Christian: Today I’m joined by Piotr Haczek. Piotr is double Olympian, double Olympic finalist in the 4 * 400 meter relay in track and field competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and Sydney 2000 Olympic Games representing Poland.
Amongst his biggest achievements are the World Champion title in 1994 in the 4 * 400 meters relay and the World Indoor Champion title in 2001, in the 4 * 400 meters relay.
Piotr now runs his business consultancy where he applies sporting principles to the business world.
Piotr: Welcome, thanks for the invitation.
Christian: Piotr, after your career, you also moved into coaching, and you’ve been National Coach in different countries like Scotland, Denmark and Poland?
Piotr: Yes, actually when I retired, I started working with disabled athletes, Paralympians. Actually that was not short as it was one and a half year. It was funny because I’m coming from the running events and I have the biggest success with the shot putter who still follows the career of the guy who was coming.
He won a couple of Paralympic medals, and he was a World Champion. That was when I started my coaching career, since then I have also coached at different clubs and federations, I am mentoring people and doing different roles in track and field.
His best Olympic experience
Christian: If you look back at your two Olympics, which one was the better experience? The 1996 Atlanta Olympics or the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games?
Piotr: They were both different, at the 1996 Olympics, it was only 3 years since I started my athletics career. I started to compete in 1993. It was a very quick progression and it was surprising that I went to the 1996 Olympics. I think Atlanta was more fun and enjoyable for me, I was happy to be there.
Sydney was with a different approach. I was going for my second Olympics with a different approach than the first one. We went with the goal of getting onto the podium.
The Atlanta 1996 was more fun and enjoyable for me, I was happy to be there. Sydney 2000 I went was with a different approach. We went with the goal of getting onto the podium.
We as a group, as a 4 * 400 meter team, we went with a completely different approach in 1996 because before, no relays had come from Poland for a number of years. It was like a reboot of the new generation of the 400 meter runners from Poland., it was the first Olympic after many years.
Then Sydney was a completely different approach with the group that we prepared with very strictly and disciplined for four years. Maybe I will talk later about that, but it was more professional when we went to Sydney with a mindset programmed to be successful.
His darkest moment
Christian: If you look back at your athletic career, what was your darkest moment?
Piotr: The Sydney 2000 Olympics was the darkest moment. After the 1996 Olympics, we knew that our coach’s approach was that we will have difficulties to get a medal as individuals and therefore we started to focus on the relays.
We knew as individuals, that there were only 4 spots and you need to be in top shape to go to the Olympics. We spend 4 years preparing for the Olympics, we sacrificed a lot, including our family lives, we spend almost a 1000 days for that one moment.
We spend 4 years preparing for the Olympics, we sacrificed a lot, including our family lives, we spend almost a 1000 days for that one moment.
The three seasons before in 1997, 1998 and 1999 we showed that we were making good progress. We ran the fourth fastest time in history at that point, in 1999 we got the silver medal at the World Championships in Sevilla, it was upgraded later to the gold and we knew we were ready to fight in Sydney.
But what happened in the final was that one of my colleagues made a mistake. We were on lane eight in the final and he made a mistake. During the change, he went out and the organizer made a mistake because they left the boxes with the number close to the track. He hit that and did what we call the tiger jump and started running again.
When you look at the times from the speed, normally we run much faster individually. The guy who actually was number five in the final ran 46:04 [mins], the next guy ran 46:05 [mins] and I ran only 45:02 [mins], which was average for me because normally I ran the last four years 44:06 or even [mins] faster speeds.
That was the darkest moment, we lost the medal chance. We knew we could get the medal, we knew it wouldn’t be easy, but we could get a medal with a fight. The medal would have been important for us as athletes, but also the Polish rules actually say when you get an Olympic medal, you get life pension.
So, that would have been good also for a kind of stability for the future. That was a dark moment when you see, that you sacrificed a lot and you lose that in like seconds, but that happens. That’s life; that’s the brutality of sports.
When you see, that you sacrificed a lot and you lose that in like seconds. That’s life; that’s the brutality of sports.
Christian: How did you recover from that moment?
Piotr: Actually, I’m very quick to move forward. So three hours after, I spoke with my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and she was trying to explain to me that life is not ending with that. I told her that that was yesterday and now is a new day and we are going forward. That’s the sport.
I knew I couldn’t change anything, it didn’t matter that the box was on the track or not on the track. We cannot change the results or anything. You need to understand and you need to accept that sometimes, even you’re expecting something and you’re ready for something, that something can happen that is out of your control.
You need to understand and you need to accept that sometimes something can happen that is out of your control.
