Christian: In this interview, I’m joined by Ben Hunt-Davis. Ben is a triple Olympia, Olympic Champion 2000 with the GB Men’s Rowing Eight, and is now helping corporations to include Olympic principles to become successful.
Ben: Thanks much. Thanks for inviting me on your podcast, Christian. It’s great to be here.
The story behind “Will it make the boat go faster”
Christian: Ben, I have been looking forward to this interview for a long time because I’ve seen that principle of “Will it make the boat go faster” something like 10 years ago in a presentation at a conference I was attending, and I thought it’s such a great phrase. Who came up with this principle, what’s the story behind it and where did it all start?
Ben: It all started while I was in the British rowing team. For seven years, we lost everything we did. With two years to go before the Sydney Olympics, we agreed as a group in the eight-man boat, that we would make changes.
For seven years, we lost everything we did. With two years to go before the Sydney Olympics, we agreed as a group, that we would make changes.
We agreed that what was most important was winning. That’s what we wanted to do and everything we did had to make the boat go faster. If what we were going to do or say wasn’t going to make the boat go faster, we just shouldn’t do it.
We just started using the question then the whole time, “will it make the boat go faster?” And since then I’ve written a book called, “Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?” I started a business called “Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?” And I use it quite a lot.
We agreed that what was most important was winning, and everything we did had to make the boat go faster. We just started using the question then the whole time, “will it make the boat go faster?”
Christian: The nice thing about it is, that it can be applied to so many sports. I mean, me being in the sport world it’s so easy. For example, I work with cycling so you can ask yourself, “Okay, whatever intervention I do or we do, will it make the bike go faster?”
Ben: Definitely. It can be applied to all sorts of different sports or other situations too.
Christian: Really cool.
His darkest moment
Christian: In your athletic life, what was your darkest moment?
Ben: My darkest moment was probably at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. The season leading up to the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 was probably the hardest year I had. We trained incredibly hard.
We knew that we were thin on talent. We had huge problems with illness and injury all through the summer. We missed out on a place on the final by a thin margin and for four years I’d poured my heart and soul into it.
I’d done the Barcelona Olympics 1992 and I’d been determined that the next time I’d win and I’d get a medal or I’d certainly get a medal if not win. We didn’t even make the final. That was really tough. It was really horrible.
I’d been determined that the next time I’d get a medal if not win. We didn’t even make the final. That was really tough. It was really horrible.
Christian: How did you recover from it?
Ben: Partly through time, over the next few months. I also remember quite clearly about 20 to 40 minutes after we crossed the line, there was a friends and family area where you could go and meet your parents. I remember me and some of my crew mates with our parents and people absolutely devastated.
I remember seeing the Russians come in and the Russian crew, they look the same as me. They look the same and they’d just beaten us by less than a meter. They were Olympic finalists and we weren’t and actually, they went on to get a bronze medal and just looking at them and looking at me, I was thinking that I couldn’t see the difference.
I couldn’t see the difference, so I asked myself if they can do it, why can’t I? Shortly after the race there was that kind of moment of thinking, maybe me and then time. Time to think about it, time to get over it and time to start planning.
I remember seeing the Russian crew come in and they’d just beaten us by less than a meter, and they went on to get a bronze medal and just looking at them and looking at me, I was thinking that I couldn’t see the difference. So I asked myself if they can do it, why can’t I?
Christian: And I’m not torturing you too much, but from my research, it got even worse in 1998.
Ben: Yes. I spent most of my time in the British rowing team in eight. The eight was normally the bottom boat. In Britain, then the top guys went into either the four or the two-man boat. The next two guys went into the two or the four man boats, which ever it was and then the bottom guys went into the eight.
After the 1996 Olympics, I managed to get out of the eight and I got into the two-man boat at the World Championships in 1997 and came seventh or fifth, which was bad, but not as bad as it had been. The next year I was told that I could be in the two-man boat again, but I was put in the eight.
I didn’t want to be in the eight; the eight was rubbish. I didn’t want to be in it. Actually through the season, we were doing okay and then at the World Championships, we missed out on the final again and we ended up finishing seventh, outside the final.
I didn’t want to be in the eight; the eight was rubbish.
I had a lot of bad days. That was another bad day. But actually that was a start of something different. That’s actually where it started to change because that night after we had to race off for the seventh to 12th places, a whole lot of us went out that night.
We went to some clubs and bars and places in Cologne and we drank ourselves close to unconscious and we agreed that we could not be here again. We could not face being this bad again. We agreed we had to change. We had to take more risks and we had to be willing to do things differently so that we can get a better result.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Ben: That was quite easy. The medal ceremony at the Sydney Olympics. That was probably at about 10:45 or 10:50 on the morning of the 24th of September, 2000. That was pretty good.
