It's my fourth week back training, in what is a forty nine week campaign. Last season ended at the start of September with a fifth place in the GB men's four at the World Rowing Championships, a respectable but not electrifying end to the season. We were then given a three week break, tearing through it and cramming in as much as I could, but by the end I just wanted my own bed and consistency to my day - a real #FirstWorldProblem. I'm back rowing full-time and back on the simple life; 6 am wake up, five meals a day and plenty of exercise. The season has started with a reasonably punchy pace. Crews have been broken up with each individual starting a fresh, often looking to address his or her weaknesses.
When I was sixteen or seventeen my dad came in to my room for a chat/interrogation. It wasn't an unusual occurrence and followed a similar format; dad asks loads of questions to the point where you actually want to do the maths homework he just interrupted, followed up by a strong suggestion on how something could be done better. That day's topic was "what are you focusing on to become better?" with a specific line of questioning regarding my rowing. He wasn't asking this because he thought I was no good or that I didn't have a clue, I think he just wanted to streamline my approach and organise my thoughts to get more from what I was doing. His view was that I shouldn't be concentrating too much on my weaknesses but instead I should take what I'm really good at and make it even better. My dad's background is in engineering and manufacturing so the conversation was littered with bell curves on the back of an envelope, mathematical summaries and anecdotes from industrial factories. In rowing the force exerted by a rower produces a bell curve and my dad claimed that an individual's strengths and weaknesses would also plot as a bell curve. In rowing we look to have as large an area as possible underneath the curve (as this equates to power applied which in turn equates to boat speed). Drawing the analogy to an individual's strengths and weaknesses, the greater the area under the curve ultimately means the better we are at doing those things. So how do you become better at doing what you do? You focus on the peak and not the wings. We all want to be less crap at doing things and so to make our package stronger we look to mitigate the losses. My dad's claim was that to make the easiest change to the area under the curve you push the peak and in practice it often has the added bonus of dragging the wings of the bell curve up too. An example he gave was that during shift work there are more productive shifts than others, rather than focus on trying to get the less productive shifts up to the standard of the top performers, you should push the peak as it will result in quicker gains and the trickle down benefits will be that the less productive shifts will also raise their levels through lessons learned. I've come across a number of scenarios where this rule of thumb holds true. A couple of weeks ago I read a book called How Brands Grow (Byron Sharp) and in it Prof. Sharp states that statistically customer retention schemes (loyalty cards etc) offer very little benefit to maintaining market share but that customer acquisition is the main driver behind a business' growth and survival; pushing the peak is more important than limiting the losses.
So what has that got to do with starting the season? Rather than focus on my weaknesses I should look to maximising my strengths. Last September I felt my comparatively low body weight was a significant weakness but my power in the weights room was a real strength. That winter I got stronger and stronger in the gym, with the added benefit that it increased my body weight to levels I had never been at before. And the area under my curve? I was knocking out PBs all season long.