What an amazing Olympic Games and an amazing Olympic Rowing Regatta for Australia. The most successful Olympic Games for Australia in quite a while. With 17 Gold medals, (2 Gold and 2 Bronze in rowing) and 46 medals in total, Australia finished 6th on the Olympic medals table.

How is it that a country with 26 million people achieved such success?

There are some lessons to be learnt in how high performing teams, prepare for success. I found this article over the weekend. Thought that you would appreciate insights into how Australian Rowing Team prepares for success.

Original article; Behind High Performance Teams, Australian Olympic Committee, by Catriona Dixon, published on 13 August 2021.

Australian Womens 4- 2020 Olympic Champions

Beyond the emotional victories and heart-warming medal ceremonies we’ve witnessed at the Tokyo Olympics, there are lessons to be learned from the way our elite teams prepare for sustainable success.

In a three-part series, we talk to some of our most successful coaches to gain an insight into the secrets behind high-performing teams. Today we spotlight Rowing Australia.

When Bernard Savage made a phone call to Rowing Australia Women’s Head coach John Keogh right after the NSW Premier held her daily Covid-19 press conference, he didn’t mince his words: “I think we might need to get the girls out today.” 

With Sydney at the early stages of a Covid outbreak, the Performance Director for Rowing Australia knew he would need to act quickly to avoid disruption to the final weeks of the national team’s Olympic preparation. 

Within hours, the rowing shells were on trailers heading from Penrith to their final training base at Rockhampton, (1,500 km north of Penrith) athletes were packed for their seven-week trip and on the road to Canberra. Later that night they would fly to Rockhampton – all four days earlier than expected. 

“This doesn’t happen without trust,” Savage said of the feat which would have left even the world’s leaders in logistics in awe. 

“Our athletes trusted we were doing the best thing for them to get them to the Games.  It was a reflection on the work we’d done to ensure they had complete trust in the leadership and operational management of our program.” 

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA – JUNE 13: Athletes pose for a photo during the Australian Rowing Tokyo Olympic Games Team Announcement at the Adelaide Oval on June 13, 2021 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by James Elsby/Getty Images for the Australian Olympic Committee)

Trust, that is the secret to a high-performing team, according to Savage who helped Rowing Australia to two gold and two bronze medals at the Games, and it’s something he believes needs to be at the heart of all teams, in sport or in business. 

The data speaks for itself. From a team of 38 athletes and nine qualified boats, they won four medals, made six A finals and three B finals.  

“Trust is the foundation for how our teams perform well,” he said.

“The things people talk about often like communication flow off a strong foundation of trust. It takes time to develop and to sustain, a level of trust; the ability to have open and honest conversations, to have conflict, and conflict isn’t always a negative thing.” 

So how do you develop trust, considering the diversity of workplaces, the disconnection of teams with many people working from home, the challenge and fatigue from the Covid-19 pandemic? 

“It’s about making sure you have open and transparent discussion about how to be better,” he says. 

“If you have trust people bring their very best to the table and feel confident and comfortable that they’re able to be their true self and put their views forward.” 

“Any team that’s going to function well and be successful, has to have that strong foundation of trust. If you don’t have that people aren’t going to commit themselves fully to the process and that’s obviously got a huge impact in the outcome.” 

TOKYO, JAPAN – JULY 28: Alexander Purnell, Jack Hargreaves, Alexander Hill and Spencer Turrin of Team Australia celebrate winning the gold medal during the medal ceremony for the Men’s Four Final A on day five of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Sea Forest Waterway on July 28, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

To develop a culture of trust, Rowing Australia relies on constant communication, reviews, feedback, and small group consultations within individual teams, to provide a safe place for individuals to thrive as part of a bigger team. 

This is normally done in crew groups, with coaches and athletes alike, playing a key role in promoting open communication in an authentic and positive environment. 

To facilitate this, and as part of their strategy to become the number one rowing nation globally, Rowing Australia set up two national training centres at the end of 2017 with the men based in Canberra and the women in Penrith.

The training centres aim to provide more stability for athletes to enable them to plan their education and employment, access to world-class coaching and facilities and a competitive daily training environment. 

They are also seen as integral to building a culture of unity and collaboration within the sport. 

Savage believes the days of “I say, you do” are long gone when it comes to sustainable high-performance. 

“You need to be genuine in the way you conduct yourself and you need to understand and be respectful of the diversity you have within your group,” he says. 

“This comes from understanding that everyone’s going to bring something to the table. If you want people to commit themselves to a process, striving towards an outcome, they need to feel like they’re being accepted for what they bring.” 

“Communication is core: the fact I can accept who you are and what you’re bringing to our team. It’s about being authentic. It’s about constantly talking, constantly reviewing.” 

“It’s having people understand and feel comfortable that they’re able to engage and not be afraid to challenge the status quo or put forward an idea or to ask a question about why we’re doing something.” 

As the rowing team basks on its success in Tokyo, the entire Australian Rowing network, including staff, athletes, families, sponsors and stakeholders, can look back with exhausted pride at what was a tumultuous Olympic preparation.  

Over a period of 18 months, they were forced to relocate their national team to Tasmania due to bushfires, find innovative race practice alternatives due to no international travel and deal with constant uncertainty and disruption of the pandemic. 

“Our results are testimony to the strength of the program we developed over five years,” Savage said.

“In a crisis or under pressure, you need to remain calm and clear-headed because you need to make the right decision.”

“Those decisions can only be based on the information you have at the time; 20-20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, but you just have to make the best decision you can make at the time with all the information you have.”

“Then you need to execute that decision, follow through and know you have got the entire team’s trust to do the best thing you can for them.” 

The secret to a high-performing team according to Rowing Australia? Quite simply: Trust. 

Original article by Catriona Dixon