Actually, part of the race was fantastic. The last bit of the race was horrible, but on crossing the finish line, I was dead. So I don’t remember feeling much then apart from relief, but a few minutes later, yes, it was absolutely fantastic. That was the highlight.
Check out the Men’s Rowing Eight Final at the Sydney 2000 Olympics
How they believed they could win the Olympic title against all odds
Christian: You alluded to it just a few minutes ago. You were quote unquote, “the leftovers of the GB rowing were put in the eight.” How did you guys believe you could do it to win the title?
Ben: We were very focused, methodical and practical about how we did it. One of the things we did is we had a wall on the gym, which we called an evidence wall, where we would put all sorts of bits of evidence to show that we were capable of doing it.
We were very focused, methodical and practical about how we did things.
Some them were force-time graphs. When you pull the handle of a row machine or in a boat, you produce a force time curve. I still got an image of one I had where the shape in September was the wrong shape.
The shape in October overlaid was still the wrong shape, but it was closer. The shape in November was still the wrong shape, but it was closer again. You could look over those three months and see that we were changing. We’re not there, but we were changing.
Therefore, presumably we could continue to change. We just kept looking for the reasons why we could do it. Very often we have people telling us why we can’t do it, or we tell ourselves that we can’t do it.
We chose to be very disciplined and we weren’t going to let other people tell us why we couldn’t do it. We were just looking for the reasons why we could improve, why we could get faster, why we could get stronger, why technically we could improve and we would monitor the evidence.
We just kept looking for the reasons why we could do it. Very often we have people telling us why we can’t do it, we chose to be very disciplined and we weren’t going to let other people tell us why we couldn’t do it.
I looked at other people. In rowing, you have to be tall. I’m 1.98 meter, which is kind of normal for a rower. I remember the Barcelona Olympics in the men’s double skulls, the Dutch were bronze medalists. I know them well.
They were Olympic Champions in 1988. They were Olympic Champions again in 1996 and in Barcelona they were bronze medalists and they’re both 1.97 to 1.99 meter. The Austrians were second. They’re both 1.97 meter and 1.98 meter and then the Australians won.
The Australians were tiny. For rowers, they were too short. There’s no way that they should have been capable of winning, but they had out thought everybody. Technically, they were just in a totally different league. They had found a way to win despite not having the height.
Now we didn’t have the strength, but at least we had the height. Comparing myself to the best people in the world, I would look at them and say that they’re better than me, so I couldn’t do it. But looking at these guys, Peter Anthonie and his mate from Australia, I was thinking that if they could do it, presumably I could do it.
I’ve got to be taller and stronger than them. So there must be a way for me to find a way. We just kept looking for the examples of how we could do it. We were very disciplined about it.
The ‘evidence paper’
Christian: I heard you speak about a sheet of paper that you had that listed all the reasons why you could win. First, question, who came up with the idea? Second question, how did it help and how often did you look at it?
Ben: While we were training in London, sometimes it was on the wall. When we went away, it was on a bit of paper. I think that our Sports Psychologist, a guy called Chris Shambrook, came up with the idea and we were adding to it regularly.
If we were having a really bad time or if we were having a bad week’s training and things were going wrong, then we’ll have a look at it and tell ourselves that it might feel bad at that moment, but we reminded ourselves of what was on the wall or on the bit of paper. We remembered the reasons why we could do it.
It might not have felt good at that moment, but we looked at all the evidence showing that we could. The night before the final, I remember one of the guys was in a bit of a state. He was incredibly nervous and then the two of us got out the sheet of paper and sat down with him.
We showed him and reminded him of all that we had done. I guess, at times of difficulty and doubt, it was really, really useful.
We reminded ourselves of what was on the bit of paper. We remembered the reasons why we could do it, and we were adding to it regularly.
Christian: If you would advise someone nowadays to have such a list, how many items would you put on it?
Ben: The more, the better. Why limit yourself? As you go along, some bits you might decide that that was a long time ago and that’s it’s not so relevant anymore. You might add the newer bit of information and that’s fine. But why limit yourself as to the reasons why you can achieve?
His advice to a younger Ben Hunt-Davis
Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 20, 30 years, what advice would you give a younger Ben?
Ben: Learn faster. As a younger athlete, I was motivated. I was very willing to work hard. I did work hard and I thought that working hard was enough. I thought that if I worked hard enough, it would be okay and it just wasn’t.
Working hard was not the answer. What I had to do was be smarter than the opposition. In London, when I got up to go training, if the first training session was set at 8:00 AM, the Australians and the New Zealanders who had trained there three, four, five training sessions that day and they would go to bed. They’re done.
