An even playing field?

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I would just like to warn readers that this is a bit of a rant. Let’s get things straight. Our men’s quad has just been included in the New Zealand Olympic Team after revelations that a Russian athlete from their men’s quad has been found to be doping. Whilst I am incredibly stoked that justice has prevailed in one sense and our boys are getting the opportunity that is rightfully theirs, I am also extremely angry and disappointed at the entire situation. This one athlete has not only ruined it for his teammates (assuming they are clean, which is probably questionable) but he has cost our men’s quad weeks in training and preparation for the biggest event in their sporting careers. And this is just one case! I think of the people who missed out on their moments of glory, robbed by a drug cheat of their right to celebrate knowing they were the best in world, those moments will never be restored or replicated. I also think of the emotional difficulty those people have been through when they lost or missed out on a place. That emotional turbulence was completely unnecessary and all happened because some low-life didn’t have the guts to make it happen the clean way.

I do not understand how these people go to sleep at night knowing what they are doing to themselves, their teammates, the sport and all other people involved. Think of the coaches, support staff, family, friends and everyone else who has most likely helped these people at one stage in their career and how betrayed they must feel. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt if it was a simple mistake with supplements like protein powder etc but more often than not it’s just lies upon lies.

Rowing is one of the greatest sports in the world in my opinion because it is one of the most fair. People line up against one another in boats that are all relatively even and race as fast as they can over 2000m. The conditions are generally fair, there are no judges, no points system, no opinions; just 6 crews racing from start to finish with the best crew/person coming out on top. People that have made life sacrifices to chase their dreams and put their bodies through absolute hell for hours on end before even making the starting line only to put themselves through more pain. Think of the family sacrifices, the time spent away from loved ones, the weddings missed, the parties missed. All of these points that make rowing a great sport get thrown out the window when issues like drugs creep in and contaminate the entire operation. These problems fester and build like a contagious disease leaving complete destruction in their wake.

I think WADA and other national drug free agencies are doing some great work and getting better at catching people, but we have to do more. There has to be a way that all countries can be tested equally and fairly, or at least more than is currently happening. I understand the funding discrepancies are an issue but why don’t the IOC or other governing bodies put in place regulations on governments to match the funding for drug testing that other countries allocate. Of course this would have pros and cons, but I’m at a loss trying to work out how it is even possible. I mean this shouldn’t even be an issue at all, curse the first person to start taking drugs in sport for they have forever taken away some of the purity and beauty that makes sport so amazing.

I see the pain my crew and team goes through to get where they are and to fight for medals in the end. But I’m concerned that when we line up against 5 other men’s eights ready for battle, chances are that some of those athletes are cheating and bringing guns to a fist fight. In summary, I’m happy for our men’s quad that they will be given another chance. But I am extremely frustrated at the cheater and the entire evil side of sport that shouldn’t even exist.

Peaks and Troughs

17 March 2016 (22)

Sport is an emotional rollercoaster ride. Sometimes you feel invincible, like nobody in the world can come close to you. Other times you feel as though you would rather be anywhere other than where you are, stuck in a pit of hopelessness and negativity.

Like many New Zealand boys I grew up playing rugby for a club in a small town called Raglan. Although unlike many New Zealand boys, I was always the smallest on the field. I would get pushed around and smashed every training session and every game, but I kept on playing because I loved it. I feel as though when you’re younger you don’t understand emotion enough to comprehend the tough times, whether it’s naivety or youthful enthusiasm I’m unsure. But I know that the older I have become more perceptive I am to the peaks and troughs of life and how they affect me. Now I had my share of disappointments and successes when I was younger but the more I grow as a person, the more I give to my sport, the more invested I become in how it all turns out. I have always been extremely hard on myself in the sporting arena; just ask my family. But I’m only just beginning to grasp the concept of peaks and troughs and how things won’t always work out how you’d like them to no matter how hard you try.

