National Training Centres: The Single vs. Multi Centre Challenge

I recently completed a project for Rowing Canada Aviron (RCA) related to their existing National Training Centres (NTC) and the development of a long-term NTC strategy. The executive summary report from the project can be found here. The project included interviews with high performance funding partner Own The Podium (OTP) as well as eight National Sport Organizations (NSOs).  The interviews provided great insight into national training centre models employed by various sports. This blog shares some of the key findings that I gathered from these organizations and highlights the dichotomy between single-centre and multi-centre NTC models that exist in elite amateur sport in Canada.

In my discussions with OTP, they shared that 59% of their summer targeted sports employed a single centre NTC model for their high-performance teams, while 28% had no NTC and the remaining 13% had two or more NTCs, with half of those sports decreasing their number of NTCs since 2013.

OTP considers an organization’s NTC strategy to be a key part of their NSO funding assessment and they endorsed the single centre model for most sports. Where possible, OTP prefers a ‘best with the best’ single NTC philosophy, with supporting regional centres that foster development and the channeling of talent to the NTC (i.e. NextGen hubs). All world class athletes should be training together versus a watering-can approach, and those athletes who centralize in one site cite better team culture and use of resources, according to OTP. OTP identified that it is very important to have a critical mass of key people (Integrated Support Team), technology, and equipment all together, which is fulfilled by a primary NTC.

OTP also acknowledged that the multi-centre approach does make sense for NSOs with large competitive participant bases and multiple disciplines, such as Swimming Canada and Athletics Canada, who have tens of thousands of competitive athletes and who compete for a variety of Olympic and Paralympic medals. They also noted that these sports dropped from eight NTCs to three NTCs, and seven NTCs to three NTCS respectively, to streamline their High Performance (HP) programs to the most efficient number.

Most of the NSOs that I interviewed had undergone recent changes to their NTC models.  They were all summer sports with the exception of one being a winter sport, and one also being a solely Para program. Some key findings from my interviews included:

  1. NSOs with no existing NTC created one primary site, with the exception of one NSO who formalized three NTC sites around their existing club structure (specific to three disciplines). Three of the NSOs streamlined to fewer NTCs and highlighted the benefits of a streamlined NTC system.
  2. In all of the examples that I researched, whether NSOs were streamlining to fewer centres, or assigning one single location as the NTC, the decision was made by NSO leadership in the best interest of their HP program. Community partners, members, and athletes were primarily engaged in an advisory and information capacity. They were not consulted as to the criteria and impact of decision making. In short, HP leaders made HP decisions.
  3. In all cases, although determined by HP leadership, the NTC moves still appealed to the majority of stakeholders. A few NSOs received some resistance within their provinces or with their athletes, but that resistance was relatively small. They worked to communicate and assist the athletes as best they could, especially during a period of transition.
  4. NSOs cited the quality of the daily training environment, international competition venue standards and athlete wellness as primary criteria for their NTCs.

One of the NSOs I interviewed, Water Polo Canada (WPC), had recently undergone a shift from a multi-centre model to a single centre NTC. For roughly two decades prior to 2016, WPC had one NTC in Calgary that housed the men’s program (26 years) and one in Montreal that housed the women’s program (18 years). The programs operated independently with two HP Directors and two Head Coaches. WPC underwent an independent high-performance review in 2014, which recommended exploring the model of a singular NTC to address several gaps including limited financial resources as well as the need for a culture change. Based on this recommendation and over an 18-month period, WPC further assessed their NTCs and explored what would be the optimal location for such a singular NTC. It became clear that Montreal (Olympic Park / INS-Q) was the best location and that a gradual transition to one NTC was the appropriate strategy. WPC decided to wait until the next quadrennial (post Rio 2016) to implement their plan and allow enough time after the decision was announced to facilitate a smooth transition for their athletes. The decision was announced internally in March 2017, publicly in October 2017 and the official move was set for September, 2018 but based on athlete feedback it was accelerated to May 2018.  WPC recently announced the launch of a National Legacy Development Centre (NLDC) in Calgary, where the men’s HP program used to be located. The NLDC will raise the level of the daily training environment for athletes identified within WPC’s and Alberta Water Polo high performance pathway.

