This blog post is the distillation of a talk about performance and teamwork given by Steve Williams at the Institute of Internal Communication’s annual conference last week. Steve is a double Olympic gold winner, and he focused much more on his Athens 2004 experience than Beijing 2008, although both were nail-biting close finishes! I’ve kept my hastily scribbled notes largely unedited in the hope of conveying some sense of how the talk felt. I think there are some powerful points made in this talk, I hope you find it useful and enjoyable.

Steve Williams

Olympic rower, has since climbed Everest (childhood ambition), and skied to North Pole.

I carried oars at Sydney, the spare man. My best friend won gold, hugging crying afterwards, and jealous. I wanted it too, face up to questions like ‘what is the shortfall in me?’ humbling and powerful.

Before the start of the race there are six minutes of waiting, terrifying. And it should be. So don’t focus on stakes being a mile high, the prize is. 3 things. Race plan, bullet proof confidence, and get the first stroke right.

6 hours training every day, mum and dad invaluable as my taxi service. If you think Talent alone is gonna get you there, you are a dreamer. Hard work. Being in a team is very motivating, you don’t want to let the team down. Blind trust and understanding, this means we can be apart and doing our training and we just know we’re all doing it – for the good of the team. Don’t always have to be together to know we’re all pulling for each other.

After training, immediately after, you review and if you think you know a way to make the boat go faster it is your duty to speak up and if it’s aimed at you, you take it with good grace. Only as good as next race, row with confidence, and a bit of humility.

Athens 2004

In the run up to Athens, one of the team punctured a lung, we needed a replacement. Ed came from reserves. Not the best physiologically, best for the job. Cool under pressure. As a team we could settle for silver but let’s see that as worse than nothing. 5 sec down on the favourites with 5 weeks to go. Chip away, chip away.

When you arrive at the Olympics your kit contains stuff like different coloured t shirts. Red, white and blue days. We all wear the same colour on the same day so those of us not in the Olympic village know, we’re separate and together.

At Athens we won semi final, coach says you row like that in final we will lose. Hurt my pride and I trusted him. Made changes. Finals day, 6am little warm up. Tension, feel the noise as races go on. Ed buried in a book, James pacing, me and Matthew yawning, can’t sleep though, biorhythm gets screwed. Get the kit out, feel proud. Want to look back and feel good. Blind trust that what we do individually is in our best interests together. You don’t win on the day, it’s done in the four years beforehand. Tears before the race. Done the plan, the science bit, and feel some emotion.

James suggests, No one ever dies from rowing, teams staircase the finish, ten strokes, ten strokes, ten strokes. More and more power, leaving nothing in the tank. Let’s call our staircase with forty to go, and just do an extra set at even more power. We won by a few inches. Chip away, chip away.

Post talk Q&A

Q how much credit for the coach? Everyone matters. Importantly, coach always made a point of congratulating a good performance in the moment and in front of everyone.

Q How have you felt the transition post Olympics. Tough, miss being part of a team. I love the Seasons of performance, can’t just burn and burn and burn.

Q How do you manage the differences in a team? friction in the team v important because we don’t have just one idea. You have a duty to say what you think. Silent (dis)agreement nodded in meetings not good. The best teams are made through their differences.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

6 thoughts on “Olympian”

  1. Phew – these rowers are a breed aren’t they? The CEO of one of the companies I partner with is Andrew Lindsay – another Olympic gold medallist rower – and I can here him saying those words above too.

    Merciless physical and mental preparation, psychopathic belief in yourself and the plan, superglue teamwork and a healthy dose of humility goes an awful long way to delivering Gold.

    “No one ever dies from rowing” ……… maybe not physically but mentally it’s damn close. If Steve had got silver, that speech above would have been very different. There are times where we all get very close to that point either physically, mentally or both – it’s how you come out the other side that makes the person. DNF – did not finish – never, ever an option

    1. He he – and of course having completed the Marathon des Sables yourself – you know this better than most. I remain in awe of your achievement.

  2. My pops in law, aged 87, both competed and was coach in subsequent Olympics – speed skating. Going to use this post to introduce him to blogworld!

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