Think of all the greatest teams in sporting history, Manchester United, The All Blacks, The LA Lakers and The Chicago Bulls (among many others). All of these teams have remarkable records and had their glory days. But all of them have been through many peaks and troughs; the Lakers finished bottom of the Western conference in 2016 yet won 5 championships between 2000 and 2010. Of course the reasons for these peaks and troughs have huge variation and differences, but nobody can deny that on a wide scale, sporting teams will have highs and lows. Within all of these large scale peaks and troughs are the smaller ones, the ones that are often forgotten when things turn out well, the ones that are changing from week to week or even day to day. But those smaller peaks and troughs are the present. They have the ability to define you as a person, or as a team.

Each year of my coxing career has had its ups and downs. But if I’m honest I thought my first Olympic year might have been different. It hasn’t been. This team I am a part of has had a lot of peaks, we went back to back at U23 level in 2013 and 2014. We medalled at World Cup 3 in Lucerne last year and we qualified the boat for the Olympics. But what can easily be overlooked are the rough patches we went through before those successes, the training blocks that were a complete grind, the weeks that strung together and felt like forever and even the times our team broke down into pieces and getting any speed was a mission. Our coach loves to remind us of the saying “form is temporary, class is permanent.” I think it’s easy to forget that during the troughs of life. But our group of guys isn’t one with any superstars in it, so we can’t get away with falling apart, we can’t get away with doing it individually, we have to work together to make the team greater than the sum of it’s parts. And that alone is enough to make turn the troughs into peaks and ride the wave of momentum.

We have recently been in what I call a trough, a series of sub-par performances through both training and in racing. But I think we needed this last trough, to sharpen us up, bring our heads back into the right place and fit the cogs back into the machine. Our crew still has a long way to go to achieve the type of class we aspire towards but by understanding the natural peaks and troughs of sport, we can handle those better and try to bring the margin of difference closer together.  I don’t know about you but I am bloody excited to see how high we can make our peaks!

Whether it be in sport or in life, embrace the grind, embrace the troughs, because they will only make your own peaks higher.

 

 

Scope

It’s amazing how narrow minded and intense sport can be. I feel as though in our line of work there is almost no other option but to become completely immersed in the sport, to the point where you are so invested things like selection can completely rip your life apart. Sometimes I find myself daydreaming about how different life would be if my career derailed from it’s current path and at times that scares me. But when I really think about it, I would be distraught and devastated for a period of time, but life would go on. So why is it that our lives become so invested and entrenched on a certain path that leads us on a rollercoaster of highs and lows? Because the journey is amazing and if you don’t go all in, you’ll be left wanting more for a long time.

Olympic trials finished up last week so now the attention turns towards the games and everything in between. For me, trials took on a different flavour to the normal edgy, uncomfortable week. I was the only coxswain named to trial, which was a relief but also a bit strange. I have been confident of my place within the Men’s sweep programme for a while but I never want to get complacent, which is why I felt strange when I saw the list. Don’t get me wrong, I am over the moon to be selected and I feel grateful that Rowing New Zealand has that faith in me, I just like to keep searching for improvement and not get conceited. Trials should have been a relaxing week for someone in my position but when half of your friends are fighting each other for seats, things aren’t so comfortable. I even found myself nervous for my guys from the eight when they stepped in to complete the 2km erg test!

Something I find extremely unfortunate is many athletes will quit upon failed attempt at selection. Many of those athletes will have come excruciatingly close and some may even believe they should have been in a particular seat. But here in lies the setback that will define who they are. They could choose to ‘get on with life’ and pursue other passions that have been on hold (and who could blame them) or they could choose to start at square one and have another crack at chasing the dream. Those people that decide to try again can become some of the most incredible athletes of all time, even better than the ones initially picked. My point here is that this set back provides scope, perspective and a different outlook. It will be extremely tough for a while, but post-Olympic year is where careers can take off with athletes departing and reshuffling. I wish that our country could do more to support the fringe athletes, but in reality we are stretching the resources and funding to the limit already.

