Winning When It Counts
The Practice of Continuous Learning Championed by an Olympic Gold Medalist and Coach
Illustration Credit: New York by Boyoun Kim
I was born in Germany near the Augsburg Eiskanal, the word’s first artificial whitewater course that was built for the 1972 Olympics. At age eight, I got involved in whitewater slalom kayaking at one of the clubs along the racecourse. The sport suited me well, my family was supportive, and I had an excellent support network—practicing in the midst of world champions. Before long, I found myself paddling on a national level and unexpectedly, at age 15, I almost qualified for the 1988 Junior National Team.
Until that point, I had been doing three to six workouts a week, and I was content with the day-to-day challenges and steady improvements. But then I got it into my mind to race at the next Junior World Championships, which was in 1990. Together with a close friend, I stepped up my training. We pulled out all the stops and added weight training before school and extra laps to the regular workouts. As it turned out, both my friend and I qualified for the World Championships. We were as committed as any 17-year-olds can be—completely prepared and ready. Then I got into my boat, tripped over my paddle, and capsized.
Each competitor gets two runs, so I still had one more chance. This time, I was careful. I made all my lines, didn’t incur any penalties, and placed fifth in the world.
But, quite unexpectedly, I was devastated. I had played it safe to get a good result and to protect my investment. I had a good run, but I also knew there was more in me. Now I did not have another chance to let it out.
It took time to process what happened, but I ended up making a pact with myself that I would never again race conservatively. I would plan and prepare to win—and I would win or fail trying. Afterward, I had several races where I did not place, but soon I began to win. Along the way, I came to realize that the path to winning the Olympics would mean training through and “losing” the smaller races like World Cups. That was psychologically difficult, but critically important. In 1995, I had a perfect run and won the World Championships in Nottingham, England. The next year, in Atlanta, I won the Olympic gold medal on my first run.
The Double Pain of Coaching
After the Olympics I retired from racing, and a few years later I began to coach the British Olympic Team. The program I was in charge of hinged completely on Olympic medal success. Once again the goal was not to make progress or to have promising results but to win the ultimate race. Four years of planning, investing, and working hard for a single 90-second effort. My own and perhaps a dozen other people’s livelihoods were on the line—and that suited me fine.
But there was something else that proved surprisingly difficult for me. Let me explain:
I grew up with a German saying about the virtues and benefits of sharing with others that translates roughly as: “Shared joy equals double joy and shared pain equals half the pain.” As a coach, however, I discovered that this saying did not hold true for me. As a coach and program leader, I had the responsibility, but I wasn’t the one performing. My personal results and history had nothing to do with what our racers were going to do on race day, and I found nothing worse than being unable to alleviate another person’s pain. Their pain, in fact, was my agony.
I also came to hate the word “potential” because it was clear that my athletes had plenty of it; they just couldn’t count on it. One athlete or another was able to shine here or there as circumstances seemed to favor them, but that was not good enough to justify the effort and risks we were taking. We needed to enable our athletes to reliably fulfill their highest potential when it counted the most.
So I was compelled to find ways to help my athletes overcome disappointment, fears, and confusion, and so to empower them to take charge of their body, mind, and feelings—to hone their potential to compete successfully with the best in the world. The three main tools I used were:
Dedication to continuous learning
Radical honesty and transparency
My program worked. At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, my athletes won silver and bronze medals. Afterward, I quit athletic coaching and my wife and I moved far away from whitewater to start something new—and I eventually created a personal coaching practice. In doing so, I realized that my athletic practice and coaching practice were essentially a form of spiritual practice aimed at a specific goal. These tools are written for athletes, but the ideas can also help you beat a disease or learn to walk when no one thinks you can.
My own coach from age 15 to the Olympics, Helmut Handschuh, had one overriding judgment: “The moment you lose your ability to learn, you lose your ability to succeed.” (Since he was German, it would have sounded something like: “For success to achieve, learning able you must stay!”) Handschuh was extremely good at evaluating athletes not so much by their performance but by their level of experimentation. I remember watching him looking at people I thought were great athletes and he would shake his head and say, “No, they have stopped learning.” And he would be right. Learning is physiological, mental, and emotional, and all three have to happen holistically to be able to count on success.
