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Sarah Winckless

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Coaching advice from an Olympian


Olympic medallist Sarah Winckless tells us about the importance of coaching both in sport and business.

Since I was a young budding athlete, my coaches have been some of the most important and influential people in my life. When I was younger you could replace coach with teacher, for they were the PE teachers I was lucky enough to come across. They taught me fundamentals of movement which would become the base rock of my craft and educated me in the fundamentals of the team sports I would grow to love. Giving me simple, repeatable exercises to practise building skills and confidence, and moving me on when I was ready to stretch and increase skill.

As my sporting life progressed I joined clubs, played for regional teams and eventually in rowing joined the national squad. These teachers were now named coaches, and I experienced a myriad of styles, personalities and techniques, each one contributing in their own way to my Olympic bronze medal and World Champion titles. As I became older and more experienced I valued a more collaborative approach. Coaches were prepared to stand side by side and each bring their thoughts, talents and expertise to an element of my performance or every day training. Together we’d find ways to eke out extra percentages in different elements over hours and weeks of work to allow me to achieve the best ultimate performance I was capable of in an Olympic or World Champion final. Sometimes it would be about pushing me on, other times reigning me back and maybe just thinking about a problem differently.

In sport, no athlete would ever dream of going un-coached; these are the people who hold up the mirror so you can see your best and worst moments for what they are, and move on and learn from them. These are the people who push you to achieve performances you only dared dream you were capable of. Without a coach, an athlete’s career wouldn’t exist at all.  I therefore wonder why so few of us seem to have that mentor or coach in business – the one whose only interests are in our ability to perform. Who have you got around you that can help you increase your own performance?

Any sporting performance can be broken down into three elements; technical / tactical, physical and psychological. Many believe that the third element is the one that will differentiate those who can step up to the plate and achieve the best performances on the greatest of stages. It is why Dr Steve Peters has been valued so highly by the British Cycling Team and now his ‘Chimp Paradox’ is used widely in the sporting, business and educational arenas. However, none of these elements can be seen as more important than any other, there are no silver bullets that can be fired by just ‘thinking the right way’. Only this week in the Americas Cup drama unfolded as the New Zealanders threw away what appeared to be an insurmountable lead, as Britain’s Sir Ben Ainslie joined Team USA and race by race this new team achieved the seemingly impossible – showing just how much one individual, a fresh look and communal belief in something better can turn around a seemingly failing team.

I believe it is sometimes invaluable for an outside individual to come in and inject that fresh approach, energy and dynamism to galvanise a performance and businesses can learn from both of these examples.

In the sporting arena perhaps it is easier, there is an event which is unmoveable that athletes and the teams around them work towards, whereas in business projects are often complex, multi-dimensional and often staff are working on many things simultaneously. Surely this, if anything, means it is even more important to have a coach to help us practise the skills we need in order to be able to perform?

In professional sport, especially Olympic sport, over 90% of your time is spent practising. Do you practise the skills that you need to acquire to become the best you can be? Do you have a coach to help you practise your sales pitch or your communication skills over and over to be more effective? Who will be there to coach, encourage and challenge you and to help you develop the technical, physical and psychological skills that you need? To hold up that mirror so you can see your good and bad performances for what they are and give you a fresh perspective? Where is your coach?

Sarah Winckless is a double World Champion and Olympic bronze medallist rower. She is Head of Coaching Services at Will It Make The Boat Go Faster? Ltd. For more information about their coaching and other services visit


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