player is performing or not as well as the tools to monitor that performance on an ongoing basis.

With this information in place, I see no reason why a manager could not set SMART objectives around these areas to determine an improvement. For example, Joe Bloggs, the attacking midfielder at Hendy United, In the next 4 football matches you are required to ensure you make 23% more tackles, run 20% more kilometres, score 10% more goals and/or make 50% more passes.

So we’re half way there – the manager has the tools and the environment in order for performance levels to be identified, monitored and objectives to be set. By the way, the manager will also offer an incredible amount of support in the form of, for example, a dedicated passing coach, a sports analyst to work through the players prozone statistics with them and a fitness coach to improve their fitness to achieve more. This is without considering the professional nutritionist to ensure the appropriate nutritional intake is being consumed, professional chefs to manage that further and sports psychologist to work on mentality to help achieve the goals set.

Obviously if this leads to a sustained increase in performance then fantastic, problem solved, but lets keep working on this example on the basis that performance is not improved.

Lets consider that the manager now has a player who is two years in to a five year contract being paid £100,000 per month. Not inconceivable in the modern age of football. The manager has been working with the player for six months and performance is not being improved. As a result of this, no other club wishes to purchase the player or loan the player so in professional sports, the player just sits back and lets the contract run down. That’s 30 months of £100,000 per month left to incur without a reasonable return, a staggering £3 million in wages to be paid.

So in a typical corporate environment a series of warnings will be applied before ultimately the company determines it can no longer accept the poor performance and terminates the players contract. So why doesn’t this happen in professional sport? There’s a case to argue that all of the data is there for the company, and all of the support needed for the player is there to improve, so why do we not hear of this in the press. You very rarely hear of a club cancelling a players contract unless it is for a clear frustration of contract type issue, such as a player receiving a custodial sentence or failing to obtain the relevant work permit/visa allowances to work in the respective country.

As I said, I don’t have the answer and in fact, perhaps this does occur and is managed in such a way that your average Joe is simply not aware that it has occurred, but it raises some significant questions as to why this is seen as an accepted norm. I cannot help but think that the answer is somewhere within the legalities of the contracts in place, but this is just an educated guess.

If you have the answer, or can shed any more light on this, please do let me know.

Otherwise, you are probably now as bemused as I!