Henley Royal Regatta: What it takes to be a high performing team

Rowing team carrying a boat

This week one of the best-known regattas in the world, Henley Royal Regatta, takes place for the 179th year. It is a pivotal event in the rowing calendar and, as a competitive rower myself, it’s led me to reflect on my own experience of being a part of these high performing teams.

As a visually impaired athlete, I was part of the para GB rowing team for the run in to the 2012 Olympics and through to the Rio games. But my experience doesn’t come from just one team. As well as competing internationally with Team GB, I’ve also competed at club level, most recently at Imperial College London.

My team experiences have varied so much depending on the team I am in. I don’t think there is one set way to create a high performing rowing team, but instead it’s about finding the right approach for that crew at that time to get the most out of the individuals and the team.

From my experience, there are five qualities that I think high performing rowing teams all possess, and I think you’ll notice the parallels with high performing teams in organisations too:

1. Learning ability

For a rowing team to be successful the individuals must be able to develop the technical ability. You can’t generate a fast and strong team without that capability to learn and develop.

2. Team players

But, having said that, the best athletes don’t always make best rowers so it’s not all down to the physical ability. The athletes need to be able to work together and harness a rhythm that’s compatible for the whole team.

3. Strong shared leadership

It’s important that the coach has a strong vision and can communicate that with the team. The coach needs to get buy in and create goals which the athletes understand and relate to so that everyone is on the same page, striving towards the same goal. The cox also has an important leadership role in rowing as they give instructions and feedback throughout the race so it’s important that they know the team and what makes or breaks them.

4. Recognition of individuals

In rowing everyone has different strengths. Whether that is a precise technical ability, immense power or strong rhythm setting. It’s important to recognise individuals’ strengths and use them for the team’s advantage. Each member of the team will have their own goals which play to their own strengths and their own development opportunities, but it’s important that all this ties into the team goal.

5. Trust

Rowing is a physically demanding sport with each athlete committing hours of their day to training. It’s important that you can trust that your team are putting in equal effort and to trust your coach’s training programme. The moment one member of the team challenges that trust by missing a session or focusing on a self-interest goal, that is when the team starts to break down.

What happens when these qualities play out well…

I’ve seen each of these factors play out throughout my career. When I think about a particularly high performing team I was part of, I quite often think of the Varese International Regatta which I raced in for Team GB in Italy.

My teammate lost one of his legs in Afghanistan so was unable to steer the boat and, due to race rules at the time, I was required to wear a black-out eye mask. This was a true test of teamwork as I steered the boat using my teammate’s guidance. We developed a technique using numbers for him to tell me how far off course we were, either to the left or right, so that mid-race when he was short of breath it was easy for us to communicate effectively.

After only two training sessions together we managed to progress through the quarter final, semi-final and won the final. Our goal alignment and ability to adapt to the circumstances made us a successful team.

…and when they don’t

However, not all the teams I have raced in have been so successful.

I’ve also raced at Henley Royal Regatta in an eight for a local club. As always, we had a clear race plan and a strategy which would help us reach our goal.

However, in the moment, when you know you’re in a televised race watched by thousands of people worldwide, it is easy to get caught up in the moment and experience ‘Amygdala hijack’. This is when the brain prioritises the processing of emotions at the expense of more rational functions such as problem solving, creative thinking, and the ability to process new information and ideas – the very functions needed for the athletes to follow the race plan.Ultimately, it can become impossible to focus on anything other than the short-term goal of self-preservation.

That’s exactly what happened to two of our teammates. They went off too fast from the start meaning that despite being two lengths ahead early on in the race, they soon faced burn-out resulting in a loss for the crew. This experience highlighted to me both the value of trust and the importance of a race plan which everyone is bought into.

Watch some high performing teams in action this weekend

So if you’re watching the regatta this week, you’ll be spoilt for choice for high performing teams to cheer on. Although if you’re asking me for my top picks to watch out for:

  • Kingston RC are going strong in the Thames Challenge Cup, beating Thames RC today.
  • Mahe Drysdale (NZL) Olympic Gold medallist at London and Rio is always a fascinating watch in the Diamond Single Sculls.
  • John Collins & Graham Thomas, the GB Double, in the Double Sculls Cup could be a thrilling final against New Zealand favourites & 2017 World Champions John Storey & Chris Harris
  • Beth Bryan & Katherine Maitland from Leander in the Stonor Challenge Trophy will be facing the German international crew on Friday