The Russians were probably on their second session. The Italians, Dutch, Germans, French were all part way through their first session. The Canadians and Americans, they hadn’t woken up yet. But when they did wake up, they would do that three, four or five training sessions.
As a younger athlete, I was motivated and I thought that if I worked hard enough, it would be okay and it just wasn’t. Working hard was not the answer. What I had to do was be smarter than the opposition.
Was I going to work harder than them? Yes, everybody was working hard. What I had to do is learn faster. I had to make sure that I was improving slightly faster than all of the Australians and all of the Canadians.
How long does it take to achieve excellence
Christian: That leads perfectly into my next follow-up question. You guys turn things around within two years, which is quite a short timeframe. Do you think that excellence can be achieved in a much shorter time than we believe it can be achieved?
Ben: I don’t know how long we think we can achieve it in.
Christian: We have the 10,000-hour rule, for example, and of course, you guys had also put some work in before 1998, and what you just said, if you ask the right questions, you can improve faster and learn faster.
Ben: The 10,000-hour rule is interesting. Daniel Goldman and other writers talks about it. It is not Daniel Goldman. I can’t remember who.
Christian: Daniel Coyle, I think, from the Talent Code.
Ben: Yes, and other people have written about 10,000 hours. If you read Anders Erikson’s book, “Peak Performance”, who did the original research around the 10,000 hours, he said the 10,000 hours is fine, but actually you’ve got to be improving as you do and as you go. It’s got to be purposeful practice.
I see a lot of athletes who practice a lot who think 10,000 hours will make them win. That’s rubbish. It’s possible to do 10,000 hours of bad training. It’s much harder to do 10,000 hours of really good focused improvement. That’s much harder. That’s the bit that’s important.
I see a lot of athletes who practice a lot who think 10,000 hours will make them win. That’s rubbish. It’s possible to do 10,000 hours of bad training.
Now, whether it needs to be 10,000 hours, it depends how fast you can learn and how fast you can change. It’s easy to go into a training session and say that you’ve got to do 20 kilometers on the rowing machine or a certain number of lifts in the gym, or run this far and just do it and at the end say it was all right and then go have some food.
It’s much harder to say that you’ve got to do two 20 kilometers on the rowing machine. Then you have to ask yourself what you are going to improve that day and specifically, how you are going to make those changes. Then at the end, you have to ask yourself how well you did.
Really, let’s have a proper conversation and debrief about what are the bits that worked really well, what didn’t work so well, and how you’re going to get better next time. You have to be really specific about the key ingredients. The more thoughtful you are before and after, the more faster you can learn and change.
So if you’re relying on 10,000 hours, then that’s very smart. Whereas if you’re going, can I just learn faster than everybody else who is doing what I’m doing? Can I improve faster? Then you can dramatically reduce the amount of time you need to do.
His success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete and person?
Ben: I’m not sure how you define success because for the most of my rowing career, I was pretty unsuccessful. In nine years in the national team, I won three proper races. The races I won were 15 weeks before the Olympics, 12 weeks before the Olympics and the Olympics.
I’m not sure how you define success because for the most of my rowing career, I was pretty unsuccessful.
The habits are hard work and then the next bit is learning. There are a few things. There is bounce-back-ability that we spoke about. This is the ability to recover from setbacks and to get back on your feet and try again.
They’re really important, but the most important one is about learning. Being willing to plan and review really carefully and well, that’s most important to happen.
How to make sure that conversations stay relevant
Christian: You reported that you rowers were talking so much with each other and apparently a few athletes made fun of you. Nowadays, there seems to be a trend that less meetings should be held because they are unproductive. How did you make sure that conversations were always relevant?
Ben: That’s always a challenge. It’s easy to talk too much. It’s easy for everybody in the group. When you have the nine people in the boat, plus one or two coaches, for everybody to repeat the same thing or sometimes you get people arguing with each other for no real point, or my ego dictates that I need to say something.
We had pretty clear rules of how to make sure what was said was relevant and useful for the group, rather than just for me. It’s easy to just make conversations too long or irrelevant, so we just kept coming back and asking if what each person was going to say, if it’s going to make the boat go faster.
We had pretty clear rules of how to make sure what was said was relevant and useful for the group.
We asked whether the number of words each one was going to use then if it was going to make the boat go faster. If you have something important and useful that we all need to know about, then please say it. If it’s not going to make the boat go faster, don’t say it.
But just thinking that we talked too much. We thought it was really important that we spoke. When we went out on the water and we were working on exactly how we lifted our hands, so the blade could go in the water. We had the same understanding of what we were trying to do, and we’re going to work on it in the same way.