No one was blaming my colleague. I remember straight after the run, we went to the changing room and we just told him not to care about that. We told him that it was finished and nothing can happen then. It has always been sitting in us. I watch this race after 15 years for the first time today before this interview.
- Check out the 4 * 400 meters Olympic final at the Sydney 2000 Games
Sometimes it’s still sitting in the back of my head, but I do not care about that. We actually recovered as a group much quicker after that. Only 162 days after that, we won the World Indoors, so that was actually confirmation we’ve been ready to get and fight for these medals, but that had happened.
Christian: What happened 2004? You guys did not qualify?
Piotr: We didn’t qualify. I actually retired in 2003. Some of the guys were injured and I think that was the biggest problem with the group in 2002/2003. We didn’t get that good support from the Federation. , regarding the consolidation of what we had.
We said that all of the athletes still have time, so the Federation needs to look towards the future. And that’s sometimes the problem with some federations, you underperform maybe one or two years, people say that it’s gone and they’re looking for new guys.
In the period of the 4 years, every one of us sacrificed something whether it is study or life. Most of us wanted to actually do something different. In 2003, I had some injury problem and I decided that I wanted to finish and I want to move onto the other things in my life.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Piotr: That’s difficult to say because I had a lot of great moments since starting my professional career in 1994 to 2001 when I compete last time in the international championships. But one my biggest moment was my first under-18 Polish Championships, when I came as a no one and no one expected me to win.
My biggest moment was my first under-18 Polish Championships, when I came as a no one and no one expected me to win.
I actually started training in athletics in late 1993 and I qualified for the under 18 only Polish Championships. But the biggest problem for me was my first coach was coming from the military, the Special Forces. We didn’t expect that we would have progressed so fast.
So he arranged some parachuting camp for me and I had to go with the soldiers to do something fun. He wanted me to do something fun and I wanted to stick with him in the sport and physically improve.
But unfortunately, I qualify for the under-18 Polish Championships and I got an invitation to Regional Squads pre-camp and I went there I trained little bit. I had some fun with the camp as a young person and I went to this competition with no expectation.
My coach wasn’t there so some people were leading our team. They said that I was just coming to run and go home. I qualified for the finals in the first stage. Everyone said that it was tough and I would not go anymore.
The funny thing I won this Championships by three-hundredths. I think in the seven-hundredths seconds was the fifth guy, so it was a very tough race. The time was 49.99 so for the first time in my life I broke the 50 seconds. So I joined the club with the big 40 on the front and I said that’s maybe what I needed to do.
Maybe I need to look more in athletics. That was like the biggest moment and the opening door for my life. I never thought I would go to University with the sports and that kind of stuff. But that was changing all for me because I got invited to National Squads camps preparation.
From 1994 to 1995 I made good progress. In 1996 I made the time which gave the qualification for the relay. So that progression was fast and I think that’s the biggest moment what I will always remember.
It’s not all about the big moments, where you win medals, it’s about the small ones. I will say this moment changed my life until now.
It’s not all about the big moments, where you win medals, it’s about the small ones. This moment changed my life until now.
Christian: Then before 1993, what did you do in terms of sports?
Piotr: I played some soccer, football when I was 10, 11 or 12. I did nothing more. I play some volleyball in school. I actually wanted to play more volleyball than I wanted to do athletics. But I spend time with my friends outside playing football.
I lived in a small town south of Poland with a very close access to the mountains, so we spent a lot of times in the mountainside, climbing, running, catching, everything that we can do as a teenager when no iPads and no computers were available.
Christian: It was a different time.
Piotr: It was a different time. But that was the life that we got and we did the physical challenge almost every day to get something fun from our free time and from the school. Also, education, physical education in school was on different level, much more demanding than nowadays.
We did a lot of gymnastic, acrobatic, playing all the games and everything. So that was fun. I always enjoyed going to the physical education in the school from the very early stage to the very late stage. I have always been involved in the sport, but not professionally. I was not training or in any clubs, nothing like that.
His advice to a younger Piotr Haczek
Christian: If you could travel back in time, 10, 15 maybe now 20 or 25 years, what advice would you give a younger Piotr?
Piotr: 20 years back I would say get a good mentor. Learn from his mistakes. Ask him how he will do something and what to expect if something happen. I think that will be the best benefit for me if I had that mentor.
Get a good mentor, learn from his mistakes. Ask him how he will do something and what to expect if something happen.
I had a few people who were mentoring me. But I think they weren’t ready at that time for the kind of personality that I had at that moment in time. Therefore, now when I work with young people I try to give them the experience that I got in my 40 years’ life.
I tell them not to make mistakes and to prepare. I advise them that it is about them and not me. That’s the big advice I would give myself. Find a good mentor who knows everything.