Although I haven’t taken any major knocks in my career, I find myself continuously looking for scope and perspective in order to keep life balance. Writing is one of my outlets that allows me to delve a few layers deeper into my own self-consciousness and pour out any feelings that bottle up down there. I share a small snippet in this blog but it’s the hundreds of pieces I don’t share that keep me sane. Another passion of mine is riding my motorbike, which allows me to disappear from my rowing life for a few hours and concentrate completely on something else. We all need an outlet or a getaway of some description and although mine might be a bit on the dangerous side, if you remove it, the other things don’t function as well as they could.

Having come out the other side of trials and selection I’m so happy and relieved to be selected along with my crewmates but I’m also extremely sad for those that missed out. This sport we do is absolutely ruthless and it has to be. Today we went through the NZOC Rio workshop process, which started to make things seem a little bit more real, trying on uniform, doing interviews, looking at photos from the village. There are still roughly 5 months between now and the Olympic games with a lot of obstacles along the way but we have qualified the boat, been selected and now all that’s left is to tick the last box on the list.

Light up the Lagoon in Rio de Janeiro.

Clarity

2015 was about transitioning to the Elite level. 2016 is about stamping our mark on the field at the biggest sporting event in the world. I haven’t written a blog for a while as things have been busy, training has been full throttle and a few other bits and pieces have been in play. However, as the clocks ticked over to midnight and into 2016 I had this strange feeling come over me. It was as though the Xmas break was finished then and there and I just wanted to get back to training. This might seem a bit odd to some of you and others will say that because I’m a coxswain I would look forward to getting back to training, as it doesn’t mean putting my body back on the line everyday. And those are very valid points, but if you cut all those thoughts away, all I’m left with is clarity.

Not clarity as in I can see the finish line in Rio because that would be cliche and naïve; there are a number of hurdles to overcome first. Clarity in the sense that I have purpose and I know that this is the year we have been waiting for. I know my goals and the pathway to complete them, I know that it’s going to be the toughest year to date and I know that I will do anything to help my guys be the best they can be. For the past few summer (domestic) seasons I have found it very difficult as the eight spent most of the time on the rack. But in the past few months we have been in the eight roughly 50% of the time and I feel as though the boat is in a really good place. We are making some good technical steps and small tweaks to different things which is setting up the next 8 months.

In 2015 we were diving into the unknown and to some extent 2016 isn’t much different. But having now competed with the top crews and knowing what that level is we can now focus on setting the bar a bit higher. Up until the repechage and final at World Champs, I felt as though we had to be on the redline from stroke one just to keep up in the first thousand metres. But after those two performances we now know that we can row slightly more within ourselves and still be there. This gives me confidence because I can see the endurance and power gains every week, even though sometimes they are minuscule. I’m looking forward to unleashing that when the time comes.

I have talked to a few people about a mental image I have, but to put it into words is incredibly difficult. I have this image etched into my memory of the way our boat was running when we have had our best rows. I can think of exactly how it felt, pure focus on the process, the stern running on around the catch and this unbelievable carry through the water. The finish was quiet and crisp and the guys had time to let the boat run underneath them. Much of this sensation I talked about in a previous blog called Flow. But if I could plug my mind into a projector and play this video for you it still wouldn’t do it justice because you couldn’t be in my seat with me, feeling the carbon through my toes and bracing with my lower back. But as long as I have that image of how it should look, feel and sound then I can apply it to my coxing.

So it’s back to work for me, we have erg testing coming up then the Cambridge Town Cup regatta, followed by national champs and selection trials. But every day for the next 8 months will be a roller coaster that I can’t wait to ride with you all!

p.s. Happy New Year and don’t be afraid to share🙂

Flow

For those of you who have any knowledge of psychology in sport you should be familiar with a sensation known as flow. Flow is also known as ‘the zone’ and only occurs when a person is fully immersed in what they are doing, with total uninterrupted focus. Flow has been studied across a wide range of fields and the concept is one that plays a massive part in sport. I find it fascinating how at one point in time there is literally nothing else in the world that matters other than completing the task at hand.

