Will it Make the Boat go Faster?

"An Olympic gold medal is a crazy thing to want, and a crazy thing to work towards. The odds - even if you are a world-class athlete - are stacked against you. I discovered that the only way to reach our crazy goal was with concrete, everyday habits." Ben Hunt-Davis.

Inspired by Ben Hunt-Davis’s journey to Olympic gold in the men’s Rowing Eight at Sydney 2000, Will It Make The Boat Go Faster tells his story of the process that won him that medal. It’s a tale of talent, supremely focused preparation and hard work. What won the race? Not just the combination of these elements, but the way in which these elements were made to work together.

It’s about daily actions and thought processes, setting goals and then stretching them. Elite performers don’t simply work hard, they also work differently. By challenging both what they do and how they do it – and by knowing what matters most - they change how they perform, measure it, and improve.

Each day, often in small increments, they focus on what will make them better at what they do, check their habits and focus on what matters most for the best possible results against the backdrop of an ultimate goal.

We recently ran a Collingwood team workshop following Ben’s journey, using the book as our agenda for the session. As individuals, and as a team, we used the narrative to draw parallels to our own goals, ways of working, motivations, attitudes and habits, and how we take the learnings from his achievement into Collingwood, and into our own performance.

There is a host of things Olympic athletes do, and attributes they have, that allow them to take that talent and hone it to the point where they become good enough to represent their country at an Olympic games, and for some of them to win medals and break records. From Ben’s book, and looking at other Olympic winners, here is my take on the top 10 attributes that make a great Olympian, and each offers an insight to take into our daily business life.

1. Have a goal - Every competitor has a goal. It may not have been to win a gold medal or to reach the final, but at least to achieve a personal best. The important thing is having the goal. If you don't know what you want to achieve, how can you ever succeed?

Having a target makes you start thinking about how you can achieve it, it’s the starting point in planning what you have to do, to get what you want. The alternative is essentially hope, and I don't see many gold medal winners relying on hope.

2. Get a plan - Once you have a goal you then need a plan to achieve it. Ben explains how they look at their sport on a cycle with the Olympics at the end of the cycle. He explains that it’s impossible to maintain an Olympic gold medal performance standard continually, so they aim to peak at the Olympics, with other competitions used as marker posts for expected levels of performance at given times, and for development of specific aspects of the rowing conditioning.

The same logic can be applied to business. You can't do everything you want all the time, so plan effectively, know what you can do and when. Know what steps you can take towards your overall goal over what time periods and what resources each step will take. Hit small milestones on the way to the overall target.

3. Have a great work ethic, but work smart - Ben talks about how he had missed weekends, holidays, families, parties etc. because of his training schedule. To achieve great results we generally have to work hard. Most business people I know certainly do. The real lesson, I believe, is to work smart.

When he trained, Ben was clear about what he was training for. If it's stamina, what does that mean? If it's sprint rowing, what does that mean? The same for business - work effectively not just long, work on the important not just the urgent. Work on your plan and towards your goals - don't just work. Do something that makes a difference.

4. Measure performance - All athletes measure performance whether it's time, weight, height, distance. Whatever the success criteria, they constantly evaluate where they are compared to where they expect to be, and whether they are on-track to achieve their goals or not. By evaluating performance they can determine if they need to change their plans.

At the end of every race, the 8s debriefed to both understand performance, but also set targets for next time. In business, you need to measure so you can analyse how to be more effective, more productive, and more profitable in the future. What gets measured gets improved. It’s an attitude of constant improvement.

5. Be prepared to experiment - One of the most interesting sporting interviews I’ve seen was with Australian swimmer, Ian Thorpe, explaining how swimmers use ballet in their training programmes. The logic was that ballet dancers train to reproduce very specific athletic movements perfectly, time after time, and this skill is also important in swimming where getting the body, arms or hands slightly out of position can cost hundredths of a second.

It is important to keep an open mind in business and take lessons from other industries. See how others do things that you do - or things you don't do, what can you take from them?  

6. Train like a champion - No matter how talented an athlete is, they train to perfect their skills and maintain peak levels of performance. Continuing to dream is part of this, they never stop striving for that next big performance. Planning to compete at the highest level, and putting in a shift, high-performance athletes plan out their training schedules in advance to make sure they reach specific performance goals. Ben’s routine was the epitome of focus, using the process of training and racing to hit a peak performance when it mattered most.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his groundbreaking work Outliers: The Story of Success, discovered that people who were considered experts or genius in their work, put in 10,000 hours in order to earn the title - so start slogging! To become a grandmaster seems to take about 10 years (only the legendary Bobby Fisher got to that elite level in less than that: it took him nine years.) And what’s 10 years? Well, it’s about how long it takes to put in 10,000 hours of hard practice. Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness. In 'Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?' you can see Ben and his colleagues were committed to this level of practice.

