How to get better at learning: lessons from an Olympian
The key to achieving better leadership, performance and resilience is in our ability to continually learn from colleagues.
As an Olympic rower, I didn’t learn to make the boat go faster and become a world-class athlete by going to a lecture theatre and learning about the theory of the rowing stroke. Nor did I go to a poorly carpeted hotel conferencing suite and learn about different ways in which that theory could be applied to different crews and trying to imagine how it might feel.
There were no conference rooms, no learning suites, no online programmes. I went down to the river every day and went rowing and got coached, supported and challenged in that environment every day.
I had huge amounts of feedback in real-time that was specific to me and what I was trying to do. The feedback was not an indication of whether I was a good or bad person, but of how I could make the boat go faster.
I got expert coaching and advice from different specialists: sports science, biomechanics, nutrition and psychology. I watched videos of my rowing and talked those through straight after the outing, not on a quarterly or annual basis.
In those discussions, I talked to my coach and fellow crew-mates about areas to improve. Sometimes I even got video feedback in real-time when we used ‘rowing goggles*’.
*Glasses that you wear in the boat that are connected to the coach’s video camera in the launch following, so that as you row, you see that side-on view of what you are doing, and as you make adjustments in the technique and follow what the coach is suggesting you do, you can see for yourself immediately what those changes look like. Typically, you think you have made a massive change, but it’s scarcely visible on the video.
We started each session with a clear objective, and afterwards we always reviewed it, not just in terms of speed, but all the performance ingredients that contributed to speed: rhythm, technique, the ‘feel’ of the boat and how we were communicating with each other within it.
We openly discussed and reviewed our mindset and how to optimise it to improve our performance, always looking for ways to sharpen that alongside all the physical indicators.
We looked at every aspect of our performance – from recovery and nutrition to fitness, technique and beyond. We looked at other top athletes to learn from them and looked outside rowing into other sports and beyond. Anyone interested in performance (musician, sportsman or entrepreneur), was of interest to us.
Challenge the status quo
Whether we’d won the Olympics or World Championships or come fifth or ninth, we always knew we needed to go faster the next year. We couldn’t just train another hour to do that, so we had to train smarter and that requires constant learning and challenge. How might we do things differently?
How could something we learnt in one area of our training be applied to make improvements in another? How could we look outside our daily lives to find other examples to learn from?
Whatever the result, the need for ongoing performance improvements is a constant. Results are markers and learning pointers along the way.
I didn’t feel frightened by challenge, I wanted it – how else was I going to get faster? I had a limited amount of time and a lot of speed to gain in order to stand any chance of reaching an Olympic podium. I wanted as much feedback, innovation and challenge as I could find. If I wasn’t challenged on any given day, I’d drive home wondering if I’d maximised the opportunity to make gains that day.
This is how Olympians train, whether on an athletics track, rowing lake or hockey pitch – there is probably nothing surprising about this. The result is nearly always world-class performance, with tiny margins separating the best from the second best. Whatever the result, the need for ongoing performance improvements is a constant. Results are markers and learning pointers along the way.
Workplace performance coaching
So why do businesses who want to develop world-class leaders think this will happen by sending them to hotels and lecture theatres? We know that’s only a small part of how learning happens.
We need to maximise the learning opportunities that occur every single day in the workplace. We need to open our eyes to all the people around us who we could ask for feedback.
We need to take a moment to review each meeting to see how we could improve it next time, rather than diving for our phones to see how many missed calls we have. We need to challenge our habits, our assumptions and our routines to see if we could make our respective boats go faster in a different way.
Leadership development can take place all the time, and those investing in leadership development should think about how to bring it into the daily working experience. Let’s not learn theoretical models, let’s address what’s really happening and improve that.
We need to maximise the learning opportunities that occur every single day in the workplace.
Let’s not sign up to an idyllic picture of a happy, high performing team, let’s work with the gritty reality, celebrate the differences and discomfort and use the talents and ideas that already exist to move things forward.
If external learning support is needed, it should relate much more closely to the workplace. Feedback and learning needs to be practised in real meetings with real colleagues. Your actual status quo needs support to be challenged.
At ‘Will It Make the Boat Go Faster?’ we use as much practice as we can to support effective learning that will translate directly into the workplace, whether that’s practical exercises to understand what good feedback looks like (and to practise it further) actually stepping in a rowing boat.
When we hold rowing days, the learning experience becomes lived and breathed, and as a result remembered once back at work. Often, participants think that a ‘rowing day’ (typically held at the stunning Dorney Lake venue which hosted the rowing competition at the London 2012 Olympic Games) will be chiefly about learning to row and that there may be some indirect analogies through rowing that they can apply to the workplace.
While there are always great analogies to be transferred from rowing – how to work together, pull in the same direction, align individual and collective effort (and many more) there is even greater direct learning that takes place.
Time for reflection
Delegates become aware of how their mindset and behaviours affect performance. They practise feedback in an environment (slightly out of their comfort zone), and then in between short sessions on the water, we review progress and performance.
We look at whether, and how feedback, is helping and how it could be improved in order to raise performance. They then row again and see how the improvements affect collaboration and performance.
Participants agree a shared goal and see how that relates to their progress, and look at what behaviours are helping or hindering the achievement of that goal. Delegates report great impact and sustained learning from this session that they can take back into their workplace.
So have a look at your daily habits, behaviours and routines. Reflect on your mindset and review how you currently learn at work. Think about what aspects you want to improve and find someone to challenge those.
Then work out who you want feedback from, when each day you’ll review your own performance, and befriend those with a different perspective and background from you, and anoint some challengers amongst your team and colleagues. Don’t wait for the next training course, there’s plenty of learning waiting for you all around your workplace.
Cath works as a leadership speaker and consultant, drawing on her practical experience from two high pressure careers as an Olympic rower and a senior diplomat specialising in conflict stabilization. She leads seminars on topics including resilience, leadership, high performing teams, peak performance and dealing with pressure.