There is this moment that only happens a few times a year as a coxswain where everything is as perfect as it can be, my rowers are fresh, their minds are sharp and there is this bubble surrounding our boat. This bubble blocks out all other sounds, sights and feelings leaving all 8 rowers perfectly in sync. As I said this sensation only happens a few times a year, generally around pinnacle events where the programme has tapered, the skills are refined and they can finally deliver what I ask for. It’s not that they don’t try the rest of the time, it’s just more often than not they are fatigued to a point where their bodies aren’t functioning normally and are in survival mode.

In 2010 we held a fundraiser for our junior athletes from the Waikato and one of the guest speakers was Andy Hay, coxswain of the 1982 World Champion New Zealand Men’s 8. We were doing a Q&A with Andy and each of us juniors was given the microphone to ask one question. I asked him what he thought the difference was in the 82’ eight that made them so much better than the competition. His reply was “they had time”. He went into some detail about the sensation of ‘time’ in that particular crew and I thought I understood what he meant. But it wasn’t until our final at the world champs this year that I experienced it for myself and only now do I understand. Although we didn’t win a medal and this sensation didn’t last the full 2 kilometres, there were at least 1000 metres in the middle where we had time. Rating 37-38 and rowing really efficiently the focus was on holding the pattern and technique while creating sustainable power, the boat was running on around the front and the swing through the mid-drive was spot on. That was one of those moments where time slowed down in my seat, I swear I could feel the bubbles under the boat, I could feel bow cutting through the water and I could sense all 8 of my guys were giving 100% to each and every stroke where the cycle is unbroken. Decision-making was instinctual and the balance between calm and excited was on point.

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts about our poor heat race at the world champs. This was without a doubt one of my worst performances as a coxswain, I felt rushed, I had no time to think and I couldn’t calm the boat down to bring it back together. The guys weren’t in that space where they can work really well together and make the boat go fast and we underperformed. But that was the turning point; after that race we decided that more emphasis needed to be on ourselves, our technique and our mental application to get back the length, power and efficiency that we had been working on for the last 6 months. I knew that I could influence my crew and direct their minds towards these things, but I had to be living them myself. Every stroke between the heat and the rep was focussed on those things; we had to be young in the body but old in the mind. The repechage was the biggest race of our lives, we had to perform and place in the top two in order to make the final and keep our Olympic dream alive. We stuck to the things we had been working on and timed it perfectly to come through and take the spot we needed to. We went from one of our worst performances to our best to date and that bubble started to surround our boat.

To me, flow is where the whole world is blocked out and time seems to slow down to a point where it’s almost an ‘out of body experience’. You are completely focussed on the activity you are doing but at the same time it’s no longer a conscious thought process, it’s just instinctual. There are thousands of kilometres of training between here and the Olympic games and it is hard to imagine that flow will only happen a handful of times between now and then. And although we have outcome goals and targets to meet along the way, flow is the thing I’m looking for. All I can say is that when those moments come, they are truly some of the purest, most amazing feelings in the world.

 

Take a look

Over the 2014 New Year period I spent some time at a local beach with some friends. We did all the normal things you do while on holiday, swim, drink, eat, talk rubbish and above all laugh until my cheeks hurt. But as we sat on this white sandy beach in the sun like a little slice of paradise, I noticed a group of people about 20 metres along from us on the beach. There were about six or seven people in this group and looked to be in their early twenties. They were definitely foreign with olive tanned skin and speaking in a different language, which sounded like Spanish or Portuguese. Now these young lads and lasses looked to be enjoying themselves in the sun however after about ten minutes I noticed the group getting ready for what looked like a group photo. Six out of the seven made group poses, checked their hair was in the right place and that they were at the right angle to capture their ‘good side’. They spent at least half an hour trying to get the camera to take a delayed shot.

Honestly, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. They tried and failed about 4 times to get this group snap before finally the flash started going off as the group made a new pose for each shot. Instead of enjoying the sun, swimming and doing things that you would usually associate with the beach, these people were more worried about taking a good group selfie to put on social media.