In a follow-up interview with Martin Goulet, Executive Director of Water Polo Canada, I asked about the shift to a single-centre NTC model and the recent NLDC launch:

Jason: The recent announcement of the NLDC just happens to be in Calgary… was this a way to maintain a connection with the site that had served your elite men’s program for the past 26 years?

Martin: Absolutely. As we were working on our overall strategy for our NTC sites and a transition to one site, we were also looking at our High Performance Pathway and how we could best develop talent as well as, down the road, feed that talent to the Montreal NTC. With existing resources and relationships already built in Calgary it was a natural move to maintain a strong national presence there. It did not make sense for us to start this from scratch in another location. We have also recently announced the creation of Regional Development Centres (RDCs) in Regina and Toronto.

At the same time that we were building this strategy, OTP was introducing the concept of Next Generation (NextGen) hubs as a feeder system for National teams. While mainly capturing the athletes just below this level (the “next NextGen”), the NLDC concept is a key piece within WPC’s Performance Pathway and is fairly aligned with the NextGen model, which is aimed at developing athletes who are five to eight years away from the podium. So, we were already moving in the direction that our funding partners preferred. That said, water polo is a team sport and therefore has a somewhat different approach to HP training than individual sports.  We do our best to align with our funding partners such as OTP, while at the same time being true to the needs of our sport.

Jason: You mentioned to me before that the best thing for WPC was to move its programs to one NTC in Montreal and that the Institut National du Sport du Quebec (INS) has invested heavily in your NTC.  Why INS and how has that relationship evolved in the last decade?

Martin: We have always had a great relationship with the INS staff and we are strong believers in the Canadian Sport Institute model as a supporter partner to NSOs.  Part of our transition to one primary NTC in Montreal was influenced by the significant investment, both financially and structurally, that INS has made to aquatic sports. They have also been very adaptive to our needs.  For example, INS has allowed us to work with external IST versus challenging us to exclusively use in-house staff.  They have really taken the needs of our sport into consideration and we have a very regular, healthy dialogue with them.

It is worth noting that we also had and maintain great relationships in Calgary.  The situation in Montreal was more optimal for our HP program and the move to one NTC was required to improve our culture and use of resources.

Jason: So how would you compare the culture of your HP program now, versus 4+ years ago when you were operating with two NTCs?

Martin: We are definitely in a much more collaborative state than where we were four years ago. In the past, there was jealousy, blame and lack of unity between the programs.  Not to mention, there was a lot of duplication of resources which for us was not logical.  By shifting to one NTC all of our athletes, coaches, managers and IST are on the same page. There are no silos anymore and we have built trust within the HP program.

Of course, there is still work to do to improve relationships with our provincial sport organizations (PSOs) and local clubs.  Sometimes it can be difficult to align our goals with those of the provinces, who have their own objectives.  How we integrate the NLDC in Alberta is a great example of working with our PSOs and local organizations. The Alberta Water Polo Association is the on-site leader of the NLDC and there is also a society group in Alberta that supports high performance water polo and provides input for our feeder system. We are striving to enhance these relationships and the NLDC in Alberta is one method by which we can work together to improve the sport at both the national and provincial level.

What became clear in my interviews with the NSOs was that, what works for one sport, is not necessarily what works best for another.  In the case of some sports, a lack of resources and athlete performance results made it more palatable to remove an existing NTC, with the NSO(s) gravitating towards sites that provided resources and results. For others, the ability for HP athletes to train at their NTC(s) in a year-round environment provided more challenges (i.e. water sports, winter sports) and therefore heavily influenced their NTC strategy. Also, factors such as the various disciplines within the sport, the number of athletes within the program, the number of athletes competing and living outside of Canada (professional leagues, US colleges, etc.) and how often their athletes were centralized at these locations in a given Olympic/Paralympic quadrennial cycle served to influence the location and number of NTCs.

Each NSO has an obligation to identify the facilities and supporting structure that best serve its athletes and its sport disciplines.  It must also be mindful of the impact that its NTC related decisions have on its athletes, its various partners, and its sport community at large. The movement of an NTC to or from a certain location can introduce a number of operational, political, and environmental factors that without a proper strategy, can cause considerable risk to an NSO.  Organizations like RCA and WPC have taken their own unique approach in effectively managing these challenges and navigating their way to the NTC model that best serves their sport.

jer@sportlaw.ca    @sportarchitect

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