As a Brit, the run-up to the 2000 Olympic Games was all about whether (now Sir) Steve Redgrave would prove successful in his pursuit of a record fifth rowing Gold Medal. Redgrave and his team received a lot of attention as the games approached, but Great Britain had several other rowing teams competing with the chance to win a medal. One team not necessarily expected to medal—let alone win—were the men’s coxed eight (men’s eight).
At the 1992 Olympics, when Redgrave won his third Olympic Gold Medal, the men’s eight came 6th. In 1996, they finished 8th. Before the 1999 World Championships, they had come in 5th, 8th, 6th, 5th, and 7th (in chronological order) in their World Championships campaigns. Clearly, they were not a bad team—two Olympic top-8 finishes can hardly be sniffed at—but, relative to the results of the GB rowing program, they were significant underachievers. For Ben Hunt-Davis, ever-present in the men’s eight during this period, every year ended with disappointment.
And yet this team, slowly but surely, managed to turn things around. In 1999, they won a silver medal at the World Championships, and at the 2000 Olympic Games, the day after Redgrave’s triumph, they stormed away to win the Gold Medal—Great Britain’s first in this event since 1912.
Off the back of this success, Hunt-Davis wrote a book, Will it Make the Boat Go Faster?, which explores some of the tools and techniques this crew used to turn themselves from also-rans into Olympic Champions. The book has eleven chapters, and each chapter is split into Hunt-Davis’s autobiographical account of key steps in the journey, followed up by an analysis (along with his co-author) of the key themes. The book is typical in high-level content of many business and sports psychology books with the importance of goals, motivation, etc., but the information is highly applicable. Hunt-Davis’s accounts bring the book to life with key phrases that manage to impart the core messages of the story, and we can use these as valuable mental shortcuts. Here are some of the most notable ideas from the book.
“Will it make the boat go faster?”
Hunt-Davis and his teammates had a single goal, which could only happen at a set time on a set date: 10:30 am on September 24, 2000. During about five and a half minutes, they would have to outperform their competitors to win an Olympic Gold medal. To do this, they developed a layered approach:
- The Crazy Layer—this is the all-important end goal. For Hunt-Davis, it was an Olympic Gold medal. For your athlete, it might be making a national final. As pointed out in the book, the problem is that we can’t put these high-level goals on a to-do list (April 24: do food shopping, win Olympic Gold medal). Instead, they have to be comprised of steppingstones, namely…
- The Concrete Layer—This is the measurement underpinning the crazy layer performance. For the rowers, it was to row 2000m in five minutes eighteen seconds, a time they believed would win the Gold Medal. For an athlete aspiring to make the national championship final, it would be the time required to qualify. Hypothetically, we might analyze the last 10 national championships and note that a 100m time of 10.38s qualifies for the final more often than not. In this case, the concrete layer is to be capable of running 10.38s at the national championships.
- The Control Layer—This is the constituent parts of the concrete layer. To run 10.38s, what should your 30m from blocks and flying 30m times look like? What other key tests are important in letting you know whether you’re adequately taking care of each constituent of performance?
- The Everyday Layer—What you do daily to deliver your control layer. This is, essentially, what the athlete does in training and daily life, meaning that there is a clear link between Tuesday’s training session and the athlete qualifying for the national championships final next August.
This process led the team to their mantra, “Will it make the boat go faster?” A clear, shared goal allowed the team to set and analyze their control and everyday layer goals, determine whether they were on track, and make the necessary adjustments to keep them on the path to success.
“There were some things we could control and some things we couldn’t.”
On the way home from a competition, the team’s boat got severely damaged in a road accident so they couldn’t use it for training in the all-important run-up to the Olympics. This was obviously a source of anxiety to the team, but the coach reminded them of two key things: 1) if they wanted to win, they had to learn to deal with any problem that came along, and 2) eight years prior, the same thing happened to another team, and they still won. Instead of dwelling on the problem at hand—which they couldn’t solve—the team resolved to focus on what mattered in their preparation for the next race.Instead of dwelling on the problem at hand—which they couldn't solve—the team focused on what mattered to prepare for the next race, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
The crew also used three key sources for their beliefs, which we can copy and paste into our own contexts:
- Personal memories—What have you done in the past that makes you confident you can succeed? Before any big race, I used to remind myself that I’d been here before and dealt with the pressure well, so I would this time too.