It got me thinking about society and how strange things are getting. People are more concerned with how they are perceived on social media than they are about enjoying themselves and soaking up the moment. Now I understand the idea of documenting your experiences with photos so that you have them to show your kids and look back on when you’re old and I’m all for that. But perhaps instead of posting 147 photos to the album titled ‘summer’ with captions about what a great time you’re having with about 18 variations on a selfie why don’t you just turn your phone off and soak up the moment! Or heaven forbid engage in a real-life conversation with your friends about something or even nothing at all.

Social media is changing personalities. It is sending insecurities to all new levels and the beauty of a face-to-face conversation may soon be lost. After witnessing this encounter it made me think about whether I am anything like the group on the beach. And the answer is probably yes. I don’t consciously think that “I have to post this to Facebook so that I look really cool and look like I’m really enjoying life” but sure sometimes I post photos to show my friends what I’m up to.

But the weight of this change in social norms didn’t really hit home for me until I read an article about 6 months ago. A friend from overseas posted this article about a girl at Penn State University in America. She was a phenomenal track athlete and a standout high school runner who ended up committing suicide after social media induced depression lead to her quitting track, isolating herself from those who cared about her and creating an unrealistic expectation of what her life should be like. None of her friends knew she was struggling because all of her Instagram posts seemed to show her having a good time and enjoying life. This girl was absolutely stunning, was a great student and athlete but fell victim to this unrealistic virtual world we are creating. It’s easy to see how in today’s world this kind of thing can happen. You only have to look through someone’s Instagram account or their Facebook page to see how selective their posts are, you will see photos of the good times at a festival, at the beach or maybe some inspirational quotes. What you won’t see is those bad days, when nothing seems to go right and you end up upset and a little twisted as you stare at the ceiling trying to fall asleep so as the dream world will save you from what seems like a shitty reality. But when you think about it, why would you want to share those days? Why would you want people to start worrying about you or smothering you with sympathy? This is extremely dangerous!

In my last blog post I talked about the iceberg with the little bit showing on the top, the cream on the top of the cake so to speak. But that big part underneath is a bloody rollercoaster, there are highs, lows and everything in between. The thing is, with a real-life face-to-face conversation you can talk about those things, you can spend time with your friends to make all the crappy things go away for a moment as you laugh at absolutely anything. But if we continue to get stuck in this unrealistic world that’s online things can quite easily bottle up and fester until you can’t quite take it anymore.

So basically all I’m doing here is pleading with you to please put down your phone; talk to the person next to you about how their day was or about something completely random, insignificant and stupid. But give your neck a break and soak up those real-life moments, the good ones, the bad ones, the awkward and the uncomfortable. Do something random and stupid and make stories to remember later. Look up from the online world at the imperfect rollercoaster reality of the world in front of you, because you won’t be able to look at it forever.

http://espn.go.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/12833146/instagram-account-university-pennsylvania-runner-showed-only-part-story?sf9037286=1

Marginal Gains

This time last year, I had returned from the World Championships having just coxed the fastest pair in the world. I couldn’t have had a better sporting season and I count myself extremely lucky to have been presented those opportunities, which I think I gave everything towards whilst learning as much as possible along the way. It was at this time that our squad sat down and talked about how we were going to make it to the Olympic games. We needed to get fitter, stronger and faster whilst rowing technically better than we ever had before. Did we accomplish those things? Yes.

We have just begun what is the start of the 2016 Olympic campaign and to be honest it hasn’t been the perfect start by any means. We have had a few of the rowers returning from illness and injuries whilst others undergo rehab after surgery. But considering 12 months ago the boys were returning from a 2 month break rather than 3 weeks, we are probably still ahead of schedule. We are now in week 2 of the summer squad season and have begun to de-brief the 2015 international season and look ahead to the months ahead. So I find myself asking the question, how do we improve? What things do we need to change and what things do we need to keep doing?

It would be easy for people on the outside to look at what we’ve done and say that the season was a complete success and don’t get me wrong, I am extremely happy with how our season played out. But as Elite athletes we have to break it down, nit pick, look at the details and ask what could we have done better? And there is plenty of room for improvement. Not so much with how we go about racing at our pinnacle events, but more so how we get through training 2-3 times a day, 6 days a week for roughly 11 months. Aside from the obvious improvements such as strength, power, endurance and mental toughness there are other things that will limit or enhance training to improve each of these areas.