We needed to discuss that and then we needed to review to make sure we were learning in the same way so other people didn’t bother going into that detail. They’ll just say that they would just work on something else. Go and do it. It was okay. So yes, it’s possible to have too much talking, but I think very often people don’t talk about the right things enough.
How to create a culture of challenging ideas and brutal honesty
Christian: In the same podcast, I heard you talking about, creating a culture of challenging ideas and brutal honesty. My question to you, I’ve worked in Britain a few years, some- 10 years ago – and for a younger Christian, it always seemed that it’s more important to do things right than do the right things.
Meaning being polite is more important than challenging ideas. That was my impression. Was it difficult for you, if this is the culture you were brought up into establish a culture that is different?
Ben: Yes, it took time. In the British culture as in lots of other culture, being really honest and giving good feedback is difficult. I might say something to you, Christian that could offend you. If I say you could do something better, you could be thinking that you’re trying to do your best, but I don’t see it.
It’s a bit difficult for me to say it, and it’s difficult for you to listen too, so very often we don’t bother. Whereas our view was, if we lost at the Olympics, we were going to be absolutely devastated. We would be frustrated and disappointed.
We thought it’s best to just have little bits of discomfort before. If we had to be a bit uncomfortable by asking someone why they didn’t think about doing something and they’re a bit uncomfortable hearing the message compared to the huge mountain of discomfort we’ll get when we lose, what do we want to do?
We thought it’s best to just have little bits of discomfort before, than the huge mountain of discomfort we’ll get when we lose.
Rather than worrying about how I feel right now, let’s worry about how fast the boat is going to go the day of the Olympic final. Yes, it took time to build a culture of openness and honesty, where everybody in the group, athletes, physiologists, psychologists, boatman could be honest and tell each other that they heard them saying something, but they could do it better. It took time and it was hard, but it was important to do.
How to find the right action points to work on your goals
Christian: I also have a follow-up question. You talked about goal setting and a lot of people talk about goal setting, but what I really found is interesting, you added to it, that you need to also find the right action points to work on these goals and to find the needle movers. How do you do that?
Ben: We had what we call a layered approach to goal setting. We had four layers. The top layer for us was the goal of being Olympic champions. People told us we were crazy, there was no way we could do it. We called it our crazy goal and that’s what we wanted to do.
We had what we call a layered approach to goal setting.
Underneath that, we had the concrete level, which was all the different measures that we needed to do. This was like the classic SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely – boat speeds, times on the rowing machine, weights, all sorts of concrete measures that we had to achieve.
Below that we had what we call the control layer. What are the areas that we can control how we’re doing that will feed into achieving the concrete thing? It’s pretty similar across a lot of sports.
I think there’s a physical, but there’s also a sports specific technical bit. There’s tactics, equipment, team, mindset, and a handful of other things. We needed to know what we wanted to achieve in each of those.
Then we broke it down to the everyday layer. So today, rather than just being 20 kilometers a set heart rate, what am I really trying to achieve by that? So how is this going to work for the physiological box?
We had to figure out how it was going to work for the technical and the tactical box. We needed to know how we were going to work on the mindset. So everything I do, I’m clear on how it is going to ultimately help me to win, rather than just doing what’s in front of me and just doing the program with everything.
Do we know how it is going to actually make the boat go faster? Because I think some people set it for years. I had a goal of winning. I worked really hard, but was every session, every day done in a way to actually make me win or was it just me working hard? For us, there had to be a connection between what I’m going to do right here and now and the ultimate goal.
There had to be a connection between what I’m going to do right here and now and the ultimate goal.
Christian: And then out of personal interest, how many steps in between can be there because very often we find that people say, this or that does make sense because there is a certain chain of events, seven, eight steps down the road, then somewhere the dots connect. I would think, ideally it should be as short as possible.
Ben: The more detail you get into the more complex it becomes. When an athlete goes out to train, they should know why they’re doing what they’re doing so they can make sure they’re doing it in the right way to help them achieve the goal.
If a sports scientist has a more in-depth knowledge and there’s a greater chain of events, it’s going to happen. However, the athlete needs to have an understanding of the links and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Having too many steps makes it too complicated and too vague. But it’s also got to be realistic and thorough the way it’s done.
His morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Ben: While training, I had a pretty clear morning routine. I get up, shower, get ready and eat. For racing days, it always includes shaving as well. I really didn’t bother unless I was racing.
I thought about when I was going to eat, how much I was going to eat and what I was going to eat and when I was going to come and train. I had various measures.
I thought about when I was going to eat, how much I was going to eat and what I was going to eat and when I was going to train.