- Role models—Who else has achieved what you want to? Are they that different than you? When I was doing bobsleigh, I was terrified of my first run down; what if we crashed? But I looked at everyone else—athletes from other countries—and decided, if they could do it, so could I.
- Metaphors and analogies—I think a common story among team members is crucial. Hunt-Davis’s crew used the analogy of a stone gaining momentum; others have used the story of Shackleton’s voyage.
“I raced Doran, the Romanian stroke, countless times… He must have thought I was there to make up the numbers, because I’d never beaten him… I wanted to beat them so badly, to settle the score, to make sure that they finally woke up and took notice of me.”
Hunt-Davis had a problem with the everyday layer; he wanted to win so badly, but the daily monotony of training often wore on him. The same was true for the rest of the squad, so together, they had eight strategies for maintaining motivation:
- Believe (outlined above).
- Make the journey entertaining—How can you foster fun around the seriousness of your goal? The composition of the training group is crucial here, as is the coach making the environment a fun and enjoyable place to be.
- Get competitive—Use the thought of your competitors to get you through.
- Make yourself hungry—Allow yourself a reward for when you become successful.
- Daydream—What will it feel like to achieve your goal?
- Flick the switch—Once you arrive at training or competition, how do you switch on to ensure you never waste an effort? When I competed in bobsleigh, our team had a rule of “never waste a hit,” which meant that whenever we pushed the bobsleigh, we did it with maximal effort.
- Create measurable milestones and rewards—How do you keep motivated when the main event is months or even years away? Focus on closer goals, such as testing or less important competitions as a way of getting you through.
- Use the 10-minute rule—Some days, I get to the gym and I don’t feel like being there. By committing to doing 10 minutes, I almost always complete the full session. Anyone can do 10-minutes of work.
“Don’t talk bollocks to Basil.”
In the run-up to the Olympics, the crew was at a competition. After winning their heat in style, they got carried away and started believing the hype, and flopped in the final as a result. Buying into positive comments and attention around your performance is all well and good—until the moment you start believing it and take your foot off the gas. The team developed a system, which they termed bullsh*t filters, in which they only took praise and criticism from the people who mattered and whom they trusted. Everything else was noise. In building their bullsh*t filters, the team had four key themes:
- Don’t talk bollocks to Basil—this is a very British phrase, but “chatting bollocks” means talking about things that are irrelevant (and Basil is a posh person’s name). This means you don’t spend time talking about irrelevant things to irrelevant people; the only exception is mandated press conferences.
- Accept the facts, but challenge the negative interpretation—Before any major race, I was terrible in training a couple of days beforehand. I wanted to be good—to have a great session to build my confidence—but I tended to be much slower. The fact is that my times were down; the negative interpretation is that it meant I was out of shape. But flipping it around, perhaps it meant I was saving myself for the race itself.
- Find a better interpretation—At the European Under-20 Championships in 2005, I was expected to win, but I lost my semi-final to my main rival. My interpretation of this was that it was the perfect scenario: it was a wakeup call for me, causing me to focus my efforts. And it increased my rival’s confidence that he would win, potentially distracting him. I won the final, but it would have been so easy to interpret my semi-final defeat as highly negative.
- Use bullsh*t as emotional fuel—Embrace the negativity of other people, and use it to fuel yourself to prove them wrong! Hunt-Davis was motivated by anger, which drove him on. Those of you who have ever seen me race will know I’m the same—sometimes, I used to print negative comments people had made about me to read pre-race!
“If you want to win, you need to forget about winning.”
Hunt-Davis and his crew decided that, if they were to be successful, they had to focus on the processes that supported success—much like the everyday and control layers discussed in the goal-setting example. They did this three ways:
- Getting curious about the recipe—What are the key constituents of success in your event? Are you improving on all of these? How?
- Focusing their attention—What specifically will you work on in the next training phase? How will you know if you’ve been successful?
- Changing how they measured success—We often measure success by whether we win or not. This can be misleading: you can win but perform poorly, and you can lose but perform well. Across the course of a competitive season, by focusing on how well you completed the process, you’ll be better set up for performance when it matters. If you focus on whether you’ve won or lost your tune-up races, on the other hand, you might get misled.
