In January 2011 I was stuck. Over the previous three years our program’s performance had fallen from amongst the top of the conference and competing for a position on the podium at the NCAA Championships to the middle of the Big 10 and barely getting selected to the championship. To make matters worse, we were three months from our spring racing season, and the current team’s performance indicators weren’t predicting that this group would be better than recent ones.
I reached out to one of the best rowing coaches in the world to confer. After some conversation, he shared with me his perspective on what we needed to change. In short, he advised, we needed to do A LOT more volume and quite a bit less intensity than our current training entailed.
I shared the conversation and its conclusion with my trusted assistant. Her reaction was understandable. She was afraid. Afraid the athletes couldn’t handle the training and would get injured. Afraid the athletes couldn’t handle it emotionally. Afraid that there were too many demands on their time and energy to try a plan like this. I understood where she was coming from and told her I felt that same fear myself. “But if fear is the only reason we don’t do this, that’s not good enough,” I responded. We moved forward with the plan.
We shared our plan with the team. We got them on board, and we moved forward. There was pain. There was also progress, which made the pain palatable. We grew bold, made some errors, and learned how this model could work in our ecosystem. By May we had won our first Big Ten title in five years. Two years later we would claim the program’s first NCAA Team Championship.
Like many decisions that work, this one seems clear cut in retrospect. But the fear of training like this in the collegiate environment was so great at the time that no one was even attempting it. Even today only the most inspired and competitive programs are leaning into this level of training volume.
I was no more courageous than the next coach. What helped me overcome my fear was the growing chronic dissonance I felt between the current state of my program and what I saw as our dream state. As Chet wrote, “You and I are happiest when we choose to act into fear and when we choose productive action, acute pain, and commitment.” Without realizing it at the time, that is exactly the prescription we followed, and it opened doors of performance for us that we will relish for a lifetime.
What fear is keeping you from addressing some of your chronic dissonance? What productive action would move you toward resolving it?