It’s rare to see a Concept II rowing machine right in front of a large pipe organ, next to a grand piano and in front of a harpsichord! But it set the scene for a meeting of two worlds, a chance to delve into the high performance environments of Olympic rowers and musicians from the Royal College of Music.
There have been various studies comparing high performers across fields – from sportsmen and women to musicians, from top surgeons to successful entrepreneurs. The following common themes usually stand out: a deep sense of purpose and passion for what they do, a huge drive to improve constantly and to listen and learn from others as well as from their own mistakes.
These things were certainly a given when the Olympic rowing medallists, musicians, a Boat Race coach and a music professor got together – all driven, passionate individuals striving daily to improve their ability to perform at the highest levels – but what did that conversation look like, what themes came up when we asked about their daily routines and performance preparation and what might we learn from that?
There were remarkable linguistic similarities – both groups of athletes and musicians talked of technique and rhythm, of getting to know each other and understanding each other on a daily basis in order to build the trust and confidence that meant those relationships could support peak performances under pressure, where rowers could read each others’ minds when sitting behind each other during a race, and where musicians similarly communicated without using words during a performance.
There were some wonderful assumptions challenged, and one in particular came when the musicians stressed the importance of relaxation and not rushing when performing, assuming this formed a contrast to the rowers’ world after seeing them demonstrate a burst of speed and power on the rowing machine a few moments earlier. [Musician:] “I mean, it’s totally different to sport, we have to be relaxed and not rush.” All the rowers’ eyebrows shot up and faces lit up as they quickly explained that rushing is a real challenge in a rowing boat too, and relaxation is a fundamental aspect of top boat speed. Power cannot be generated by tense muscles – as with tennis or golf strokes so with the rowing stroke: tension prevents maximum power and perfect technique. Furthermore, a critical aspect of boat speed is what happens in between the powerful strokes in the water when the oars are out of the water and the rower is sliding to prepare to take the next. During this phase in between the oars powering through the water, it’s vital for these large, powerful rowers to be as relaxed as possible, conserving energy and sensing the boat running underneath them in order to slide forward at the same speed, not faster or slower than the shell of the boat itself which would slow the boat down, and sensing how the other rowers are moving in the boat so as to be as closely in time as possible.
Rushing became a strong connecting concept as the rowers explored how it occurred and disrupted performance in the musical world and the musicians explored vice versa. The music professor described rushing during a musical performance as one of the biggest challenges for musicians to overcome. The rowing coach then explained that under the pressure of a race, there is a remarkably similar tendency to rush in between the strokes when sliding forward to take another stroke that destroys rhythm and boat speed. The musicians and rowers spend hours and hours to override the tendency to rush, both needing to be in the moment during a performance and not allowing anxiety to change the body and mind’s ability to sense the right rhythm and speed to move and play at. The tendency to rush has to be overcome through practise, mental rehearsal and self-management under pressure.
The athletes and musicians shared the frustrations of how rushing could impede reaching their best performances, from getting into the ‘zone’ and delivering what they were capable of. Their high performance drive, sense of purpose and passion were no help in stopping rushing, indeed, sometimes those things only served to stoke up the adrenaline that can feed the urge to rush. Nor is it a purely rational process, for it’s easy to understand why rushing destroys a musical or rowing performance, easy to analyse and diagnose rushing when reviewing back a performance. It’s quite another thing to avoid it under pressure, in the heat of a race and the spotlight of a concert performance.
The mental rehearsal, self-awareness and increased capability to manage one’s mind and body under pressure are crucial to reaching the highest levels of performance, and need to be part of the daily process of technical mastery. The rowers and musicians discussed how relating to each other during a performance was hugely helpful in ‘tuning in’ to the right performance speeds and rhythms, how they needed to use each other, reach each other’s minds and sense what they were each thinking in order to be in the right place during a performance.
Both rowing coach and music professor shared the frustrations of seeing rushing creep into performances when not present in training. The challenge remained to avoid focusing on the negative tendency of rushing whilst being absolutely focused on the need to prevent it. Both coach and music professor concentrated on building up confidence and reliability in the ‘right’ rhythm, the right levels of relaxation and exploring with the athletes and musicians how to understand and manage themselves better during performance pressure.
The rowers talked about nerves, the musicians about ‘performance anxiety’ – as an observer, it struck me how the rowers’ nerves were seen as potentially positive, needing to be channelled, but ultimately accepted and indeed seen as potentially performance enhancing if managed well. The musicians’ performance anxiety started off from a much more negative viewpoint, the words themselves demonstrating a more negative way of approaching this issue, that would only make it harder to overcome and manage. And how a performance started would set the rhythm for the rest of a performance – under the greatest pressure at the beginning of a rowing race, or at the start of a musical performance, rushing at that stage made it difficult to get back to and into the right performance rhythm.
The rowers and musicians alongside their coach and professor discussed the balance of mechanical drilling and instinctive performance in training and practice, as rhythm is first learnt but then has to be felt. Again, the two worlds overlapped though with perhaps a greater emphasis on the ‘technical drilling’ in the rowing world, and a stronger emphasis on the ‘instinctive’ part of performance from the musicians and the need to ‘feel’ rhythms before and during a performance – and therein maybe a point for the sporting world to learn from.
The language of high performance pervaded this fascinating conversation – there is so much that the language we use tells us about the challenges and opportunities we have as high performers.
So much resonated with my experience of organisations outside the field of play and concert hall music – of the importance of understanding what happens under pressure and how it is experienced and perceived by those who are living it, of thinking about the language of performance that we use and how it gives us insights into that experience and into ways of improving performance, and of how vital it is to develop the often invisible, non-verbal communication between people on teams, linking in at a level beyond the purely rational day to day activities. And of how in those crisis moments at work, there can feel a pressure to ‘rush’ decisions, to take a hasty view on what should happen next, rather than connecting to others around you, taking a breath, and returning to one’s own natural rhythm of thought and decision-making.
There was such a buzz of conversation as the rowers and musicians all left the room with so many yet to be explored areas of high performance. It reminded me that seeing things through others’ eyes, even the simplest aspects of what we do, and stepping outside our own worlds is nearly always enlightening and inspiring!