“Get the crocodiles before they get you.”
In the book, Hunt-Davis recalls how the Great Britain 8+ lost to Australia in the heats of the Olympic Games, meaning they would have to take a circuitous route to the final via the repechage. They had to make some small adjustments to improve their performance over the coming days. We can use their principles to support the change and evolution that constantly must happen in sport to keep us at our peak.
First, we need to know when to instigate change. Can we spot upcoming issues (the crocodile) before they become problematic? In sport, this might be a gradual improvement (or reduction) in performance levels, major championships held in more extreme environments (e.g., heat or altitude), or a rule change. Being able to spot these opportunities and plan and react accordingly is crucial to seizing the initiative and staying on the front foot. Once the necessary change has been made, all involved must expect discomfort and commit to spending a set period of time on the change to see it through. This is an especially salient point given the current situation with COVID-19, in which we’re in an ever-changing and uncertain world.
“What’s the gift I haven’t noticed yet?”
Bouncebackability is a word popularized by Iain Dowie when he was the manager of Crystal Palace football club. Essentially, it refers to resilience: the ability to bounce back from disappointment. If you spend enough time in sport and push yourself to perform at the highest level, you’ll experience a lot of disappointments and setbacks. Hunt-Davis and crew experienced this in the Olympic heats, and I experienced it numerous times in my career, including at the 2008 Olympic Games. When it came to responding to adversity, the crew had three main strategy pillars:
- Prepare before a setback happens—”What if?” conversations are useful for sketching out what might go wrong at a given place and time and allow you to consider how you might respond.
- Accept the setback when it comes—Strengthen your beliefs (people have likely bounced back from similar—if not worse—situations before); understand the root causes of the adversity; remember that the negative feelings will pass, and attempt to turn it to your advantage by using it as an opportunity for learning and growth.
- Do what you need to respond—Get on with it by putting it out of your mind initially. Control the controllable in the short term; reflect and learn.
Of course, there are some important caveats to keep in mind when digesting the content of this book. Before I met my wife, Hunt-Davis delivered a speech based on his book to my wife’s mum’s workplace. Her reflections on the talk were that it was very good, interesting, and impactful, but that it’s possible to answer the question (“Will it make the boat go faster?”) in whichever way you feel you need to meet your motivations at the time.
For example, let’s say your team has the opportunity to go drinking at the pub. Will it make the boat go faster? You could argue no. The consumption of alcohol plus the late night and poor sleep you will doubtless have as a result will likely negatively affect your training quality over the coming days, making the boat slower. But you could also argue yes. The team bonding that you’d gain from a night spent drinking together would outweigh the slight reduction in training quality. Alternatively, imagine it’s a cold, dark, winter morning, and you’re in bed, procrastinating over your first training session of the day. Should you skip it? Will it make the boat go faster? Yes—you’ve been training hard recently, so some extra recovery will reinvigorate your training quality. No—you have to accumulate training load and fitness to improve. You can see how this has the potential to be a slippery slope.
A second caveat is that to best answer, “Will it make the boat go faster?” you actually have to know the constituents of performance very well and then make subjective judgment calls based on ever-updating information. This is obviously a very hard task, requiring high levels of experience and expertise.
Finally, I’m always concerned about the concept of working harder. In general, I find that athletes train very hard, so the solution to improving their performance is not making them work harder (the “grind”), but smarter. It’s easy to conflate, “Will it make the boat go faster?” with “I just need to outwork my opposition, as hard work and single-minded focus are what’s important.” That isn’t necessarily Hunt-Davis’s message, but I think it’s crucial to be explicit about the dangers of this approach.
As a concept, the question of “Will it make the boat go faster?” is an important prompt to stimulate our thinking, and it’s effective in its simplicity. Through their success, the men’s eight demonstrated the importance of collective buy-in toward a common goal and a key theme that had to underpin all their decisions. Furthermore, the idea that we have to focus on what it takes to perform well, with everything else being—to use Hunt-Davis’s own words “bullsh*t”—is crucial.This mental model shows how to drill down to what delivers results & avoid spending time & energy on what prevents our success, says @craig100m. Click To Tweet
How can we, as coaches and athletes, drill down to what actually delivers results and avoid spending time and energy on that which does not enable us to be successful? This mental model or story alone makes it worth the time to read the book.
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