Christian: That’s an interesting one. How would you go about it? How would you find a mentor? What would be the steps you take?
Piotr: I think we’ve been unlucky, in my generation of Polish athletics, there were not many big stars. And the generation we had before, I think the gap between us was too big and the Federation at that time, didn’t have something like that or providing us the guidelines.
We were lucky we had a kind of mental coach, which was one of our physios. He was more a physiotherapist than a mental coach. But he started to work with us on the mental side and we developed very strongly this part of our skills, but it wasn’t guiding as a mentor. It was part of it what we developed.
Mentoring, my coach trying to tell me something like that. I do, but I will say when we start to argue about something, I think he wasn’t equipped well enough with communication skills and that is where conflicts started.
At the end of my career, I had a big conflict with my national coach. We parted not as friends so to say, it took one year before we started speaking with each other again. Now we speak regularly every week or twice a week.
I’m trying helping him to not make some mistakes that we did and we’re good friends now. But I think because I was that a kind of character that was very strong, young and inexperienced in some areas and he was inexperienced in some areas. We didn’t find good solution in some conflicts and that maybe was when I stopped my career because I didn’t feel comfortable in something so I left.
So mentoring guidelines, or some guidelines that can help you or you can find the experience from the people who’ve been in this situation, can handle this situation, can help you with something.
That is the best advice for people. Always look for someone who is smarter than you or who knows something more than you know. Get this persons’ knowledge to you.
His success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete or person?
Piotr: I have never been afraid of opponents and I think that has been created through the mental training. When we prepared, I visualized all the scenarios, including the success. I always performed much better when it was tougher and when unexpected challenges were coming.
I have never been afraid of opponents, and I always performed much better when it was tougher and when unexpected challenges were coming.
In the very late stage of my career, I made some psychological tests, which actually confirm that in normal circumstances, I will do just 80 or 90 percent of my capacity. When it is tougher, harder or unexpected, I do one 130 percent.
So my habit was, that I needed to find the challenge, always. Therefore, for example, my coach, was always trying to put me where we need to fight on the relay body by body, when you need to push someone, sometimes get the space, in the rules and you get a good position.
We always say I have my PhD in elbows fighting on the track. So that was what brought me up to be successful. I was always looking for challenges in life. I’m always going to the uncomfortable zone because I’m feeling comfortable there.
I’m always going to the uncomfortable zone because I’m feeling comfortable there. Too easy is too boring.
Christian: Still today?
Piotr: Still today. Too easy is too boring for me sometimes and therefore I try to always find, the challenge. I do not need adrenaline. I need to do something. I need to improve myself by clearing this challenge because too easy is saying that I do almost nothing and I could better sleep.
His morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine? How did you get ready for the day or how do you get ready for the day at the moment?
Piotr: Yes, as a morning routine, we usually had some morning session, yoga or stretching or some walk or breathing exercise, which we do a lot. I’m thinking about the last few days about the challenges that I had.
Should I expect something coming in the future or what I learned from these challenges? Can I bring something to what I’m doing now or passing to the pier the next day, which will be easier or maybe easier it will help others and make much smoother life.
I’m thinking about the last few days about the challenges that I had. Should I expect something coming in the future or what I learned from these challenges?
So I try to review what I do. I try to always criticize myself finding what did I do wrong in the last few days?
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for important moments?
Piotr: In sports, we try to make the plans for everything. But as I use to say, plans are plans and lives are lives. I never stick with the plans if something unexpected happens. But I always prepare if something happened in the terror of the chaos you need to also be prepared.
Plans are plans and lives are lives. In the terror of the chaos you need to be prepared.
I always as myself ‘What can I face?’, ‘Which kind of challenges can I face?’, ‘Who do I need to speak with?’, ‘What I need to clear before that is not hanging on me and go on.’
How to approach the most grueling event in track & field
Christian: For those who are not fully familiar with track and field, the 400 meters is one of the most grueling events. So when you get ready for a competition, you know that there has to be a large amount of suffering. That can make people scared or that can make you go towards it. How did you deal with that?
Piotr: I think the most scary is the training for it, the competition in itself is not that hard. As I said, we do a lot of mental training, breathing exercise and relaxation. So one of thing that I always say to the people, when I went to Atlanta, first time in Olympics Atlanta, when I went to the relay qualification and I think there were 80,000 people in the stadium.
I only hear when the people touch the track, on the spikes when they ran. I didn’t hear this lot of voices from the people, USA, USA. Never ever. I was completely switched off and I focused on what I needed to do. I need to run fast. That’s what I need to get the good change over with my colleagues.
