Insight article

Don’t get the Blues?

Everyone enjoys a sports metaphor.   The Boat Race is a good one.  Rowing is often used in corporate literature as a metaphor for teamwork – we’ve used it ourselves in corporate films.  The visual evidence is compelling; watching 8 oars in perfect time is dynamic, aesthetically pleasing and an obvious demonstration of the importance of working together.  Winning the Boat Race is, for many, one of the pinnacles of rowing and of the great British tradition of amateur sportsmanship.

Yesterday, in the 156th Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, we saw an extraordinary race and a perfect demonstration of the importance of belief, preparation and execution. In rowing, you race without being able to look your crewmates in the face, without being able to communicate.  You have to know what they will be thinking and, more importantly, know how they will react, in any given situation, without being able to see or talk to them.  So, hours are spent in preparing, testing and finally visualising every possible scenario.

Both crews will envision their success.  They will think about how they will respond if they get ahead, and how they will respond if they are down.  Cambridge spent the first two-thirds of the race yesterday chasing the Oxford crew, but they held on, they increased the number of strokes they took per minute, and crucially when Oxford should have taken advantage of their bend, it was Cambridge that actually made ground.  Afterwards, we heard from the crew that they had spent a lot of time thinking about the second half of their race – and it showed.  There is no harder way to win a rowing race than to spend most of it behind – it means that some members of the crew can’t see the opposition or how far away they are, so you are racing blind.

Everyone in the crew needs to believe in what they are trying to achieve, and believe that no one in their boat will give up… that even when it is hurting and they have doubts about whether they can make up the gap, that they will keep going.  Cambridge won the race yesterday because they won the psychological battle.  They trusted their own strategy, their training and their crewmates to execute their own raceplan and not panic when Oxford took the lead off the start.

Visualising success, and envisioning what winning will look and feel like, are tools used in all sports at the highest levels and notably in our world-class British rowing squad.  It is easy in sport to define what success means – it is getting the most points, scoring the most goals or crossing the line first – in business it can be harder to articulate… and there is no finish line, commercial races are never-ending.  But if we take the time to define what success within a business or organisation will mean and to communicate with our people about what it will take to achieve it, it becomes immensely powerful.  Visualise what your world will look like when you have met the goals that you have set.  Make it worth achieving.  Be honest about the risks and the challenges, and then plan for them.  When everyone knows what you are aiming for, they will be able to make decisions themselves that help the business to achieve them.

As a rower myself, in 2009 my crew from Thames Rowing club qualified for Henley Royal Regatta in the women’s eight event.  There are only 8 crews to qualify for that event.  Among the others, were the GB women’s eight, Yale University, a German crew with Beijing Olympians, and the GB women’s under-23 crew.

In our race, we were drawn against the German crew.  If we won this race we would get to race on Saturday at Henley. That is a rare experience; suddenly thousands of people are lining the banks, the noise is awesome and we would be the only club crew left in the competition.  We had trained hard for 10 months and this was the last regatta of our season.  We were racing against a German crew at Henley and we knew the crowds would be on our side… That was what success in this race would look like.  It was something worth fighting for.

The only data we had on the opposition crew was in much shorter races – just a quarter of the distance of the 2km+ Henley course.  So, we expected them to be fast off the start, and hoped that they would not have the fitness to hold their speed for the distance.  We discussed our fitness and previous race practice.

The morning of the race, we were sitting in one of the tents talking about our strategy.  We reminisced about a race a year previously when we had been losing for the first 1500m of a 2000m course, but miraculously had made a big push and managed to claw back the distance in the final 500m to win with clear water between us and the second crew.  We had gone from being 30m behind to 30m in front in under 90 seconds.  The point we focused on was that we knew we didn’t have to be ahead for the whole race to win.

We lined up on the start of the Henley course…

Attention. Go!

We were off.  Water splashing, oars flying and the sound of a German cox shouting into her microphone.  And they disappeared.

I was sitting in the bows of the boat – I was the last person that they had to go past.  And within just 100m they had gone past me.  I could no longer see the opposition.  We thought they would be fast, but this was unbelieveable.  Our cox kept telling us how far ahead they were.  I was thinking about that other race, and knew we had to keep working hard.  I knew that was what everyone else was thinking about too.  We kept our striking rate up (the number of strokes taken per minute) and stuck to our race plan.

Halfway down the course we started catching them.  They reappeared in my peripheral vision.  Did we have enough race left to go past them?  No one else could see them yet, they didn’t know how close we were.  But we kept moving up on them, inch by inch.  We kept making ground until, with barely 100 metres to go we were level… and we kept going past.  Muscles burning and lungs bursting we won!

Envisioning and visualising success are techniques that are well used and recognised in sport.  Sharing stories of experience and best practice can be powerful in reaching those goals. This kind of evidence builds confidence in strategy and makes sure everyone knows what is expected of them. Sharing stories of where your tactics have worked before is a way to make it real for people.

Yesterday, Cambridge executed their raceplan perfectly.  Today, they are celebrating the success that they had envisioned for themselves.  Tomorrow, they can use that story to help them achieve new goals.

Nailia Tasseel