British rowing athlete Greg Searle first won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with his brother Jonny. In the 1996 Atlanta Olympics he finished third in the coxless four event. 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.
Now at the age of 39 he is back in exhaustive training to qualify for London 2012 and the chance to once again compete for Olympic gold.
He describes how the strategies used by elite athletes are very much the same employed by business leaders to compete at the very top.
1. Find a vision; set short term goals to achieve overall success.
I am in the midst of training for an Olympic comeback 20 years to the day after I won gold in 1992. Winning that medal is the compelling vision that sits above everything else. I was also inspired by London winning the games and I thought, “I want to be a part of that.”
I thought I still have the raw potential to be an athlete for the 2012 games so took the risk and started training again with that goal in mind. Another big part was imagining winning a gold medal 20 years after winning my first, which no one else has ever done.
However, the real work is to achieve smaller goals before that overall target is within reach, such as rowing 2,000 meters in six minutes on a rowing machine, performing well in trials, sticking painstakingly to my training program and getting enough rest. These day-to-day behaviors may sometimes be difficult—but because there is the compelling vision of competing at London 2012 Olympics, it provides the inspiration for the difficult things I need to do.
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.
Rowing on a machine is really tough, and in itself it isn’t exciting. What “is” exciting is knowing and seeing the benefit of the hard work once I get into the boat, or at the next training session.
2. Feedback is your best friend.
The difference now in British sport compared to when I first competed is astonishing. We have the chance to win several gold medals next year while in 1996 we only won just one.
The major difference is the amount of support we get from our coaching teams. 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.
I receive constant feedback measured against the goals that I set at the beginning of the year. Everything is meticulously measured: nutrition, psychology, and physiology, but 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.
It’s not always the case that this has been done well. I remember on one occasion I received feedback that caused me to jump out of the boat, swim to the bank and say I would never row with that person again.
Now however, feedback is given in a much more sophisticated way and people are asked to comment on their own individual performance. The people who want to improve are ready to identify their weaknesses and ask others for constructive criticism.
In a corporate environment however, people can be reluctant to invite feedback because they are nervous about how they are going to be judged.
In sport, the higher the level you perform at, the greater the level of support. But in business the higher you are in an organization the less support you receive, or people will not offer feedback as they may be wary of you. You might employ someone outside the company who can give impartial feedback that might not otherwise be possible.
3. Unshakeable self-belief: Self-confidence versus self-esteem
When I came fourth in Sydney in 2000, I had the feeling that I had failed. I had to be helped to recognize that I hadn’t become a bad performer—or even a bad person—because I lost a race.
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.
Many of you will have experienced the “school of hard knocks” and you must expect to lose as often as you win—maybe more. But you have to put those performances into context as steps toward the ultimate goal.
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 through.
4. Controlling the controllable.
As a leader or a sportsman it’s important to be prepared by addressing the things that are within your control. There is so much out there that you think could be relevant to make you perform, but, the real trick is to recognize the things that will really make a difference and make them your focus.
After that, it is simply a case of controlling your reaction to everything else.
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
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.
Greg Searle director of performance development at consultancy Lane4. He draws upon his commercial experience and elite sporting background to deliver programs in the fields of leadership and team development.