There were 80,000 people in the stadium, I didn’t hear anything, I was completely switched off and I focused on what I need to do.
That’s it! So we’re programmed and as I said, mental programming and the mental training. We do a lot of visualization and that training helped us to move us to another level mentally. We have never been afraid of the opponents, even we knew they were better. But we knew we were better as a group.
When we go on the track, we always had our hands around the shoulders, that was our tradition to go and show we are one unit, we are one group. Now, I can’t see the current Polish team doing that again. The 4 * 400 meter guys, there is more conflicts and that kind of the problem. We’ve been in a tough group.
We’ve been tough persons, but we were always been ready to fight. We never gave something for free to others. As I said, this mental training, we do that individually, but mainly we do it also as a group and we see what you can do.
We have never been afraid of the opponents, even we knew they were better. But we knew we were better as a group. We never gave something for free to others.
A lot of different challenges we do that people say visualization and mental training might be hocus-pocus, but I think before the semi-final in Atlanta, we got a mental training session together and after that session, I remember when we went out, all of us, and if someone would have said, that we needed to go though a wall, we all would have gone through a wall.
We were so set and primed to what we need to do it. So we have some very good routine with that.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks? What do you do if things don’t go your way?
Piotr: Life goes on. You need to go forward. It is the same thing that I said with the Sydney Olympic Games, when it was the darkest moment. Life is not only about setbacks. You need to look into the new sunshine the next day and I have a motto that I actually use sometimes.
Life goes on. You need to look into the new sunshine the next day.
When you’re celebrating your success too long, it’s killing your success. So you need to stop celebrating the success quickly. Always remember there is a next day and a next sunshine and only if you believe you can do it.
That’s what we’ve been carrying, given to us by sports, by our coaches and by people who surround us and are working with us. That’s actually the sentence that was developed through the years.
When I was in the sport, when I was an athlete, or even in my personal life, don’t celebrate success too much because it kills your next success. It is a chance to kill your next success and sunshine is always coming for you. You only need to believe in yourself. You can do it.
His role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Piotr: A role model for me was the coaches who I worked with and my parents. And why? Because actually, they develop the skills for me. They helped me develop to be so independent and make a decision on my own.
My parents helped me to be independent and make a decision on my own.
So when you as an athlete is staying with the challenge on your own, you’re ready to make a decision. You’re not looking to someone to help you and I think those were the role models they develop. They gave me advice through life and through the sports that I should be independent and be ready to make a decision on my own.
My parents never tried to involve or direct me in the sports; never ever and that’s what is there. I think I will say, one of the biggest thing that I get from them, they’ve been supportive somewhat. But they never plan what I need to do in the sports and how I need to do in the sports.
I quickly moved from family houses and that’s it and I was independent when I was nineteen years old. I start to travel a lot and everything. That was the role model, the coaches and my parents. Now I see everyone is doing things for everybody. Athletes are coming and asking what they need to do.
I had a situation with the athletes in 2012 in London. When I got the debriefing after the competition, the athletes told me that the biggest problem for them not to perform was that toilet was five meters too far from locker room.
They need to make their own decision and create ownership for almost everything. Now they are given services and everything. That’s fine. We live in this generation where people want to be served, from opening the door to closing the door.
The best advice he has received
Christian: What is the best advice you received and who gave it to you?
Piotr: This is the part of that I told you earlier, that you should not celebrate success too long. When the medal is hanging on your neck and when you’re coming down from the podium, that’s the end of the story. You need to be thinking about the next step and that’s what I was always bringing to the athletes.
When you’re celebrating your success too long, it’s killing your success.
When we make the first step we need to go through. That will be in the books forever, but it will be not in books forever that you’re celebrating long. The next success will make your portfolio and that’s the one of the biggest advice that I carry and I am always trying to push to the others.
Don’t be too happy with the success because when you’re successful only once, not many people will remember you.
Christian: How is it received by the athletes, the idea of moving on quickly?
Piotr: I think that some athletes understand it. I think those who I actually work with, who I mentored and coached who go with this, you can see they’re progressing and they’re not stepping out of the box very early when they have setbacks.
They know we need to work further on the success and successes always have ups and downs. For them who celebrate too long, they’re thinking it will be easier to bring them back after the success. It is not.
They think they can do everything what they did before the first one. No, life is changing very quickly. Sport is brutal and you need to be ready the next day to meet the opponents who are actually smarter than you and you need to be always smarter than they are.
Life is changing very quickly, Sport is brutal and you need to be ready the next day to meet the opponents who are actually smarter than you.
Christian: My son told me a few days ago and I remember the quote of the lion and the gazelle that is getting up. Both have to run fast. One has to survive and the other one has to get food.