7. Don’t settle for ‘good enough’, use pressure to improve your focus - Most business folk lack the same level of mental discipline that successful athletes have in abundance. One of the risks for businesses is being tolerant of sub-optimal performance. When an athlete does badly, their performance is reviewed and analysed from all angles and they work out how to improve from there. In business, average performance is often tolerated.

The choice is yours — average work, yields average results. In today’s difficult economy it is easy to think you cannot change anything and to act like victims of circumstance. But in this recession, we are all in the same boat, yet there are companies that are flying, so use the pressure to set the bar higher and to improve your focus. Chose your attitude and get the right mindset

8. Focus on what you do best - Tennis players, weight-lifters and divers have specialised skills, strengths and body types that enable them to compete in one sport. Other than in the pentathlon and decathlon, high-level sport is dominated by niche-oriented athletes who focus on just one field. Increasingly, businesses must recognise that the more they pursue one single niche, the more they will succeed. Understand your true strengths and the unique way you create value for customers, and find an area of focus where you stand at the top of the world. Keep getting better at that one thing.

9. Performance is everything, and then celebrate success - When Usain Bolt crossed the finish line in the 100m final at the 2012 Olympics, he made one simple gesture. He didn’t point to the sky or raise his hands in the air, but held up his finger to his lips, making a gesture of silence. He’d reached a new pinnacle and his first reaction was to silence those who thought he’d never make it. Although Bolt could be seen as cocky and full of himself, his actual performance matched his level of confidence.

Ben and his colleagues had less than 5.5 minutes to perform, at 10:30 am on Sunday 24 September 2000 in their final. Winning in the final is the ultimate statement of 'performance is everything', capturing the work hard, play hard spirit of winners. The margins between success and failure are tiny, but if your goal is to win, there is no second best.

10. Anything is possible, never give up - Ben’s story is a great example of someone who overcame a stream of constant challenges, but he kept going rather than letting them prevent him from reaching his goal. We may not have the same challenges as Ben, but we should all work to overcome barriers that are thrown at us so we can become better each day. It's also easy to justify failure due to these barriers, but then live a life of regret....'if only....'.

When you get knocked back, get back up straight away. By getting back up and in the game quickly, you don’t lose your momentum and drive. If you whine and feel sorry for yourself you lose ground. When a boxer gets knocked down he has 10 seconds to get back up. If he gets back up in 11 seconds, he loses the fight. Be like a boxer. Get back up quickly so your competition does not have a chance to get ahead of you.

Most businesses aren’t physically demanding by nature, usually it’s about our mental and emotional state of mind. Success comes from finding a way to tap into your inner strength, your core values, your passion and your attitude. It’s what you’ll need to put one foot in front of another and to keep going.

Establishing a successful business is like a rowing marathon, it's not a quick sprint, and the habits and approaches above offer insights from Ben’s journey. Whilst we have many iconic British gold medal winners, including Ben and his colleagues in the 2000 Olympics, David Boudia, who won the first U.S. gold medal in platform diving since 1988 at the 2012 Olympics, captures the essence of a winner for me underpinning all of the ten points above: when asked about his feat, Boudia said, I only did what I do in practice. Such a simple comment, but it contained so much, and resonates with the key message from Ben’s story about focusing on the process that gets you towards your goals, and being relentless in your practice, with purpose.

In summary, 'Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?' provided a great morning workshop, giving great stimulus and focus to us, here at Collingwood. The team identified the following key takeaways:

  1. Create actionable goals that inspire and excite you – what’s possible?
  2. Keep motivated and grow your self-belief
  3. Bounce back from setbacks to come out stronger
  4. Create a strong team committed to success
  5. Use simple analysis to identify the best approach
  6. Simplicity – focus solely on those things that make the boat go faster
  7. Controlling the controllable – what can you do, and forget about the rest
  8. Ignore the naysayers – stop talking bollocks to Basil!
  9. Use your passion as your emotional rocket fuel
  10. Focus on the rhythm, focus on the process, not the outcome

We’ve put these into our daily work routines and have a new ‘this is the way we do things around here’ credo as a result. We now have greater personal and team clarity, a focus on doing what really matters and a discipline to ensure we get over the line as winners, shaking off anything which is a distraction.

For more information visit Will It Make The Boat Go Faster.

November 2014