That was the question the British Men’s Eight rowing team asked of themselves daily and repeatedly as they trained for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
First, they applied it to all aspects of their training: skills, conditioning, unity. Then they applied the question as a filter for every situation encountered and every obstacle faced to ensure focus and without derail. For example: do you accept an invitation to a late-night party the night before training. Filter: Will it make the boat go faster? If the answer is no, then the decision to attend the party is no.
I asked myself a similar question during the years I trained for and ran marathons.
Remember the 1999 movie The Sixth Sense? Back then, theatres would offer a free, sneak preview of an upcoming film before its official release. I love the movies, and the tribal experience of great visual storytelling while seated in the dark among a packed audience. The showing of The Sixth Sense I attended finished shortly after 9 pm on a Friday. That Saturday, I’d planned a 15-mile training run, one of three to prepare for an upcoming marathon. I like to sleep. And I need lots of it. Especially important on the eve of a long run that would prepare my body for 26.2 consecutive miles. I really wanted to stay and watch the preview. And as folks rose from their seats to refresh and then resettle for the free film I thought, if I stay to watch this movie, I will be miserable during my run. I probably won’t even be able to run.
So, I went home.
During my marathon years, life often prompted me to evaluate the depth of my training commitment. Night out with the girls? Um, not on the eve of a long run. Drinks at dinner? Nope. Even a half glass of wine could derail the quality of a short run. Slice of birthday cake at the office? Tempting but I’m going to pass. The sugar boost and subsequent insulin rush would crash my blood glucose and guarantee metabolic drama during the run.
Neither Olympian nor elite athlete, I was a gal committed to run 26.2 consecutive miles and feel good while doing it. That required making choices. And every choice made in the months leading up to the marathon would either support or derail that commitment.
The year 1999 was when I ran my third and last marathon. That following year the eight-man British rowing team would relentlessly ask itself the question, Will it make the boat go faster? They did this because they had been on a losing streak. In 2017 the podcast Best in the World with Richard Parr interviewed Ben Hunt-Davis, the captain of the British Men’s Eight rowing team. Hunt-Davis detailed how the question Will it make the boat go faster? favorably impacted the team during the 2000 Sydney Olympics final:
“…In Cologne, Germany in 1998, we missed out on the World Championships final again. The thing with elite sport [is] the whole year is geared up to the last race, the world champion final, the Olympic final. And you either finish the year feeling fantastic or you feel like a loser. And by that point, I’d had nine years of finishing every single year feeling like a complete loser. And it just kind of dawned on me that I couldn’t do it again. I just couldn’t knuckle down and do the same thing harder and harder again. We had to do things differently if we wanted a chance at getting a different result. We started to become far more intelligently focused rather than just working hard.”
Hunt-Davis and the team were working with a corps of four professionals to help them prepare for the Olympics, among them a physical coach and sports psychologist. With their support team, as well as their own experiments, the athletes explored numerous ideas for changing the way they trained. They needed to identify the winning edge that seemed to elude them in previous championships. Hunt-Davis says that some of the changes were well researched. Other changes the team made on gut feel.
“There’s no way we could measure everything. Measuring forced-time-spent-rowing on a machine is easy,” Hunt-Davis said. “Measuring rhythm in a boat is pretty hard. We didn’t know how to measure rhythm. And we thought the thing that would determine how fast you went would be the rhythm we could generate.” That idea – that rhythm was the edge to winning Olympic gold – was a way to narrow the myriad options for changes in their training. “We had to be far more ruthless about doing the right stuff, rather than just doing more stuff,” said Hunt-Davis. When they combined what their gut said felt right with a focus on rhythm, the result was a qualitative measure in the form of a question: Will it make the boat go faster?
Physically, we weren’t that good. So, we needed to make sure that we were faster at learning, more resilient, better together as a group, so that technically, we could out row everybody.
Will it make the boat go faster?
This bracing question rules for its deceptive simplicity. Seven words long. Easy to remember. Yet nestled within lies a ruthless edge born of deep commitment and laser focus on what matters most. I find that deeply inspiring and practical. It’s the question I now ask myself when I’m considering too many options for advancing a goal. I filter each through this rigor. Yes, this action is one of many I can take. But is it one that will make my boat go faster?
Let’s say I’m curious about some group chitty chat nearby. Though tempted to inquire, I stop and ask myself, does tapping into this buzz make my boat go faster? Phrased this way, I have no hesitation in knowing where to stake my focus. These days, it’s on the page growing my body of work.
Incremental changes over time make a difference.
We had to do things differently if we wanted a chance at getting a different result. We started to become far more intelligently focused rather than just working hard.
“We lost our heat in the Olympics,” Hunt-Davis continues in the podcast interview. “I can’t think of any other crews that lost their heat in the Olympics and won the final in rowing. Normally, the gold medalists win the heats. Whereas for us, we screwed up. We made a mistake and we had to be able to deal with it. Really quickly. Really effectively. Just get on with it. Because if we didn’t, we lost. Physically, we weren’t that good. So, we needed to make sure that we were faster at learning, more resilient, better together as a group, so that technically, we could out row everybody.”
Ever heard the expression, “work smarter and not harder”? Here’s what it looks like when you do the right stuff and not just more stuff: Ben Hunt-Davis and the Men’s Eight British rowing team winning gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
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