Doing extraordinary things...

This week we have been reflecting on what goes into the accomplishment of extraordinary feats. 


This has been prompted by the world record breaking exploits of four ordinary working mums from Yorkshire. Last week they completed the Talisker whisky challenge, coming into Antigua after 67 days at sea, and so becoming the oldest all female crew to complete the race.

We are privileged to know the women personally, and to have worked with them in their preparations for the race.  Whilst the organisers put a lot of focus on the practical, physical and logistical elements of the race, the teams are left to their own devices when it comes to the mental and team building aspects. 

We were able to help the team in this area. Through the use of behavioural profiling and workshop sessions, the team got a more in-depth understanding of themselves and their team mates.  What they were all likely to be motivated by, best methods of communication, what their strengths were, and how they might behave when under pressure.  We also focused on the area of emotional intelligence, something that would be incredibly key through the days and weeks of non-stop pain, fatigue, tension and monotony that the challenge would involve. 

No matter how well prepared the women were, there was no guarantee that they would complete the race. Four working mums, in their forties and fifties, who had taken up rowing only 3 years previously, and did not profess to be ‘athletes’ in any shape or form. And they did it!   So what were some of the traits that they exhibited, and which contributed to their success?

Attitude

One of the things that struck us when working with the four was that they displayed the same attitude and mindset that we see with many professional athletes.  They had a goal, and they were going to complete it.  Not once did they appear to let in any doubt as to whether or not they would succeed.  Yes they recognised that it would be hard, and that things could go wrong, but never once (at least in public) did they seem to open the door even a tiny bit to the chance of failure of their overall goal.

There is a lot of fascinating research and commentary on this type of attitude and mindset.  Matthew Syed discusses it in detail in his book Bounce.  He picks up on the power of beliefs, such as religious ones, referencing Jonathan Edwards and the impact his faith had on his success, and also Muhammad Ali (“How can I lose when I have Allah on my side?”). This psychology of performance is a complex area, but Syed takes his readers through issues such as the ‘placebo effect’ in medicine, via a seminal book called ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ written by Norman Vincent Peale in 1952, to the type of statements that we frequently hear sports players and coaches making these days where the possibility of defeat is not entertained.  Hear Andy Murray saying that he believes he will defeat whoever he is playing wherever he is playing them.  Who remembers Alan Shearer, when Newcastle Manager, and before a key match between Newcastle and Middlesbrough, stating: “I have not even considered the possibility of defeat.  In my mind we are going to win and nothing will deter me from that fact.” (They won 3-0). It comes down to expecting the best, and eliminating all doubt, and how that can somehow help to create the conditions that produce the desired results.  Isn’t the mind a strange thing?!

Preparation

This isn’t to say of course that you can sit back and expect that things will just happen. People who achieve extraordinary things work extraordinarily hard.   Coming back to our rowers, the preparation and hard work the women had to put in to get ready for the race was phenomenal. And all of this whilst holding down full time jobs and managing their family life. Required qualifications include a valid RYA Yacht-master Ocean Theory, First Aid at Sea, Sea Survival and a VHF Radio Licence.  Participants have to complete qualifying rows, and courses.  And they have to make time to raise money for the challenge (both to cover costs and for the charities they are rowing for – in the Yorkshire Rows case,  Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre and the Yorkshire Air Ambulance). And find the time to ensure sufficient levels of fitness. 

This short BBC Breakfast video gives a good indication of the work that went into their preparation (disclaimer – Catherine is not a sports psychologist, despite the BBC calling her one!)


As a business we do quite a bit of work around behaviour change, and one of the areas we often pick up on is the need for a compelling destination.  This undoubtedly helped the women in this instance – they had a clear aim, and a compelling one, both in terms of the race and their fund raising, which will have helped them in the weeks and months of hard work that went into their preparations for this challenge.

Support

Completing a challenge such as this requires the support of many.  Not just team mates, but also family (particularly relevant in the case of the Yorkshire Rows as they each left husbands and children at home), friends, specialist support and even the general public.  The Yorkshire Rows played a blinder in this area by managing to get so much of Yorkshire behind them. Yorkshire is a proud county (disclaimer – it’s where our head office is….) and can be voluble in its support.

Problem Solving

James Cracknell is a veteran of challenges such as this. Interviewed at the BT Sport Action Women Awards at the end of last year, he said that the main skill needed was the ability to problem solve.  Well the Yorkshire Rows definitely had their abilities in this area tested! Pretty much everything that could go wrong did go wrong. The worst storm during the race for years, the electrics on the boat failing, meaning that the women had to manually pump the water, steer and navigate. The knock on effect of this was huge, in terms of manpower taken away from the rowing, and in terms of increased levels of exhaustion and frustration.  The women had aimed to complete the race in time for the February half term, but the difficulties they encountered made this impossible.  This meant logistical difficulties for the families in terms of flying out for the finish, and all of this will have preyed on the rowers’ minds in addition to the immediate impact that the problems caused. But throughout all these problems, the four continually worked at meeting the challenges, solving issues where they could, and keeping going.

The team

In her last blog, Jeanette, the skipper, described her fellow rowers as follows: Helen – “reliable, strong, determined and a very positive influence.” Niki - “very special, kind, generous, caring and very, very safety conscious.” Frances – “ understanding, empathetic and has a wonderful laugh.” She went on to say “so these are my crew, the best crew in the world that has moved us thousands of miles across this big blue ocean and the crew that makes this adventure special in my heart and soul.” What a testament to their team spirit, and their understanding and appreciation of each other. The rowers were sensible enough to understand the need to really spend time on what makes each other tick, and ensure that they could all get the best out of each other.

As a blue print for how to go about achieving extraordinary things, we think the Yorkshire Rows are very much up there! Huge congratulations to the four of them, and we hope they enjoy their celebrations. And once they have had a chance to recover and get back to normal life, we will be asking them to ‘guest blog’ with their take on their success. 

Catherine BAKERComment