The High-Performance Culture: Defined by Science?

The term high-performance environment (or high-performance culture) is common nomenclature within sport, but there is scant research and a broad range of definitions regarding this concept, despite how often it is used. This commonly used terminology seems to emphasize several concepts, all of which are theoretically linked but lack solid quantitative empirical evidence in sport.

For instance, some of the varied ways in which the terminology has been used has included the following: coordination of goal(s)-driven behavior(s); management of ecological stressors in a culture; leadership management; and, management of commercial, political, and social impacts on high performance (Arnold et al., 2015a; Arnold et al., 2015b; Balish & Côté, 2014; Charbonneau et al., 2001; Cruickshank, 2014; Cruickshank & Collins, 2012; Daft et al., 1988; De Martin-Silva et al., 2013; De Waal, 2007; Fletcher & Arnold, 2011; Fletcher & Streeter, 2016; Houlihan, 2013; Mills et al., 2012; Pain et al., 2012; Si et al., 2015; Strachan et al., 2016; Wagstaff et al., 2012; Weese, 1996).

Jones et al. (2009) identified the high-performance environment (HPE) model to consist of four core components and several subcomponents: leadership (vision, support, challenge); performance enablers (information, instruments, incentives); people (attitudes, behaviors, capacity); and, organizational culture (achievement, well-being, innovation, internal processes).

Clearly, there are a wide range of factors that influence the HPE and sport performance. Based on what we currently know, however, there are several gaps in this research area which should be of interest to multiple stakeholders in sport, including: practitioners who need to effectively intervene toward long-term athlete development (LTAD); transdisciplinary teams in sport science and medicine; and, lastly, sport administrators and coaches who assist in the shaping of culture toward agreed goals.

In addition, the nature of research that has investigated HPEs has limited our current knowledge base. For example, Arnold et al. (2015b) found that, despite the significant amount of Olympic-related research to-date, no research had holistically examined Olympic preparation camps and the development of HPEs.

In consideration of the above, this piece will attempt to outline future directions to serve practitioners in sport.

Future Directions

Given that sport does not exist or develop in a vacuum, evidence-based literature with practical applications are needed to define best practices for establishing HPEs. Although, it is important that management and administrative levels of sport have both contextual understanding and operational knowledge to deliver the resources needed for such environments, it is the day-to-day staff who require empirical and actionable behavioral-driven data for long-term athlete development (LTAD) and HPE.

Team NeuroDynamics using real-time objective measurement such as electroencephalography (EEG), heart rate (HR), heart rate variability (HRV), and respiration has been applied to assess and enhance team development, team connectedness, leadership, emotional management, communication, decision making under pressure, and the efficacy of player/coach relationships.

Thus, it is suggested that researchers look to advance the models currently put forth by Arnold et al. (2015a, 2015b) and Jones et al. (2009), and expand beyond the models from business and military literature. This is particularly important due to the concerns related to indiscriminate generalizability of other research to sport which, therefore, lacks relevant contextualization.

Furthermore, it will be important to develop empirical modeling regarding HPEs that have the flexibility to address environments across sporting domains (including youth, interscholastic, collegiate, Olympic, and professional arenas). This is necessary to clarify how high performance environments should organize and deliver services to both protect dimensions of long-term athlete development and the health of performers and staff, and to also replicate and evaluate execution of services.

Also, to constructively build on our current theoretical and conceptual knowledge base, it is critical to establish a strong foundation of evidence that includes a breadth and depth of quantitative and mixed methodological research methods to fully understand the multifaceted concepts of HPEs. The path forward in examining HPEs should include a brain first approach utilizing objective measurements of neurometrics (e.g., electroencephalography (EEG), functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and computed tomography (CT)), as well as biometrics (e.g., heart rate, heart rate variability, electrodermal activity, respiratory exchange ratio and pulmonary ventilation). This empirically derived objective data can be useful for improving the interpretation and the value of subjective data, leading to a better understanding of HPEs. Furthermore, data resulting from these methods can enhance the understanding of how to assemble, train, and support the entire HPE, including performers, coaches, and support staff for long-term health, talent development, and success.

With the notable gaps in applicable research for HPEs in sport, a dialogue must continue with contextual (sport-specific) and scientific rigor. Not only must high performance environment (high performance culture) be properly defined, its component parts must also be properly identified (e.g., systemic health/brain health practices, motivation, and communications leading to building and sustaining cultural norms). This work should ideally include mixed methodological research designs, and translate to coordinated approaches that include all relevant contributors in support of an optimal HPE.

About the author

Available at and

Dr. John Sullivan is a Sport Scientist and Clinical Sport Psychologist with over twenty years of clinical and scholarly experience.

He has held appointments within the National Football League (NFL), English Premier League (EPL), the NCAA (Providence College, University of Rhode Island, Brown University), and the elite military and law enforcement in North America.

Dr. Sullivan is also a visiting scholar and sport scientist at the Queensland Academy of Sport and Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

He has established expertise as a national and international practitioner-researcher in the areas of central nervous system (CNS) measurement/assessment, performance optimization, and concussion assessment/rehabilitation.

He is a frequent contributor writes about sport science and sports medicine, and his latest efforts include an accessible text that distills the current performance psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, related to optimal brain performance and health, entitled The Brain Always Wins.


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