But my morning routine was very simple. I didn’t have any superstitions or whatever. It was just about getting up and getting on with the day.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?
Ben: For important days I get up quite early and I want to make sure I’m really well prepared. If I’ve got an important meeting, conference or something, I will have planned it beforehand. I want to get up early, have breakfast fairly early and have some clear time before things happen to get my head in gear and to get the other things out of the way so I can really focus on what I need to do.
I want to have some clear time before things happen to get my head in gear and to get the other things out of the way so I can really focus on what I need to do.
I will do some visualization of how I want to do it and I’ll practice. If I’m speaking at a conference, I will spend a fair bit of time standing, talking to myself, practicing what I’m going to do.
If I have a meeting where I need to present different budgets or versus say whatever I’m doing, then I will practice how I’m going to do it. I make sure I’ve thought through as many angles as possible. So I want time and space in the morning to really get my head in gear.
The importance of luck
Christian: You just talked about planning and practicing again. I heard that one podcast and I’ve thought it was really interesting. You said you planned meticulously back in the days; you prepared really well.
You didn’t leave any stone unturned, but in the end you got lucky. How much can we rely on planning, practice and leaving no stone unturned and how much do we have to hope that things fall in place?
Ben: It was the golf for Gary Player who had a saying, “The harder I train the luckier I get.” It was when he hit a shot out of a bunker and got it into the hole. There was a reporter or someone who said that that was a lucky shot.
His point was that he spent many hours practicing that shot, so it’s lucky that it went in because I always went into it. The better, the preparation, the more ready you are for the lucky break.
The better, the preparation, the more ready you are for the lucky break.
We were lucky in that no one was ill the week of the Olympics. We were lucky that our boat wasn’t damaged two months before the Olympics. Three months before the boat was damaged and it took a month to get a new one, but we were lucky a new one turned up a day before the container was due to leave for Australia.
Louis, the strongest guy in the boat, injured his back 12 weeks before the Olympics and was out for four weeks. We were lucky that it wasn’t six weeks. We were lucky that when we lost the heat, we had gone through a whole lot of different scenario planning and we were very good at bouncing back from setbacks so that we could get on and do the next race really well.
If we hadn’t done that preparation, then losing the heat would have been a total disaster as it was losing the heat was actually really good for us because it spurred us onto the next thing, but only because we had prepared for it. Planning and preparation mean you get lucky more often.
Christian: I like that answer.
How they kept believing that you could win despite of failures along the way
Christian: The next one I have here is actually what you just talked about, you lost the heat, you got through the repechage into the final. You also said you were planning to destroy everyone in the heat, which then didn’t happen. How did you guys keep believing that you could win?
Ben: The way we’d come on about our training was very meticulous. When things went right, we were pretty sure we knew why they were going well and when things went wrong, we were pretty sure that we knew why they’d gone badly.
The way we’d come on about our training was very meticulous. When things went right, we were pretty sure we knew why they were going well and when things went wrong, we were pretty sure that we knew why they’d gone badly.
In the days before the heat, we got nervous and we stopped talking to each other, which was stupid. We should have known better. We’d spoken about maintaining communication. We should have got it right, but we didn’t.
In the heat, the Australians disappeared and we couldn’t catch them. I remember crossing the line thinking if the Aussies are going to only beat us by 2.8 seconds when we rowed that badly, God help them when we rowed properly.
It was very clear as we were racing in the heat that we were rowing like a bag of shit. It was just not good and whereas the US who were in the other heat, who were the reigning World Champions, they’d been unbeaten for three years, they lost the heat and so normally on an eight, you have eight riggers to hold the holes.
They went off to the river to train for the next few days, with 11 riggers on their boat, trying to work out how to put things right. Their build up to the Olympics had been built on power and aggression without much process.
When things went wrong, they didn’t know how to put it right. For us, when things went wrong, we were pretty good at figuring out what it was and what we had to put right.
Losing the heat, it was very easy for us to understand what we’d done wrong and therefore what changes we needed to make for the heat. Other people were saying that we had lost and we couldn’t do it. We knew what we had to do and that’s all that mattered.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Ben: There are a few things. Part of it is planning, that is knowing how you’ll deal with certain eventualities. We had talked about it the day before our race.
The top British boat was racing with Steve Redgrave, five times Olympic champion, Matt Pinsent – or he was to become five times Olympic champions – Matt Pinsent, who was to get his third gold medal that day and two other guys who were going to get their first gold medal that day.
Everybody in Britain was looking at Steve becoming a five times Olympic champion. We had discussed how it would impact us if they lost. The simple answer was it wouldn’t because they’re one boat, we’re a different boat.
