It is in the immediate aftermath of the British Rowing Team’s performance at the Tokyo Olympics that I thought it would be a good time for me to share my perspective on the Regatta, and specifically, the “Culture of Winning” that naturally comes with competitive elite sport.
For a preface, I am a Rower with ambitions to represent Great Britain at the Olympics and win Olympic Gold. In October 2020 I was selected to join “Project Paris”. The aim of this “project” is to give potential Paris 2024 athletes the standard 4-year Olympic build up experience that would have been missed in the shortened 3 year Olympiad.
Beside my specific ambitions, I continually aim to enjoy what I am doing on a daily basis. My love and passion for the sport comes from the massive satisfaction I get when making technical or physiological improvements. I enjoy being part of a team and working towards a goal with people who inevitably become your close friends. This enjoyment is regardless of whether I am training out of an elite training centre or on the icy waters of the Clyde. I do not purely do the sport to “win” and believe that having winning as a sole goal is self destructive regardless of whether you achieve it or not.
In the hours following the last race of the Olympic Regatta, an increasingly strong flow of news articles emerged detailing British Rowing’s “Worst Performance in 45 Years”. As Matthew Pinsent tweeted “Fourth. I mean. Come on. Seriously?”. The Rowing Team achieved one historic silver in the Men’s Quad and one bronze (6 fourth places and the highest ever ranking for British Women’s Sculler). Despite the athletes leaving no stone unturned, reaching their maximum potential for the Games, if they do not happen to cross the line before another crew from another country, they are made to feel like failures. The subconscious conclusions they may make, will be that they have not done everything they can to win. It is their fault they have let their country down. This is obviously a ridiculously weighted expectation to place on the shoulders of the athletes.
It is ridiculous to create an environment where someone who has done absolutely everything they can to be their best, is made to feel like they have failed, despite the end result being completely out of their control. Statistically, they have a good chance of falling into Post-Olympic Depression, such a common thing that it has its own definition. This is likely to happen even if they “make their country proud” and get Olympic Gold. See Tom Ransley’s article about his “wasn’t prepared for what came next ” moment winning the Men’s Eight in Rio. Why is this such a common practice that is acceptable and labeled as “part of elite sport”?
I completely understand the pressure behind governing bodies to produce results. Funding has to be allocated by some means and a medal count is a simple and logical metric. Inherently the pressure of money and jobs becomes weighted on the athletes.
I understand this is a subjective matter, but for me the best way I see myself maximising my potential and my medal potential is by focusing on improving aspects I can control. Making small changes to daily training is achievable, realistic and is critical in becoming a better athlete. Rather than saying I must win Gold, I improve a certain lift in the gym or improve my force curve on telemetry or train more consistently by avoiding injury and improving mobility etc. Improving these areas are successes in themselves and for me is what I find most satisfying. These small habits form the base of maximising your athletic potential but also translate into habits that improve yourself as a person and give skills that can be taken into non-athletic life. Making these small daily internal goals is the best way to maximise performance and put in the best position to win a medal. This is how I ultimately see success. Check out Cath Bishop’s “Long Win” Interview with Martin Cross for more.
It seems so blatantly irrational to say “it’s not good enough or it’s not acceptable” to produce a ranking is deemed a failure, when what your competition does is out of your control. Go and tell the average joe to deadlift 800kg, and following their failure, tell them it is unacceptable and they have let their country down and something needs to change – a slight exaggeration of how I view this attitude to “failing”. I am all for using rankings and comparisons as a measuring stick for progress and for identifying ways to improve, but we must accept that there is a limit to our body’s potential.
Why is there a belief that the athletes must feel this pressure in order to “succeed”? I have the impression that many coaches install this atmosphere to get more out of them. As if they do not want the success enough themselves! Athletes can be made to feel disposable, so they do not relax and take their foot off the gas. Surely an athlete who has got to this level has not got there with that attitude?
Even when athletes do achieve Gold, they are still left with post-Olympic Depression. Placing all your happiness on the result of a race can leave an athlete with a hollow and empty feeling. I’ve heard the phrase, “that if you’re never enough without the medal then you’ll never be enough with it”. I am sure winning an Olympic Gold can bring happiness that words cannot describe and I would love to know what that feels like, but if there’s no deeper rooted meaning to what that medal and experience represents then where will that leave you?
We need to move towards an environment that does not base its athlete’s success and welfare on the unpredictable tightrope-world of sport outcomes. Placing an emphasis on maximising the athlete’s controllable factors will result in getting the most out of the athlete and not result in them being made a failure, regardless of if they get a medal.
The media, as its own free entity, will do what they think will get them the most interactions, but as a sport, we can start to implement this in our roots and clubs and begin to nurture it into the top end of the sport.
Why do I write this? Because it is something I firmly believe in and I have seen people whose happiness is based on the outcome of a race which has 5 other lanes completely out of their control. I see it on a smaller scale in all levels of the sport and is something I believe causes some people to “hate rowing”. If we begin to change the way we view success then we can increase enjoyment, retention, and participation across the country and that is something I believe will maximise the power and impact the sport can have on participants’ lives.