A while ago, I attended a reunion at my former rowing club in Mississauga, Canada. I competed and coached at elite levels back in the 1970's and 1980's, winning national and international championships. As a coach, I enjoyed similar results, but I never had a chance to represent my country in the Olympic Games.
After a 25-year absence from the sport, the reunion was an opportunity to become re-acquainted with some of the athletes that I had introduced to rowing 30 years ago.
How wonderful it was to mingle with athletes who had grown into World and Olympic Champions! They can now tell me, their old coach, more about the sport than I ever hoped to know! It was terrific to know that they had grown to such heights. How proud I was to have been associated with them.
All of them had been successful in life outside of the competitive arena as well. They had become lawyers, doctors, architects, brokers, teachers, and one had grown into a photographer of considerable renown. Their progress on personal and professional levels was no accident.
I commented at the event that the sport of rowing, and athletics in general, taught me many valuable lessons about human nature, motivation, commitment, teamwork, and even grace in failure. I have used many of these lessons daily in the arena of business management.
I have used a rowing analogy numerous times in my presentations on strategic planning, which is a subject that is close to my heart. In business, we are really trying to accomplish the same thing as high performance athletes: succeed over the long term, according to the rules, and stay healthy in the process.
Over and over again, I seem to return to the notion of Vision as being a key ingredient to athletic, business, and personal success.
A few years ago, before the 2012 Olympic Games in London, I stumbled upon the remarkable story of British Olympian Greg Searle. At the time of the original publication of this article in the Wall Street Journal’s The Source on July 3, 2011, Searle, aged 39, was training to earn a spot on Britain’s 2012 Olympic rowing team.
Since the publication of that article, Searle earned that spot. He competed in the Men’s Eight, regarded by many as the premier event in rowing at the Olympics.
Searle first won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with his brother Jonny. In an appearance at the 1996 Atlanta Games, he earned a bronze medal. After a fourth-place finish in Sydney in 2000 he retired from top-level rowing to concentrate on his career as a practice director of performance development consultancy, Lane4.
Searle draws on his extensive experience in high-performance sport as he offers five compelling lessons to business leaders, starting with “Vision:”
1. Find a vision; set short term goals to achieve overall success.
A critical component of any strategic plan, the vision sits above everything else that we do. It needs to be an exciting articulation of the overall objective, which inspires people to follow.
When London won the games, Searle thought to himself, “I want to be a part of that.”
Smaller goals and objectives, which feed attainment of the vision, are set into a framework and are followed in a regimented fashion. Without the strength of the vision, it would be very difficult indeed to subject oneself, or others, to the everyday stresses and demands that are required.
Searle comments, “So many leaders talk about goals and talk about a vision but they don’t make it exciting, compelling or engaging enough for people to want to achieve it. The great leaders are the ones that can create that enthusiasm for long term success which drives everyday behaviors in their team.”
2. Feedback is your best friend.
The science of sport has progresses tremendously over the past thirty years. We are now able to measure physiological, psychological, and nutritional outputs like never before. As such, feedback to the athlete from coaches and trainers regarding his or her progress has improved dramatically. Results in British and Canadian programs have proven the worth of such feedback.
“This is an important point for businesses and their leaders as many companies don’t use the support function as well as they ought to,” says Searle. “I receive constant feedback measured against the goals that I set at the beginning of the year. It’s the personal feedback regarding my impact—how I behave around the team and influence them, as well as how I move the boat—that I receive from my coach and fellow athletes that is most valuable.
3. Unshakeable self-belief.
There is an important difference between the terms self-confidence, and self-esteem.
We all make mistakes. Often, it has been said, a person’s true character is revealed in how that person recovers from failure. Failures can hurt, but they needn’t devalue a person’s sense of worth. It is a matter of framing those stumbles within a
larger context of life accomplishment.
Searle advises, “The respect you earn as a sportsman or in your career has been gained over the course of years. It’s important to remember that respect can’t be lost in the blink of an eye.
On an individual basis, self-esteem is deep lying and built upon successes and setbacks over the course of a lifetime. As such it will not be affected by things that happen day-to-day but will be swayed over longer periods of time.
Self-confidence however, is affected in the short-term by everyday events. Self confidence can afford to take a few knocks, but it’s vital to maintain self-esteem by reminding yourself of your successes in the past and that overall, your quality will shine
4. Controlling the controllable.
Early in my career in rowing, I used to take notice of my competitors’ reaction to the weather conditions. Many worried that it might be windy, it might be raining, or that it might be cold. I turned this into a competitive advantage. Why worry about something that I cannot control? It will only slow me down.
Similarly, Searle sees the value of focusing on those things that will help your boat go faster, within the myriad issues that will impact your performance. “After that, he says, “it is simply a case of controlling your reaction to everything else.”
“As a leader or a sportsman it’s important to be prepared by addressing the things that are within your control.
In my sport it is a case of moving the boat as fast as you can down your lane. What the other boats do in their lanes is their concern.
Any strategy needs to be based upon what we can do to make a difference to our performance to get the best result.
I must admit that in Sydney in 2000, I thought our boat was inferior to our competitors’ boats. I remember that I let my mind drift and think about other things that were beyond my control.
We came fourth. It was a lesson learned.”
5. Recognizing pressure as a positive
While I loved the sport of rowing with all my heart, it was difficult for me to compete. So young, I saw pressure and stress as a negative. It was not until later in life that I understood how to put such pressure into perspective and turn it into a positive life force.
Searle advises, “I know that I can perform at my best when I am under pressure. I don’t necessarily like it. I still get racked with self-doubt and nerves—but I know when I am in that situation I have to accept that feeling as it produces the best from me.
It’s only halfway through the race that I realize I have found strength that I didn’t know was there.
In a business environment there are high pressure situations to be dealt with every day, but often that pressure can help you become focused, sharp and at your best. The key is to recognize the symptoms and embrace them. You have to reframe the situation so it ceases to be a threat and becomes an opportunity.
A vital coping strategy is to ensure you have other things in your life. I am a father with two kids. I can keep pressure in perspective. As I sit on the start line, I think about my daughter who was recently in her first swimming gala. When it comes to
the Olympics, I will be in a boat with eight of my mates doing something that I have been doing for the last 20 years. I think that what I do isn’t tough compared to a 10 year-old facing the world and competing for the first time.”