Are you a good learner? Do keen learners surround you? Do you pick up new skills easily and readily? Do you question yourself and others freely and strive to find out what’s real? Can you take yourself lightly and use criticism as feedback to make yourself better and better?
Hanschuh’s belief and mine is that to perform better than others you need to create something unique. Uniqueness is a function of creativity, of learning by making unique connections. Mental, emotional, and kinesthetic innovations are born not just from repetition and pushing harder, but also from questioning (questing) and the audacity to go where no one has gone before. In the pursuit of great performances you do not want to be sidetracked by appearances or stuck with ill-informed judgments, dogmas, or taboos. Everything is fair game—including fair game. Hopefully that doesn’t mean you will learn to cheat the system more audaciously than Lance Armstrong, but you will find a way to reinvent the game over and beyond seemingly solid boundaries.
One challenge with learning—and where most get stuck—is the emotional challenge that results from being confronted with not knowing. Being wrong is typically more comfortable than uncertainty, which is why we have to learn to let go. In whitewater kayaking that may mean literally dropping into something scary in an entirely new way—and remaining open to that experience. With the proper mindset, curiosity is more powerful and certainly more useful than fear.
Another challenge is with questioning at the wrong time. There must be a shift from openness to complete faith in creating perfection. As I approached my gold medal run I had my life’s work on the line. Practice is not allowed on the final racecourse, so I was facing something new. But I had visualized the course and had run it about 40 times in my head. I didn’t feel crushed by the competition. I knew exactly what I would do. I believed I faced no competition at all.
At a fundamental level, you must understand your own learning style. Most athletes are primarily kinesthetic, but perhaps you are more visual and really need to sketch things out more deliberately than others in your squad to move ahead faster. It could be as simple as that! Ultimately, you must accept that you are responsible for your learning. You are responsible for your success. Another fundamental exercise is to make a list of your assumptions and question whether your assumptions are holding you back.
Radical Honesty and Transparency
What I’ve found is that a team’s most powerful “secret weapon” is to become a team that has no secrets. Once again, my old coach Handschuh was my guide. In his late 50s he found an article in a sport science journal about a training method developed in Russia, and he commissioned a translation of the original book so he could study the method in earnest. We then took this method to extremes while he openly shared his findings and strategies with the rest of the community. He wasn’t taken seriously for the most part—until success proved him right.
When I worked with the British Olympic Team, I pushed the idea further. I challenged my core staff and athletes to be 100 percent honest with each other in the spirit of reaching the same goal together, so we would always be able to find solutions and keep making progress. It wasn’t easy given the large egos of national team athletes. I was amazed at how hard it was for many athletes to let go of their own certainties and believe the stopwatch when it disagreed with their own internal clock. People tend to be more committed to feeling “right” than actually being fast.
To be radically honest requires one to be vulnerable, to stop defending one’s own ego position, and to want to know what’s actually true. Radical honesty is one of the most powerful and trickiest qualities to develop in oneself. To co-create a culture of radical honesty within a team is even more difficult and required professional help. We worked with Jonathan Males, a sports psychologist and team facilitator, who gave us invaluable feedback, input, and tools.
There is a debate in sports about the benefits of focusing on outcome or process, but I believe you must focus on both—and then some. For example, if you want to win the next Olympics, your first step would be to go to August 5, 2016, on your calendar and write Rio de Janeiro! Then start planning your strategy and specific workouts backward from there. But if you were to follow today’s plan religiously you could reasonably expect a 70 percent performance in 2016, which of course will put you nowhere near Rio. Instead, you need to plan to keep learning new things, so your master plan must be constantly evaluated and reevaluated in light of what you learn as well as what is actually taking place in your body and mind. Every practice should have a goal and an outcome that will refine your process.
Keep in mind that no matter how good you are, and no matter how good your preparation is, to win at the moment it counts will require a leap into uncertainty. That means that the most seemingly mundane practice should also be a leap toward something. One question to answer before each practice is: What do I need to focus on today in order to be the best leaper?
