The Australian High Performance System – the Way Forward

By Jim Ferguson


With Australia likely to win the rights to host the 2032 Olympic Games renewed attention will be focussed on our elite sporting performance. This has declined in recent years. From being recognised as a world leader with 4th place on the total medal tally at both the Sydney and Athens Olympics, we managed only a disappointing 10th place at Rio. Experience indicates that, depending on the individual sport, it takes somewhere between six and eight years to prepare for success at major international sporting events, such as world championships, Olympic Games. and Parlympic Games. The Olympics and Paralympica are not, of course, the only measure of international success. But it is prominent in the eyes of the public and it does provide a benchmark for success more widely. Naturally, we want to do well at the Paris Games in 2024 and the Los Angeles Games in 2028. These will be stepping stones on the path to 2032 and, even to do well in those events, we need to start now to prepare for 2032.

The following expresses my vision for the sports system on the basis of many years of experience in Australian sport, including over ten years as Executive Director of the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), including the lead up to the Sydney Olympics, a board member of two National Sporting Organisations and a close involvement with many other sporting associations in Australia and overseas.


We aspire to build and sustain a high performance system which will produce continual improvement by Australian teams and individual athletes at the highest levels of international sport, as measured by results at Olympic Games, Paralympic Games, world championships and other major international events. Such a system will provide the greatest opportunities for talented Australian athletes, enhance national pride, reflect credit on all Australians and promote positive images of our nation to the world. Our sporting success has been one of our strongest and most positive images internationally. In recent years, however, this image has been diminished. Our aspiration is to return to the position where Australia is again recognised as operating the world’s best sports system, as demonstrated by results in the highest international competition. This high performance system needs to be underpinned by a vibrant community and junior sports environment.

Underpinning Principles

The principles underpinning this vision are:

  • The commitment to excellence. We seek perfection in every component of our system.
  • Putting the athlete first. Every effort must be devoted to supporting athletes with a strong focus on their current and future welfare. Our system must be performance driven, athlete centred and coach led.
  • National direction and leadership. A strong system needs clear national direction. This must be provided by the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), including the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) as our premier sports training and technological centre.
  • A targeted approach. Given the inability of the system to support all sports, priority in terms of funding and servicing must be provided to those sports judged to have the potential to achieve results at the highest international level. This, however, does not just mean medals at the Olympics. Other major competitions are important as are sound results that provide a base and underpin a successful system. It must also be recognised that the trajectory towards success is not always smooth and that those sports that encounter difficulties along the way must receive expert help.
  • Inclusion. The system is for all Australians, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, social standing or disabilities. All elements of our diverse community have made enormous contributions to Australian sport. The aim is to produce the best athletes we can to represent our entire nation.
  • Sustainability. Every decision must be taken from a long-term perspective in order to sustain the system into the future. The time-frames for some sports to achieve success are longer-term than for others.
  • Expert servicing. The coaching and servicing of athletes must always be of the highest level of expertise with an emphasis on performance-driven outcomes. This demands the development of specialist expertise across all sectors working in a planned and integrated manner, particularly in the sports sciences where scientists and medical professionals, together with coaches, operate as a team around the defined needs of each athlete.
  • Innovation. We are driven by the impetus for constant innovation across all disciplines. Innovation requires an emphasis on research and the demand to seek constant improvement. But, research must be practical and applied to improving performance. All involved personnel, including administrators, coaches and sports scientists, must constantly search for better results. Partnerships with universities or other bodies are encouraged, but research undertaken by such bodies must be driven by the needs of sport and coordinated through the AIS to ensure it is relevant.
  • Collaboration. We seek positive collaboration with and between national sporting organisations, national bodies such as the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC), Commonwealth Games Australia (CGA) and Paralympics Australia (PA), as well as state and territory institutes or academies of sport, within the context of a national high performance framework. Some competitive tension is acceptable, provided all are working to the same national end. Each part of the system must accept responsibility for its individual component while working collaboratively with each other. The principle of accountability must be real.
  • International focus. Each sport must be considered separately, but strong national organisations with strong international foci will produce strong teams. It is the responsibility of the ASC to work collaboratively with sporting organisations to develop world’s best systems from grass roots, through effective pathways towards international success, recognising that each sport is different.
  • Integration. To be successful, all parts of the system must work closely together to create a unified whole. An integrated, collaborative system based on a national plan will create a unified organism and a culture of excellence, always stronger than its parts.

