Team GB Chris Bartley Lightweight Four

Go Team GB!

As a dual US/UK citizen, I get to root for twice as many athletes (and in a UK vs. USA match up, I’ll just expediently root for the winner). But there is no one out of the 10,000+ athletes at the Olympics I am rooting for more than Great Britain Lightweight Rowing Men’s Four stroke Chris Bartley. Already a World Champion, but closer to home, he is a fellow coach for Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School’s rowing programme. He is an exceptional role model for the next generation of athletes he has been working with for years interspersed with his gruelling rowing training. He is just as much a highly effective coach strongly responsible for Borlase’s rise to rowing powerhouse (third in the national school’s medal table this year and top non-private school/club for a number of years now).

But this week, Team GB is the powerhouse storming their way through their heats with grace and authority including today’s victory in the semi-finals. The BBC commentary kept noting a key quality to their success that makes them one of the top medal favourites in the squad. They combine focus with relaxation.

Throughout the race, they rowed at a slower ‘rating’ (ie. strokes per minute) than their race rival Switzerland and seemed comfortable sitting off the lead for the first half the of the race. The announcer kept noting how they simply got into their pace, their race and proceeded to ‘get the job done’. He kept noting how relaxed they looking despite killing themselves in this hotly competitive event. At the conclusion BBC interviewed UK Men’s Single Sculler Alan Campbell who noted that the entire Team GB Rowing squad respected Chris’ boat for having the most mental toughness of the squad.  It is this toughness hangs onto that delicate balance.

The commentary brought to mind an insight from the book Perfection Point which I think has much relevance to leading organisation as it does to leading the pack in a race…

  • “The difference between first and fifth place among elite athletes come down to the mental side rather than the physical. The ability to stay relaxed under intense pressure is critical to peak performance”

This perspective is also just as critical to performing on pitch as it is to performing on the pitch. My wife Lori teaches voice and a major part of the coaching is breathing and relaxation exercises. The challenge for a great song performance is generating intensity while preserving relaxation. Relaxation is essential for the vocal chords (which are muscles themselves) to work at their optimum. When they don’t relax, air doesn’t flow and sound quality suffers. One quite literally ‘chokes’, the bane of the un-relaxed performer of any type. It is one thing to achieve this relaxation, but to do so while conjuring up the fervent emotion of the piece under the hot lights of the stage is what separates the stars from the rest.

Leaders generate intensity; Managers maintain relaxation. Both together are needed for peak performance.