With so many British successes in so many different disciplines, when you read about people’s stories of winning Olympic medals they often fall into a number of clichés. It is hard not to. In my experience the nerves, the expectations, the emotions are all right at the very top end of what I have ever been exposed to before and so it becomes necessary to use all the hyperbole at your disposal. That said, winning felt more muted than I imagined it would.
Please do not misunderstand me. Everything up to winning was more exaggerated, volatile and exciting than any other thing in my life up to that point. In the days preceding the final I went from being silent and morose to loud and optimistic following a single training session. I challenged our chief coach about changes to the boat, I was sure we would lose given the wrong weather conditions, and I was certain we would win after doing a short practice piece. In the hours before I used every trick to try and calm nerves that threatened to overflow and wash me away with them. Even writing this now I can feel my jaw clench and my arms start to shake. In the seconds before, the realisation that in just over five minutes this single thing I had trained for four years would be over, battled to be a comfort and a torture crushing all other considerations in their path.
See? It is very hard not to revert to cliché.
Following the race, I was really determined not to be overtaken by what I felt. Exhaustion mixed with disbelief mixed with joy is potent. Often I had to pull back the loud and ravenous emotions for fear of breaking down. The advantage is I remained composed. The disadvantage is that I feel almost cheated of totally abandoning myself to the maelstrom, which would have in many ways been enjoyable. I muted the experience somewhat. In the years to come maybe I will be proud of that, maybe I will be upset; time will tell.
As we start the build towards Tokyo 2020, again pushing young men and women toward this fate, it is our job to prepare them as best as possible for what they will face. Emotional drum beating is not preparation (although it is very cathartic). The partnership between SAS and the British Rowing has the potential to learn which variables we can control in rowing and how we can best optimise them. In my opinion that is all we can hope to do.
British Rowing is known as running a very demanding high-performance training program for the four years leading to a Games. Three sessions a day, seven days a week (including holidays) alongside your immediate competition becomes the norm. This constant physical and mental pressure prepares you for the biggest stages you compete on. As an athlete, making big changes in this environment is very challenging. Often your only thoughts are to survive the next week, day, or session. This survival mindset is heightened when you are training after illness or injury and expected to continue producing gold medal standard performances.
The language of marginal gains has become very prevalent in sport. Doubtless because of the realisation that anyone already straining every fibre in their body for a goal can’t change a great deal. Marginal gains are, by their nature, marginal and often hard to find and evidence. By the same measure, ineffective ideas which are considered to have some small advantage are equally difficult to debunk and therefore can wastefully absorb resources.
Rowing, like large areas of life, has the potential to avoid these pitfalls by looking at what we can learn from the past. Rowing has one massive advantage in this field, it is hugely repetitive. As sensors become more accurate and cheaper and easier to deploy, we can collect vast reams of data. What we need is continual and effective analysis of it. Entirely behind the scenes, better analysis of the daily training and performance data has the potential to increase the rate of physical and technical improvement and, at the same time, hopefully reduce injury and illness. Entirely in front of the cameras, collecting historical weather data and using it to forecast expected race day conditions gives us the chance to practice in appropriate conditions wherever possible and not be caught off guard when it matters most.
Rowing likes to think of itself as impossible to analyse. I beg to differ and I think that SAS and British Rowing might be the organisations to do it.
For more information about SAS’s partnership with British Rowing, visit: http://www.sas.com/en_gb/offers/14q2/british-rowing/Overview.html
To view Paul Bennett’s British Rowing biography, visit: https://www.britishrowing.org/athlete/paul-bennett