The Boat Race – it’s going to be emotional

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The 166th men’s and 75th women’s’ Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race this Sunday April 4th, relocated to the River Ouse at Ely, should be of interest to anyone who cares about emotions and human performance.

Rowing must be the commonest sporting metaphor used in organisations to clarify what exceptional teamwork looks like. In these days of agile working, organisations have flirted with rugby metaphors of scrum masters and passing the ball down the line. American football and English ‘soccer’ have contributed the idea of attack (or offense as our American friends like to call it) and defence. Basketball made a brief appearance when flow states were all the rage in the noughties. But rowing continues to claim the sporting metaphor title because if you have ever rowed competitively you will know that every single member of the crew is equally important and every single moment counts. One wrong move by any team member can result in defeat. The level of unity, trust and willingness to pull hard for each other throughout the entire race reflects an intensity that occurs in many businesses.

When we watch the eight crew members and their cox competing on Sunday, we will see them lean in and pull together in an attempt to create clear blue water. In rowing, as in business, being exceptional requires technical competence and courage. But the one critical ingredient that is often overlooked in both disciplines is emotion. Many business leaders mistakenly try to remove emotions from the discussion. And many Olympians discuss mental toughness but ignore emotion as a source of competitive advantage. This was certainly what I experienced when helping the GB Olympic squad prior to London 2012 and Rio 2016.

Three months before the London 2012 Olympics I was invited to talk to the GB Rowing squad about the work we had been doing with leaders in organisations around the world. This was possibly the most exciting request of my entire life. I used to row myself when I was at medical school. Not for the college but for Thames Tradesmen who, at that time, were one of the most feared clubs on the tideway in London. I spent many a wonderful day paddling and racing along the Boat Race course and in the summer competed as an elite oarsman at numerous regattas in the UK. So, when I was asked to meet the squad at the Redgrave and Pinsent Lake at Caversham, I couldn’t have been more enthusiastic. My own sport and our home Olympics – it doesn’t get better than that.

I met the 15 coaches and all the athletes that were due to compete, explained how delighted I was to talk to them and said I wanted to teach them the things that CEOs had found incredibly helpful in their pursuit of victory. And I would do this for free when I wasn’t working with a corporate client. After I explained what was involved, I asked for a show of hands of who would like to work with me. Of the 15 crews, seven said yes and eight said they had things covered. Of the seven crews I worked with, six won medals. Only three of the eight crews I didn’t work with medalled. I’m not saying the difference was entirely down to me, but I think I helped. I think what this reflected was that truly exceptional people are always receptive and open to input. In contrast insularity, and resistance to input, is a huge predictor failure in both sport and business.

In talking to the athletes it was clear that the amount of weight training, gym work and hours they spent rowing up and down the lake in the GB squad wasn’t much different when compared to the Australian, New Zealand, American or other great rowing nations. We discussed what might give them competitive edge, given the physical differences may not be that great. What would enable them to win a medal?

I asked for a show of hands on who thought confidence might be the difference. They all agreed that confidence was important in sport. Everyone also kept their hands up and agreed that it might be the difference between winning and losing in the pressure of the Olympic final. But when I asked the room whether anyone could tell me what confidence was. All the hands went down.

“So, you’ve trained for four years and just agreed that the thing that might deliver you the medal in the final is a mystery to you”. I challenged. We see the same issue in business. Leaders often agree confidence is important. They acknowledge it’s vital to be confident when presenting to the Board, fielding questions from analysts or responding shareholders. But few people know how turn on confidence for an important meeting or, in the case of the rowers, in the Olympic final.

As part of the work we did with the GB Rowing squad, we showed the athletes how to control their physiology and then control their emotional state. We taught most of the crews to access different emotional states at different points of the race. Each crew learnt how to master specific emotions relevant to them as a crew, taking into account the conditions, what point of the race they were at and whether they were ahead or behind at that point. So, in addition to planning their race from a tactical or physical standpoint, we showed the athletes how to plan their race from an emotional point of view.

Accessing specific emotions at certain point of the race changed the outcome. For example, I remember talking to Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, the women’s pair, how to turn on the emotion of excitement at the 900-metre mark. The race is 2,000metres and at 900 metres they would become excited that nearly half the pain and effort was over. That excitement released an extra energy surge which, if you watch their races, caused them to gain at least a boat length advantage on the opposition and set them up for victory. Helen and Heather won gold in London and Rio.

So, when you’ve developed the ability to control your emotions you can game change your performance, whether it’s in the board room or the Boat Race. On Sunday when Oxford faces Cambridge for the 166th and 75th time, the crews that manage their emotions most effectively in the first five minutes will probably win.

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