Improved national sporting organisations

Sporting organisations must concentrate on their core business, namely to improve the quality of the experience they deliver to their members domestically and to improve their focus on achieving strong results internationally. There has certainly been an improvement in the capacity of national sporting organisations over recent years. Many, however, are small and rely heavily on government funding. Some still lack a strong international vision. Some put parochial state or personal interests before the national interest. Not all have personnel with competence in high performance sport. In many, governance still tends to be week, as does strategic direction. Too many decisions are made on political rather than on objective performance criteria. Some good work has been done in the governance area, but sporting organisations vary greatly in size and sophistication and, to be effective, need an individual approach. There is a need to guard against a natural resistance to change, a desire to stick with what has worked in the past and a reluctance to innovate for fear of failure.

It must be accepted that investment in a sport depends largely on its potential for sound international performance. Nearly all sports will require expert assistance towards reaching their investment potential. There is a need for a closer, more co-operative relationship between the ASC/AIS and individual sporting organisations, with the ASC providing expert advice on a targeted basis and, within it, the AIS providing the direct technical expertise needed in terms of training facilities and programs, coach development, sports science and medical services and athlete support.

Sporting organisations must be required by the ASC to have high performance plans within their strategic planning processes, which clearly define pathways from the development level, through pre-elite, to senior elite. Not all sports with potential for international success may require individual AIS programs. Many, however, do not have the capacity themselves to run effective high performance activities (especially at pre-elite level) and these sports will benefit from programs operated in conjunction with the AIS along agreed lines tailored to the individual sport. There is an urgent need for a close and co-operative relationship between the ASC and the individual sports with the ASC able to work with each sporting organisation on the basis of its particular needs and culture.

A Unified High Performance System

A successful high performance system requires that the whole sports system is unified. This means, for each sport, a sound development system, and an effective pathway through to the pre-elite level and on to the highest international level. The elite end of the spectrum cannot be divorced from and developed separately from the developing and pre-elite elements. Overlaying the unified approach to development within each sport, there must be a unified approach across the entire system, so each sport with potential gets what it needs to achieve defined outcomes in the most effective manner and according to a consistent national direction.

This requires a high performance plan for each sport, which identifies a strategic direction that links each element of success. As each sport is different in its methods of operation, culture and international standing, plans must be tailored for each sport according to the principles enunciated in this paper. The aim of the plan is to secure continual improvement by the sport on the international stage. It is the role of the ASC to ensure that each sport in receipt of a high performance grant has such an integrated plan, with a clear role identified for the AIS in terms of training, coaching and athlete support.

Each sport requires an annual operational plan to give effect to the strategic objectives defined in the high performance plan. Again, this must be developed co-operatively between the sport and the ASC. At the end of the day, sport depends on public funding and the ASC has an obligation to ensure that the tax-payers’ money is spent effectively to achieve the outcomes intended for it. The AIS has a vital role to play in the implementation of such plans in offering training facilities and programs, coaching, sports science and athlete support. Each sport needs an individual approach tailored to its specific needs. Individual sports, such as tennis, athletics or swimming, where there is a close relationship between a coach and an athlete, may benefit from a more diversified approach. Team sports generally benefit most from a centralised approach.

Whatever approach is taken, it is important to continue building better ways to spread and share information and practices both within sports and across sports. It is the role of the ASC to stimulate and facilitate this approach and, through the AIS, to help provide the technical services to support it.

An Integrated High Performance System

There must be an integrated approach to the provision of coaching and servicing, innovation and research. Experience has shown that there is enormous benefit from the closest integration of athlete, coaching, sports science and medical servicing, and personal athlete support. In order to achieve the best outcomes, athletes must be surrounded with expert attention from each service provider working closely with coaches. They must have access to the routine servicing they need when they need it and in close proximity to where they live and train, and be able to access more specialised expertise readily when required. It is also necessary to have robust data analytics, to be able to assess the quality and value of the servicing provided and enable improvements. This requires a breadth of specialist staff with up-to-date laboratories, the most modern technologies and IT infrastructure working in a collaborative team culture in the closest proximity to athletes and coaches.

It is the role of the ASC to drive this integrated system and to ensure that national sporting organisations use the funding provided by taxpayers effectively in accordance with these principles. It is the role of the AIS to provide for each sport the best technical support, including quality coaching, sports science and sports medicine and athlete support depending upon its particular needs and potential for success.

National leadership

In a Federal system, strong central direction is vital. It is the role of the ASC to provide this direction in accordance with the needs of individual sports, as defined between the ASC and the sport receiving government funding. If sporting organisations are to receive government funding they must accept a degree of government intervention, providing that intervention is of the highest international standard. This requires a strong pro-active approach led by the ASC together with people within it with the necessary expertise to provide leadership.