If they’re slow, why should it impact how fast we are? But we had gone through lots of different eventualities. If something went wrong, we would have an answer. We’d have an idea of how we want to respond.
That was one bit of planning. Another bit was being able to accept what went wrong, and if something’s going wrong, you can’t change it. We can beat ourselves up all we like, but we can’t change it.
We lost the heat. I can’t change it. It’s in the past. How do I just accept it and then move forward? We spent quite a lot of time working on ‘Bouncebackability’.
How do I just accept it and then move forward? We spent quite a lot of time working on ‘Bouncebackability’.
We wanted to be the most resilient crew at the Olympics. No matter what went wrong, could we recover faster than anyone else? We worked on it. If something went wrong, how would we use that to make us go faster?
Losing the heat was actually really good for us. It gave us more energy, more resolve, more determination, and clearer thinking. It was a good thing that happened. We didn’t want it to happen and we didn’t plan it, but we turned it into something good. And that’s all you can do.
Christian: I like the word ‘Bouncebackability’.
Check out Ben outlining the concept of ‘Bouncebackability’.
How to get through tough times
Christian: I also heard you talk about, because you have been Olympic champion, you went through the struggle in Sydney. Now, you and your teammates, if you face tough times in life, you’d say we already got through the tough times back then, we can get through it now as well.
There are only so many Olympic champions in the world. For us mere mortals, if we go through tough times, what should we hang on to?
Ben: We have all been through tough times before. All of us we’ve all had challenges. We’ve all had problems. We’ve all had times where it’s been really hard, where things have gone wrong.
Remembering that the tough times will pass is pretty good. When we’re upset, when we’re disappointed, it’s not a permanent state. It’s a temporary thing we’re going through.
- Also check out the interview ‘I was 2 points short of achieving all my goals.’ With Wimbledon champion Pat Cash https://christianbosse.com/pat-cash-interview/ , and how he explains that he learned that the bad times will pass and he got a tattoo to remind him of that.
The trick is to keep moving rather than stop and dwell on what’s gone wrong, keep moving and reflecting back to what are the other times that we’ve managed before. What are the other hard situations we’ve got through before? And they’re there.
The trick is to keep moving rather than stop and dwell on what’s gone wrong.
That’s part of the evidence wall that I spoke about earlier, knowing that we’ve managed with this situation, we’ve managed that situation and we’ve all had tough times. So can we just draw on the fact that I could do that and I could do that? So therefore I can probably manage this and it’s not permanent. Things will get better.
His role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Ben: I’m not sure. When I was at school and when I was in the national team, there were some Olympians I looked to. I thought that they were amazing, but they were totally different from me. I could never be anything like them.
They weren’t my role models. I thought they were incredible. The kind of people who helped me were the people who are just a bit better than me.
From playing rugby or rowing in school, the people who are maybe in the year above me, who were just a bit better than me, I was looking at them thinking that I could do what they’re doing and I would beat them. In the national team or trying to get into the national team, there were people who were just a bit faster than me. I looked at them and I tell myself that I can beat them.
I just wanted to beat the person who was a bit in front of me. And I kept doing that until there weren’t so many people in front.
I would never look at the people who are the very best, because they’re just really good. I’m not sure I can beat them, but the people who are just one or two steps ahead, I kept looking at them thinking that I could beat them. Then I look at the next person and tell myself that I could beat them too.
I didn’t really have a traditional role model idea of somebody who I wanted to be like, because I just looked at all these people who are amazing and thought they’re just better than me. I don’t know if I can do that.
I just wanted to beat the person who was a bit in front of me. And I kept doing that until there weren’t so many people in front.
What made Steven Redgrave so special
Christian: You mentioned the name, Steve Redgrave, who won 5 consecutive Olympic titles. What do you think made him special?
Ben: There was a German rowing magazine that ran an article of rowing greats in the mid-1990s while Steve was still competing It looked at all sorts of multiple rowing Olympic medalists from Norway, from Finland, from Russia, from Germany, from the US, from Australia and Redgrave was in there.
They looked at a number of different things. They looked at peak power, endurance, mindset, and technical ability. There are a number of different measures and they scored all of these great rowers out of 10 and Redgrave didn’t get a 10 on any of them.
I remember him being at the club, just being furious. He was so good and they hadn’t given him a 10 on any of these things. He didn’t even get that many nines, but he got eights on every single one of them.
There were athletes out there who were more powerful, who were better at endurance, but the guy who was at the top power wise, was low on everything else. Redgrave was just very good at everything. He was physiologically very gifted with power and endurance.
He had a really good feel for the rhythm of the boat. He was very competitive. He was good at learning. He was good at everything. Not the best at anything but better than everybody at all of them.