I’m not about to disclose all our dealings and secrets but there are certain areas we need to look at, some of which are related to maturity and mental skills. Our coach recently handed us a picture of an iceberg; this particular iceberg is actually known as a ‘growler’ where there is a small part showing above the water and an extremely large part hidden under the water. Now this is a little cliché I know, but it just made complete sense. There is the successful part of the season on the top with a world cup medal, Olympic qualification and the fastest middle thousand in the Men’s 8 field. And then there are all the things underneath, the thousands of kilometers, the gritty little details of day-to-day mundane athlete life that can get forgotten sometimes. These are the things that can get overlooked when the campaign finishes successfully. They are things that might not seem the most important at the time but can have a huge impact on training, particularly when fatigue is clouding judgment and impacting moods like an evil twin. But if we can improve each of those things by 1% or more then we can add those up to improve our performance to all new levels.

I asked myself recently if I thought we could win Olympic Gold next year. Up until now my answer would have been that it’s only faintly possible if we do something absolutely amazing that we’ve never done before. If we have a blinder like the kind I spoke of in my last blog. But now I’m starting to believe that if we can improve all the little things by 1% or more and improve our performance by about 4 seconds it is truly possible. I mean it’s still bordering on an impossible task but isn’t that why we compete in the first place? Maybe we will, maybe we won’t but I’ll be damned if we don’t do everything humanly possible to give ourselves a chance.

The Olympic Dream

A number of people told me that an Olympic qualification regatta will have the best rowing racing you have ever seen. They did not lie. It is truly amazing how the mind can override the body to produce performances far superior to the normal capabilities of a person. This, to me shows a number of things. It shows the power of the Olympic games and how to represent your country at the games remains one of the most sought after opportunities in sport. It shows that for the sport of rowing, the Olympic games is still without a doubt the pinnacle for our sport.

Within the rowing community, I have had a number of discussions with athletes and coaches about capabilities and performing to those capabilities. You never want to run on emotion, as in you always want to go into a race knowing that your training has set you up to perform to your best capability and all it leaves is for you to deliver. However, the power of emotion should never be underestimated as it can push the body further than it’s willing to go, further than the training has set it up for, which I think is incredible.

If you cast your minds back to before the world championship regatta at the ‘predictions’ of any rowing journo or coach or almost anyone involved in the sport at who was going to win, medal and qualify I think you will find some interesting differences to the results that unfolded. This is far more evident in specific races where qualification is on the line, such as quarterfinals, semi-finals, repechages, B-finals and in some cases A-finals. This is the power of the mind! It is emotion in its purest, simplest form. It is sheer will, overriding pain and it is fear of missing out driving people to do incredible things. This anomaly is one that you have to try and prepare for, but it doesn’t make it any easier to compete against. As a rowing nation I think we are quite methodical in our approach, we are fuelled by the ‘miles make champions’ philosophy rather than relying on passion to help us on race day.

Now a few problems arise for people who rely on emotion because this one off performance or even handful of performances cannot be repeated or simulated every day. If it could and there was a way to harness those emotions and use them every day then I think the body would simple give out and break. It’s easy to say ‘if you can do it once, then you can do it again, and again’. But I don’t think it’s possible to repeat it frequently. Which means that balancing emotions is an important part of effective training. If you can perform well in a level and well-balanced emotional state then just think of what you can do when this emotional rocket fuel kicks in during an event that means more to you than anything else in that single moment.

I am not an expert in this area by any means, I am simply putting my thoughts to paper and discussing something I think is truly remarkable. I think there must be some sort of chemical reaction in the brain that syncs with the physical ability of a person to ignite something that is truly unmeasurable. It is this ignition in a person that drives me to do what I do. If I can assist with bringing that out in any of my athletes at any point during our time together, then I have succeeded. This is the Olympic games, this is sport and this is what we live for!