It is also the role of the ASC to foster a cooperative approach, with sports working together within a national plan and committed to a broad national direction. This will contribute to the development of a strong national sports culture and promote a sharing of expertise to the benefit of all. When Australian teams travel to the Olympics or other multi-sport events, there is enormous advantage from cross-sport friendships and relationships. The whole team is strengthened.

In this regard there is an important role for state institutes and academies of sport. They have a responsibility to improve the sporting capacity within their particular jurisdictions, If they do so successfully the national system will benefit. They are also closest to grass roots development, the basis of all sports enterprise. They or, increasingly, universities can play a useful role in support of national athletes, either within their jurisdictions or in operating national sub-elite or elite programs, provided they accord with the agreed national direction of the sports concerned.

A strategic and focussed system, driven nationally and based on consensus and a commitment to performance values, and with effective operational alignment between key players and the integration of all the necessary components of successful high performance sport will give Australia, once again, a competitive edge.

The Implications for the Australian System

The implications of the above principles and background for the current Australian sports system are:

  • The ASC and the AIS must return to the roles defined for them in the Australian Sports Commission Act 1989. This requires that that the Australian Sports Commission is the primary funding body for sport nationally and is required to secure value for the moneys it expends. The Commission acts in the name of the AIS when performing certain functions. These functions include developing and implementing programs for the recognition and development of persons who excel, or who have the potential to excel, in sport; to improve the standard of coaches, umpires, referees or officials; to undertake research and development related to sports science and sports medicine and to provide sports science and medicine services to those athletes participating in its programs; and to establish, manage, develop and maintain facilities for its purposes. The legislation clearly envisages that the role of the AIS is essentially a technical one, to develop and deliver programs with a commitment to excellence. It should undertake this role, which has served Australian well, in line with the above principles.
  • Each sport must be required to have a high performance plan established in co-operation with and approved by the ASC, with funding allocated to that plan and to be quarantined for high performance activities.
  • Each high performance plan must include an athlete pathway plan linking each sport’s development program, through its pre-elite, to its elite national program.
  • For identified sports with international potential, under agreements between the sport and the ASC, AIS Centres of Excellence should operate at agreed locations, but with a strong base at Canberra providing a high level of integration amongst service providers. This will provide the benchmark for athlete servicing, constitute a valuable economy of scale, foster an inter-sport focus and develop a culture of excellence to be followed nationally. The AIS Canberra is a desirable location for pre-elite athletes, providing training facilities, servicing (including personal development) accommodation and education all in a controlled and supervised environment suitable for younger athletes.  
  • These programs must be flexible, depending on the performance needs of the sport, the individual arrangements to be agreed between the sport and the AIS. There might be a concentration on sub-elite or elite athletes, or on both. They might be full-time or camps-based. Some sports may not have a specialised AIS program at all but all national teams should be eligible for AIS servicing. Where AIS programs exist, they should be managed by a joint sport/AIS high performance committee according to agreed strategic and operational plans with operational funding managed by the AIS. The centres should also be used for development camps as well as training camps by national teams, so integrating all aspects of a sport’s activities.
  • Servicing should be provided through a consolidated AIS sports medicine/sports science unit and all athletes have access to personal development programs and advice. This will provide consistency in servicing and ensure the highest quality is maintained. It will also facilitate applied research by enabling scientists to work with a constant cadre of athletes. In some cases, servicing could be delivered through a state institute or academy or a university under an agreement with the AIS and the sport, but such arrangements should be reflected in the strategic plans of the sport. Cooperative approaches with universities or other relevant institutions should be encouraged under the direction of the AIS.
  • The AIS Director should be responsible for the management of these programs according to outcomes agreed for each between the sport and the AIS.
  • There must be within the ASC a strong emphasis on improving the standard of coaching and officiating, by the promotion of specific education and development opportunities through a national coach and officiating education and accreditation system. This must have a practical, sport-specific focus.
  • Intercommunication between each party within the national system should be encouraged through regular exchange of information through seminars and an enhanced high performance national IT network.

For a country like Australia, with vast distances and, in terms of world sport, a modest population, there is a need for strong central direction with delivery based on the needs of individual sports. There is need for an uncompromising commitment to excellence at all levels. And there is a need to re-energise and make the most effective use of those national institutions that have developed the degree of expertise necessary for success.

Jim Ferguson was the Executive Director of the Australian Sports Commission from 1990 to 2001. He has been a board member of Australian Rugby Union and Boxing Australia and had a close involvement with many other sporting associations in Australia and overseas. In 2007, he wrote ‘More Than Sunshine & Vegemite : Success the Australian Way (Sydney, Halstead Press)

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