Christian: I heard something similar about Michael Jordan where they say, he’s not the best dunker, or the best at other things, but he was very good in every of the categories.
The best advice he has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Ben: The crew coach I had leading up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. I remember when we were starting to go through this change we were going through with two years before the senior Olympics, I had a conversation with him one day.
He observed that I was the most experienced person in the crew. I had been in the team for longer than everyone else. I had also lost more races than everybody else, which is nice of him. He said he wanted to understand why I had lost all those races.
If I wanted to go faster, I had to take personal responsibility for getting faster.
He asked me to think about it and we would talk about it the following day. I came back the next day with a long list of the reasons why I lost.
It’s because the Germans were just better. It’s because we didn’t have very much funding and in UK our equipment was bad. We had bad weather in the UK. There were lots of reasons.
He kept asking what other reasons there were. Eventually he asked what was the one thing in common with every single defeat I had. There was only one thing in common and that was me.
Actually, if I wanted to go faster, I had to take personal responsibility for getting faster. I couldn’t leave it to the coach to tell me what to do. I had to make it happen. One of the things we did in these last two years is we took far more personal responsibility for learning, improving, changing, for doing it, rather than thinking the coach gets paid, it’s their job to make me fast because that’s not the case.
The importance that athletes need to hear the same message from every member of the team
Christian: I heard you talking on a podcast about the importance that athletes need to hear the same message from every member of the support staff. Whilst I can’t agree more, can you talk us through why that is important?
Ben: We had a clear approach of what we were trying to do. We were trying to row in a certain rhythm and style. In order to get from where we were to winning, we had laid out an approach. It was a way of doing things; a way that we had to work together; a way we had to discuss things; a way we had to learn things.
If somebody was coming in and telling us to do things differently, it just wasn’t going to help. Hearing different voices say the same thing in different ways, now that was useful, and hearing different perspectives was very useful, but not being told to do different things.
Hearing different voices say the same thing in different ways was useful, and hearing different perspectives was very useful, but not being told to do different things.
If the physiologist or the S&C person was telling us to lift a weight in a certain way that didn’t fit in with how we were trying to move the boat, then that would just make us go slower. We needed everybody to have the same view.
We needed the guy who drove our boat trailer around the world and looked after our boats to act in the same team way as our crew coach, as me, as the other people in the boat. Because if we had different ways of doing things, different rules for different people, then the whole thing just dissipates and it doesn’t work.
A typical training day in the life of an Olympic rowing champion
Christian: Back in the days, how did a typical training day look like?
Ben: A typical day, I get up, have breakfast and go down to the training center in London. I do the first training session, go and have breakfast. It’s the first training session on the water. The second training session after a second breakfast, might’ve been on the water.
I go home for lunch and have an afternoon sleep. I wake up, have small food, go down, probably do an hour session or 70 minutes session on the rowing machine, take a short break, then weight training.
I go home for dinner, then I go to bed and sleep for eight hours. Sometimes it was just one session in the morning and then the two in the afternoon; sometimes two in the morning, two in the afternoon; it varied.
How he has taken performance principles from sport into helping corporations nowadays with his company “Will It Make The Boat Go Faster”
Christian: You have identified three main principles of performance, and it is having a clear goal and knowing the action steps to get to that goal. Number two is reviewing learning and making adjustments. And number three is working together or working with other people or working together.
You have taken these principles now into helping corporations. Can you tell us more about what you’re doing and how you help?
Ben: With the sports team, everybody’s got to have a similar idea of what they’re trying to do. What’s the goal?
Is the goal to have fun together? Is that the main thing, or is the goal to qualify for the Olympics or is the goal trying to win the Olympics? What’s the goal and everybody’s got to be aligned behind it?
Then in a business it’s the same. In so many companies you go into, if you ask 10 people, what is the goal, what’s most important, you’ll get 10 different answers. People are surprised that everyone’s doing different things.
In so many companies you go into, if you ask 10 people, what is the goal, what’s most important, you’ll get 10 different answers. People are surprised that everyone’s doing different things.
Whereas if you’ve got the same goal, then you can make better decisions about how you should spend your time. You can make better decisions about how you should answer different questions.
If you and I have got very different views about what we’re trying to achieve, then we can do whatever we want and not, if we’ve got the same idea, then we can answer the question, will it make the boat go faster? The clarity of direction has got to be the starting point; the kind of reviewing and learning.
In sport, most people are pretty good at separating out results and performance and processing it. The language might change, but the result is what you get when you cross the finish line and the performance or the processes, what you do in order to achieve that.
