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One gate at a time

8 October 2019

A canoe, a paddle, 25 gates, tons of wild water, the clock and your selection for Tokyo 2020 on the line… No pressure!

I had the privilege of attending the ICF Canoe Slalom World Championships in La Seu D’Urgell, the 1992 Barcelona Olympic venue, to support #teamredsky member and friend David Florence (Triple Olympic medallist and triple World Champion). This was my first time at a Canoe World Championship and it’s difficult to put into words the emotions and excitement experienced. Until now, I have only watched canoe slalom on the telly, with a little more invested interest as Red Sky Management have been working with David for over a decade on sponsorship, performance, engagement and translating his experience as an elite athlete into the business environment.

As a high-performance coach, I am a keen observer of how high performers, athletes behave and respond to pressure and potential stressful environments. Studying their mental approach and how it helps them cope with pressure in a totally unpredictable sport, as well as dealing with the fallout when things don’t go to plan, is an unique opportunity. It is what we learn from these top performers’ mindsets that is so transferable and relevant to our business clients.     

‘One gate at a time’

I met David the day before the semis (he qualified ranked 1st during the heats) and the final. The pressure was on for David, he had to finish as top Brit and within the top 5 in the final to secure his spot in Team GB for Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

He was as cool and calm as ever with a simple yet effective approach which was to focus on what is in his control – “one gate at a time”.  Everything is done deliberately and in an objective manner, simplicity in an otherwise complex environment. I hardly slept with anticipation and neither did his parents. I know this because we shared a couple of Rioja’s late that evening to calm the nerves! David on the other hand said he slept like a baby. His mind was clear and he knew what he had to do: focus on what was in his control.  

This approach saw him go through the semis and qualify for the final ranked 8th out of 10. It was a clean run, no time penalties for touching gates but according to David it was far from perfect. He was matter of fact about the run and clear on where he could go faster. For now, it was job done though, he had made the final and was the only Brit to do so. Being ranked 8thmeant he would go third and then wait until the other 7 athletes had finished, before learning his fate.

The Finals

David posted a respectable time, with a clean run but not as fast as he hoped. The tension in the multi-national crowd was so thick you could cut it with a knife. With every competitor completing their run there was a hiss or a cheer, everyone knew the stakes. It went down to the last competitor, who finished 5th,  knocking David down to 6th and subsequently dashing his hopes for a fourth Olympic Games. This was despite being the only Brit to reach the final, thereby achieving his goal of being top Brit, AND finishing 6th in the World. Yes, the 6th best in the world!

In the stand, David’s family and friends and also the parents of other competitors knew what had happened and immediately swarmed David’s parents to share in their disappointment and show support. On the course, amongst the competitors there was a clear sense of solidarity, with congratulations to those on the podium and heart felt consideration for David and others who missed out.  Observing the wider contexts of the sport, it was clear to see that the world of elite canoeing is a real community which shows genuine care and respect towards one another.  

Dealing with disappointment

Yes, David was disappointed. His first words were ‘I threw that away’. He even knew the precise moment he lost a fraction of time that cost him not just his critical top 5 finish but also his Olympic spot for Tokyo 2020. This was a heavy weight to carry and huge disappointment for someone considered one of the best in the world. So, what did David do you ask? Did he lock himself away, sulk and moan? Have a wee tantrum or contest the results? No, he graciously congratulated every competitor, podium or not, thanked his family and friends and accepted that the result is what it is. Objective and with a sense of perspective. The result did not change who he is and he certainly would not allow it to define him.

It might be too soon to tell what next for David, whether he decides to continue competing or to transition into the next chapter, we will continue to work with him ‘one gate at a time’.

There are a number of key learnings we can apply to ourselves, our teams and organisations. I have highlighted a few simple, yet effective lessons to consider:

1. Focus on what is in your control. A few comments and observations of David highlighted just that, how he felt and how he chose to behave and how he managed himself in accordance with the plan that he and his team, coaches and supporting staff, set out to achieve both his and the team’s goals.   

2. Keep perspective. David had done the training, he has been in semis and finals of huge competitions before, he is after all a 3-time Olympic Silver medallist. He trusted his training, experience and skill, which allowed him to remain objective about himself and his performance. 

3. Know your role and contribute to culture. What was evident in Team GB was that there was a respectful calmness amongst team mates. They showed support for each other but also a silent expectation to perform. Every team member from athlete to kit manager knew what their role was and when to execute. All seemed to be well planned, organised and tailored to enable the athletes to simply focus on their performance. Clarity of your role and execution thereof, contributes to individual and team confidence and culture.

4. Stay connected. David remained connected to the tasks required which allowed him to go out and perform. These tasks were all linked to what was in his control but yet reliant on and enabled by his team and support staff. Remaining connected and in the moment with them allowed David to be calm, deliberate and focused. His connection to his extended support network which includes his parents, friends and rest of the team, provide David with a sense of comfort and perspective, also fundamental to his performance.