My lasting image of the 16/17 season (and possibly all of my time as a coach) is the awesome photo taken by Hamish Roots (@lightoverwater ) of the Headington School Championship 8+ at Nat Schools' Regatta. For those of you not from the world of rowing, Nat Schools' is one of the events that makes up the triple (Schools' Head and Henley Royal being the other two). So in simple terms, it's a pretty big deal. It is the event that junior rowers manage to cram in amidst the pressure of exams, the excitement of looming summer holidays and the hum on the banks of parents enjoying one of the biggest social occasions of the season.
So yes, there's a lot of pressure. When you've won the event almost countless times back to back there's a bit more pressure. And when there's a very realistic chance of you being beaten by an equally superb crew, the pressure really is ON! So the photo that Hamish took of the Headington crew on the start line of what was to be one of the toughest races of their rowing careers, laughing and waving to the camera is one that instantly made me smile too. My first thought wasn't 'they're not taking it seriously' but rather 'how awesome to be able to enjoy such a special moment'. To be so relaxed that you are able to keep calm and smile, without fear of a coach telling you you're not focussed enough. These are athletes who know how to keep things in perspective. That racing at top level isn't life and death. It's an opportunity to enjoy being at the top in your sport and enjoy being able to do it well.
Why is it then that so often, coaches berate athletes for not being serious enough? Surely if they are enjoying themselves then they will perform well? Obviously it's a fine line, especially when athletes are learning about the pressures of training and racing. But didn't we all start a sport because we thought 'that looks like fun'? How quickly we forget and become drawn into the stresses of crew selection, egos, exhaustion and the passion that comes with being a performance athlete.
The crew who were sat laughing and smiling on the start went on to break the course record and win the event in an incredible race with Henley Rowing Club. I'm pretty sure they didn't smile the whole way down the course (racing 2k hurts, especially in such a close race) but that attitude at the start clearly had an impact on who crossed the finish line first.
So let's keep that image in the back of our minds when the pressure is on. This is sport, it's tough but it's also just that...sport. It is to be enjoyed even when the pressure is on.
To the crew...keep smiling. And to their coach Ryan and his team, keep making it fun. We can all learn a lot from such a special image!