Meaning and sensemaking in high performance sport: managing change in the high performance unit of a national sport organisation

Alder, John Paul
Kidman, Lynn
Patrick, Tom
Ferkins, Lesley
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Creating and regulating high performing cultures has emerged as a critical function of high performance sport management, however there is limited theoretical or practical clarity surrounding these organisational phenomena and processes (Cruickshank & Collins, 2013; Cruickshank et al., 2014; Fletcher & Arnold, 2011; Frontiera, 2010; Sotiriadou, 2013). This research investigated how a National Sport Organisation (NSO) could effectively promote a high performing culture within their high performance unit (HPU; CEO, performance leaders, players, coaches, and support staff of the national team) as they prepared for and competed in their pinnacle event, the world cup. To investigate how people worked with, interpreted, made sense of, and acted during manager-led change, this research used a theoretical framework derived from the organisational behaviour literature (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2008; Rosso et al., 2010; Weick et al., 2005), and adopted the perspective that organisational culture and change involves a process of sensemaking and subsequent meaning construction (Alvesson & Sveningsson, 2008).

Grounded in a constructivist paradigm, the research used an ethnographic action research (EAR) methodology to draw upon the experiences of living through change, and offer a rich, contextual narrative of a change effort with a national sport team. Using EAR, the research followed an entire attempted change process in depth from intentions and aspirations to responses and outcomes from multiple stakeholders and in real time. With an intended outcome of improving on and off-field performance, I collaborated with HPU leaders to identify specific issues, design interventions, action steps, and reflect upon outcomes, as the research passed through a series of intervention-action phases. As a qualitative inquiry spanning almost two and half years, the research employed varied methods including participant observation, informal and formal interviewing, artefact analysis and reflexive journaling to capture an interpretation sensitive to both local context and the participants.

Outcomes of the research highlighted the highly complex, multifaceted and situational nature of change in high performance sport, where changing the deeply embedded meanings of a national sport team proved to be a challenging task. Findings reported the importance of personal and shared experience, and identity and identification in meaning construction and change. Prevailing discourses and flows of power framed and frustrated change, and subsequently highlighted the importance of change interventions engaging stakeholders in constructing a meaningful local interpretation of organisational reality. Finally, the research revealed ten factors that contributed to the ability of the NSO to act as agents of change in the HPU. While the desired performance impacting change did not occur, there was evidence of personal and interpersonal change in discourse and thinking amongst HPU leaders. The findings inform management practice by promoting the role of meaning and sensemaking and reframing traditional paradigms of culture change in high performance sport.

High performance sport , Culture , Change , Sensemaking , Sense giving
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