Looking at, and if you watch most athletes or coaches interviewed after a game or a competition or a match, most of them won’t talk so much about the result. They’ll talk about the performance or the process because we know the results.
They’ll say that their players could have done this or they could have done that. Or they may say that they did this bit really well, but this bit not so well. In business, people just seem to talk about the profit they made and the deal they sold.
This means it’s quite hard to continue to get the results because people start thinking that they got the result, therefore they’re good enough. However, they should be saying that they got the deal, but actually then assess how well they did what they’re were doing.
You can always do something a bit better. You can always be better at doing what you’re doing, which gives you a better chance of getting the next result.
In sports, it’s kind of obvious and we do it and people need to do it in business. Certainly from my perspective, challenging everything the whole time to make sure it’s making the boat go faster is easy in theory, but it’s quite hard to do actually.
To make sure you’re learning every single session and to make sure you’re learning faster than people all around the world is hard. It’s an easy idea, but it’s hard at the end of every session to be asking how well you did, what worked really well and what didn’t work so well.
Theoretically, it’s easy, practically it’s hard, so a lot of people don’t do it. It is good to have the right people around you. There are a number of sessions I finished, where I couldn’t be bothered to review or I couldn’t be bothered to go through it, but there would always be somebody telling me that I had agreed to do it, therefore I need to come and do it.
The days I was really struggling and I couldn’t see the steps forward, there was always somebody to go ask me a different question. There was somebody to give me a kick up the backside, to put their arm around me, to help me with the next step, whether they be in the boat or outside the boat.
To make sure you’re learning faster than people all around the world is an easy idea, but it’s very hard to do.
The theory behind ‘Bouncebackability’, the theory behind kind of learning and performance, it’s all really easy, but it’s hard to do. Very often we need people to help us do it. Not many people do it alone.
Having the right people to help support, encourage, push, cajole at the right time, is really important. Therefore, those three things work. They work in sport, they work in life, they work at home. Now they work in business and it’s kind of the same.
His book “Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?”
Christian: Your corporation is called, “Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?” You’ve written a book called, “Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?”.
You mentioned that every chapter in the book starts with a story and then it’s followed up with an action plan to come to a solution or solve a problem. Is it something like a story from your athletic career and then the action plan, it’s more the experience you got from the business and corporation side?
Ben: I’ve written it with a friend and the first half of each chapter is a story about my time rowing. Whether it be the morning of the Olympic final, actually at the Olympic final, whether it be Christmas Eve from a few years before, whether it be a training camp in Switzerland, there are all sorts of different stories of things that we went through while I was rowing.
Then the second half of the chapter, my colleague, Harriet, with who I wrote the book, she goes into what this actually means for us in the real world. I tell a story about resilience and ‘Bouncebackability’ and Harriet then goes into the key things you need to do.
There’s a bit about planning, there’s a bit about action and there’s a bit about taking action and this is kind of some more detail behind it. Hopefully, with the story, people find the story compelling and interesting and enjoyable, and then they ask what’s more detailed as to how they actually do it. That’s the thinking behind it.
Christian: The action plans and strategies, everyone can apply it to the situation they are currently in, in life.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed? 00:52:00
Ben: How about Jürgen Gröbler? He was the Head of British rowing. He’s coached boats to win gold medals in 1976, 1980, 1988, 1992, 1996, 2000 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2016. He’s a German by birth. He coached in East Germany up until 1990. He then came to the UK.
He is a really interesting guy. In terms of the number of Olympics, he’s coached people to win gold medals at, I think he’s the most successful Olympic coach ever. You should call Juergen.
Christian: That would be awesome. Thanks for the nomination.
What’s going on in the life of Ben Hunt-Davis at this moment in time
Christian: What’s going on in the life of Ben at this moment in time?
Ben: I’m just finishing my holiday in Italy. Actually, today is a working day, working from home. Now, working remotely with COVID is an easy thing to do. So whether I’m working from home in London or my mother-in-law’s house in Italy. Today’s a working day in Italy before I head home in a few days’ time.
Where can you find Ben Hunt-Davis
Christian: Where can people find you?
Ben: Willitmaketheboatgofaster.com. It’s a long one, but it’s easy to remember.
Ben Hunt-Davis’ social profiles
Will It Make The Boat Go Faster Website
Will It Make The Boat Go Faster on LinkedIn
Will It Make The Boat Go Faster on Facebook
Will It Make The Boat Go Faster Youtube
Ben on LinkedIn
Ben on Twitter
Christian: Absolutely. Ben, you have been generous with your time. I asked some challenging questions, but you did really well. Thanks a lot.
Ben: Thank you very much, Christian. And thanks for asking me. Good luck with everything.