Achieving big goals requires hard work, but there can be enormous satisfaction in the process. I remember riding my bike to my workouts—a 30-minute ride each way—and visualizing myself on the podium with all the related euphoria. It worked particularly well on nasty weather days when no sane person was out in the open. That’s when I had my most convincing sessions. That’s when I developed the capacity to pull past the rest of the field. Had I not reached the podium, I would still have had all those days of being so fully alive.
Being a radically honest speed-learner (ideally embedded in a speed-learning culture) focused just beyond the successful outcome will give you the best possible shot at winning when it counts—whatever that means to you.
7 Performance Principles
- Practice fundamentals first and foremost. Without constant attention to the basics, your peak performance will fall apart under peak pressure. I was still practicing basic forward strokes throughout my Olympic year.
- Start low to leap high. The peak of your pyramid is directly proportional to the breadth of the base. If your base is wide, you’ll have the stability necessary to leap for an exceptional peak.
- Growth happens during recovery. Training breaks you down. The goal of training—increased capacities—happens during recovery. To increase physical capacity try acupuncture, massage, and hot soaks. For mental and emotional improvement, study your logbook, watch your videos, and have long conversations about what’s working and what’s not. And, of course, create time to leave it all behind with meditation, movies, and pure fun.
- Be stronger than your habits. Complex movement patterns done consciously by the mind look awkward and disjointed, so they need to be committed to the body’s memory, usually through continuously optimized repetition. At the same time, growing, learning, and performing depend heavily on your collaboration with your subconscious mind and your body intelligence. The goal is to become aware of your own autopilot.
- Love discomfort. Realize that discomfort and pain is just information and learn to expand and even smile into it. Once, when I first started training with a heart rate monitor, I practiced to keep my pulse constant while pulling at a maximum effort. I pulled as hard as I could, unconsciously tensing my body with each stroke. Eventually I noticed the tension, relaxed the rest of my body, and my pulse dropped 10 beats for the same level of effort. Being open and relaxed, I could pull even harder and embrace more discomfort! Keep in mind that elite athletes tend to be naturally resilient to physical pain, but psychological and emotional pain are often another story. Opening to that kind of pain is where these performers gain an edge.
- Embody flow. To be in the flow is about letting your whole self drive your actions—when body, mind, and emotions become coherent. You have to learn to let your mind take the backseat. At that time, the experience is total awakening.
- Feel like a winner. A result doesn’t make one a winner, but the moment-to-moment decision to find the good in anything and to get better and better does!
Winners don’t compete
Competition implies there is someone else—and that takes you out of yourself and out of the moment. Being a winner is not in a result, but in an attitude and belief. In fact, you are not stacking the odds in your favor if you hope for a race result to turn you into a winner. Winners show up expecting to win and their only attention is on themselves. Everything and everyone else is just a piece of the puzzle.
Winning is being a great loser
A big part of coaching is teaching people to accept feedback—to get out of the ego perspective of winning and losing and into the learner’s perspective. Losing is valuable information about what may not work and what needs improvement. Winning can be less valuable because it often blocks learning.
Everything matters and nothing matters
Like love, winning matters more than anything—so you have to let it go. Continually move beyond emotional judgment and work to notice what helps and what hinders your progress.
Find Your Own Mind/Body Practice
“He just can’t sit still—for even a minute!” is something I heard a lot as a child, and I was very lucky that nobody gave me drugs for hyperactivity. I loved bouncing around, and I couldn’t understand why others were so static. But once I decided to race seriously, I realized that I needed to take control of my performances, which were all over the place, just like me.
At age 14, I took a six-week, evening course at the local college in a mind/body relaxation technique called Autogenic Training, in which one systematically learns to make parts of the body feel warm or heavy. I don’t remember why I chose this modality—probably just because it was available—but I remember two things: My fellow students were 40 or 50 years older than I, and my life changed for the better after I started practicing AT.
To this day I attribute my successes in no small part to the foundation I got from the training. Becoming more conscious of mind/body connections not only helped with my athletic performance, it helped me at school and in daily life—and it helped my grandma, who could finally have a conversation with me in which I wasn’t bouncing off the walls. AT is still part of my practice.
Oliver Fix is a member of the USA Canoe/Kayak High Performance Committee working on the 2016 Olympics, as well as a professional life coach. A video of his perfect run at the 1995 World Championships can be found at OliverFix.com.