Olympic paddlers learn to set goals then break them down. Breathing exercises help too.
As a member of Canada’s national paddling team, MBA student Andrew Russell learned a lot about discipline and teamwork. It is a grueling life that takes commitment over the long haul – and tolerance for pain.
Today the MBA student at the Sobey School of Business at Saint Mary’s University is leading a seminar on leadership at the Halifax Club, one of the oldest clubs in North America.
He introduces Mark Oldershaw, a third generation Olympic paddler who won bronze in London in the C-1 1000m event. He is a two-time junior world champion whose natural talent and hard work got him off to a fast start in this demanding sport.
Andrew leads us through a short breathing exercise. “This helps to reduce stress and take you to a Zen-like place,” he says. “We tend to overthink. We need to let go.”
Mark echoes the sentiment. Both these men are driven competitors. To succeed in life, they needed to learn how to lighten up.
Mark explains how he was a “failure” in Bejing when he missed the final and a “success” in London when he won a medal.
He had had success early, making the junior team and becoming a top paddler. “I was the fastest in Canada,” he said. “I was winning World Cup medals and on the perfect path.”
Then he developed a benign tumor on a nerve in his hand. For two years he could not train. He experienced pain and depression and had two surgeries. He started to train again.
In the Olympic year of Bejing he started to feel the pressure of being a third-generation Olympian. “I felt the weight on my shoulders and could not let go of my obsession to do well,” he said. “It wore me down and I didn’t have a set plan for the year.”
In the semifinals he went out hard in the first half and hit the wall. He came 4th and did not make the final. “I felt devastated. I saw my dream fall apart in two-minute race.”
“After being a recluse for two days, Mark came out of it and became a great teammate who encouraged the rest of us,” said Andrew. “He became a leader on our team.”
After that, Mark reassessed his goals and made a four-year plan to prepare for the Olympics. “I got a sports psychologist who taught me how to focus and how to relax. He taught me how to set goals and make a plan–to write it out and reevaluate the plan every week.”
When you write down your plan it makes you accountable, he said. “My ultimate goal for the Olympics was to paddle 1000m as fast as possible in the final.”
He had many goals along the way, including being as fit as possible as a base. “On the mental side, I wanted balance in my life and I wanted to finish my degree.”
In 2010, he was 10th at the World’s. In 2011, I was 5th. He was learning to deal with the pressure.
When he arrived in London, he had learned how to separate the Olympic race from the experience of being at the Olympics. “I didn’t get overwhelmed. I knew when to focus and when to let go.”
Part of his plan was to break the 1,000m race into four 250m sections. Each phase of the race had a physical component and a mental component.
“At 350m you hit the first wall and feel a sense of doubt,” he said. “Then you fall back on your plan. At 600m I used the mental image of throwing down Thor’s hammer. My goal for the finish was to get in as many strokes as possible. It’s ugly.”
At this point we watched a video of the race.
“At the starting line I was at peace,” he said. “I knew I had done everything I could to prepare for the day. At 500m I was in 4th position and a sense of doubt crept in. Then I put on a surge at the end. I was just overtaken by a Spaniard who beat me out for the silver medal, but I had the bronze. Throughout the race I had fallen back on my plan.”
For anything in life, you can write out a goal sheet, he said, breaking down your big goals into smaller, time-specific goals.
He emphasized the need to breathe to clear your mind and beat stress. Paddlers routinely do breathing exercises before and after training. It is also important for him to get away from paddling and engage in other physical activities.
Mark said he had to learn to let others help him. His mentors include his father, who is his coach and an Olympic athlete. Also Larry Cain, the 1984 gold medalist. “I paddle and talk with him.”
When he felt lazy he would look at a poster of the London Olympics, which became his visual cue. “You’ve got to know you put everything you could into your preparation,” he said. “The worst feeling is to have a sense of doubt at the starting line.”
Now he is preparing for the next Olympics. His plan is just a rough draft. It needs to be refined and developed.
“I still want to win,” he said. “I also want to help other paddlers on our team. I’m still working on developing more mental and physical toughness. And I still analyze the race and ask myself: Why didn’t I win?”
He wraps it up: “Keep your eye on the prize. Do what it takes to get the end result. Then trust the plan and yourself.”