A typical training day in the life of a 400 meter track and field sprinter
Christian: So back in the days, how did the typical training day look like?
Piotr: If I’m coming back to this period in 1996 to 1998 and 2000, when we spent a lot of days in training camps around the world, our routine was starting at 7:30. Depending on the day, we did stretching yoga or breathing exercises for half-hour to just wake up or get some movement into the body.
Then we go to breakfast, I always had a power nap for 45 minutes after breakfast, we go to the first session which was always main session of the day, if it was endurance, weights or speed.
Then we have some rest, lunch, some social activity or another power nap if someone needed it. We then did the second session, after that we had some time for physio, if it was necessary, some mental training and then dinner. Then we have time to rest and went to sleep.
As an athlete, I spend a lot of time sleeping. My friends never believed I could sleep so much. Atlanta 1996 was like that, there were days when I slept 14 to 16 hours. For me the Atlanta Olympic Games were training, sleep and waiting, because really the last three weeks was waiting for the competition. I didn’t want to spend three weeks on the social life and be mentally out.
But normally, that was routine for the day. We had 10 sessions during the week without the morning wake up sessions and the mental training sessions. So that was normal routine. Sunday was always free or almost always free for us. On Wednesdays, we have one training and Saturdays we have one training, which was the toughest endurance runs.
We had 10 sessions during the week without the mental training sessions.
Saturday and Wednesday we have two tough endurance training. I didn’t like 500s and Saturday’s we have 500 in the blocks of the period. I didn’t like it because I am coming from the speed side, but when you’re ready you enjoy it. When you’re not ready and when you’re starting the season, you don’t normally enjoy it.
It depends on the period we have also. In the very early stages, November, October, we spend some times in the Polish mountains. We do some long runs in the mountains and walk runs of 20, 30 and 40 kilometers.
Winter time is actually when we come in after indoor season. So straight after competition, we spend 2-3 weeks in the mountains and we love it then. Not now, because now there is a lot of snow at this time.
Twenty years ago when you’re going for the long run, training 30 kilometers in one-meter snow, it was not very fun. It was tough, but it was actually nice.
Christian: I believe that.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Piotr: When we’re talking about nominating someone from out of my sports, I try to take someone from a very different sport, I’ll go for the winter sport. I will go for the guy who is not Polish. But this sport in Poland is very crazy in winter, it’s ski jumping. So I will go for a ski jumper named Andreas Küttel.
He lived in Denmark. He’s doing his PhD on some really interesting stuff about elite athlete mental health. It will be nice to hear from him. He’s a successful guy, he’s been to the Winter Olympics.
Because Polish ski-jumping is on top of the world, so I don’t want to nominate someone from Poland as we talk. I don’t want to nominate someone from the 400 meters in track and field either. This way it will be more fun for the people who follow you.
Christian: That’ s really cool.
Where can you find Piotr Haczek
Christian: Where can people find you?
Piotr: Normally I am on the LinkedIn, but when I opened my consultancy, I also have my website where people can contact me. I do different things around the sports, from consultancy strategy to the preparation training. That website is pioha.com. So first few letters from my name and two letters from my surname. That’s it.
Piotr Haczek’s social profiles
How he applies principles from high-performance sports into business consultancy
Christian: Okay and we talked briefly before the interview. You said you wanted to introduce some principles from high-performance sports into your consultancy business. Can you elaborate on that?
Piotr: I think when we’re looking on the market, we look from two side of the life, the business and sports, we can see how much the business side, the mental coaches, the mentoring or different thing is pushing to the sports side.
But if you’re looking on the other side, the sports side, sport is not pushing a lot to the business side. I believe businesses can learn a lot from the sports. People can learn how to operate, how to prepare, how to operate in the chaos, how to plan, strategic cooperation with the others.
I believe businesses can learn a lot from the sports, how to operate, how to prepare, how to operate in the chaos, how to plan, and strategic cooperations.
So there are a lot of things where sport and business can help each other out. But I still see the business trying to push much more than we from the sports side. We need to push business a little bit more also.
Christian: And how is it received in your consultancy business?
Piotr: I speak with different people and it’s always interesting when you hear people from the business side. They can’t believe what people in this sport are willing to sometimes do to achieve the success.
How they sacrifice, how they make the plans, how the plans are actually complicated and sometimes how they are very simple. When you over complicate it you can maybe lose the meaning of the approach or goals.
That’s an interesting discussion that we always have and from the business side, you can see how we can learn. For example, communication skills in sports we are far, far away from good communication skills.
Christian: Piotr, thanks a lot for your time.
Piotr: Thank you.