Check out episode one of this special four-part series of Phenomenal Grit featuring four-time Olympian and Quest Ambassador OAM Cate Campbell where we discuss Team Success vs. Individual Success.
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Enjoyed the conversation? Read Cate's bespoke article below to learn more about her ideas on individual and team success.
Swimming is an individual, singular and at times, lonely pursuit. You do not ‘play’ swimming in the same way you ‘play’ soccer or basketball or golf. While you are swimming there is no scenery to admire, no podcasts to listen to and, while you are sharing your lane with squad mates, you cannot simply turn and converse with them. If you do, it’s in short breathless gasps at the end of the pool where you often have to push off mid-sentence. The conversation thread left broken and dangling, often never to be picked up again.
It is a training heavy sport, with over 30 hours of dedicated exercise per week spread out over swim, gym, core, spin bike and pilates sessions. With only a few competitions sprinkled throughout to year to break up the monotony – and the Olympics, the event everyone cares about, only comes around once every four years.
Members of the Australian Dolphin Swim Team train in different programs, do different events and live scattered around the country. We only come together for a few weeks each year under the banner of the Australian Dolphins Swim Team. The rest of the time we are individual athletes with individual pursuits often racing against each other.
I have had the privilege of being a member of the Australian Dolphins for over 10 years. I have seen many swimmers and coaches pass through the relentlessly revolving door of elite sport. I have been on teams which have surpassed expectations, and on teams which have been buried by disappointment – sometimes by heartbreakingly small margins, a few hundredths of a second. Our team result and final medal tally, is largely made up of individual performances, with relays being the only exception. This begs the question, in a sport like swimming, where athletes compete in isolation, where the success of the ‘team’ rests on the shoulders of individual athletes in individual events, does having a good team culture impact on performance?
The answer, is ‘yes’. Let me tell you why.
The most successful swim team that I have been a part of, in fact it is the most successful swim team in Australian Olympic history, was the team that competed at the 2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics. It operated under a very simple, yet seemingly incongruous principle: People first, Performance second.
At first glance, in a high-performance environment, where races are won or lost in the blink of an eye. Where dreams are made or hopes dashed. Where government funding of the sport is justified or scrutinised, operating under a principle which values people over performance might seem like a recklessly insouciant approach. Yet there are three key ways in which this principle helped to create an environment of psychological safety. Where effort was acknowledged regardless of outcome. Where success and loss became shared endeavours. Where failure is not shunned, but revered for what it can teach you. And ultimately, it delivered Australia its most successful swim team in Olympic history.
Respect the effort.
When a swimmer steps out behind the starting blocks at the Olympics, in the four years of training prior to the Games, they will have completed average of 6,720 hours of physical exertion, swum in excess of 9,600 km, and pushed their mind and bodies to the absolute limit. They do all of this, for one moment, one race, one chance to put together all of that preparation. No athlete steps out behind the blocks and, after everything they have put themselves through, thinks “I think I’ll only give it 80% today.” We all go in with 100% commitment and focus, and yet, for some, when the opportunity arrives, they fall short of their expectations. Like everyone does from time to time, they have a bad day at the office. And remember, our bad day at the office is played out in front of millions of people, and is often the difference of a few tenths of a second.
By having an environment which values people over performance, we respect and recognise the time, effort and energy that goes into a performance – regardless of the outcome of that race. One of the great juxtapositions in life, is that success and failure exist at the same tipping point. When an athlete stands behind the starting blocks, both outcomes are a possibility. If we are only valuing people for the outcome of their performance, then we are signalling that we are only valuing the effort that goes into winning. We dismiss, diminish and ignore the effort that went into a performance which did not have the desired outcome. It compounds an athlete’s sense of shame and enhances the universal fear of failure.
In Tokyo, we recognised and celebrated everyone’s effort. Every performance was put up on the wall in our team room. Whether it was a gold, medal, a personal best or just a bad day at the office, everyone was acknowledged. Each athlete was valued for their contribution to the team and the effort and bravery they displayed in their race was not ignored.
Shared struggle and shared success.
It will come as no surprise to anyone, that a team made up of Olympic level athletes is a group of highly competitive individuals. It is this competitive drive which has made them the best athletes in the world, and yet in the wrong environment, this same competitiveness can cause rifts within a team. Creating unnecessary conflict and taking energy and focus away from the real objective.
A team which values performance above everything else creates an egocentric, hierarchical culture. Athletes who deliver medals, preferably gold medals, sit on top, and those who don’t, sit on the bottom.
Most people are aware of the concept of schadenfreude, taking pleasure in another’s misfortune. This thrives in environments which solely value performance. Schadenfreude prevents collaboration and knowledge sharing, therefore inhibiting innovation. It focuses peoples’ competitive instincts inward against each other, rather than outward towards a common adversary. Encouraging them to jealously guard their experience and results, shielding their insights and success like a protective hen covers her chicks with her wings. Victory can only be shared and savoured by a few, and defeat is the fastest way to the bottom of the pecking order.
Schadenfreude’s lesser-known antithesis is freudenfreude: the taking of pleasure in another’s success. Teams that embody the concept of freudenfreude foster resilience, increase individual satisfaction and improve overall cooperation – all of which leads to higher performance outcomes.
Unlike schadenfreude, which is a defence mechanism used to protect our own ego and social status, Freudenfreude is rooted in the idea of shared results – good and bad. By valuing people for who they are, not what they do, we create an environment where we can share in others’ achievements and where we recognise the impact other people have had on our own results. When your social status is not threatened by some else’s performance and we feel like we can contribute to the team in more ways than results (i.e., delivering gold medals) we can begin to genuinely share in our teammates’ joy and see their success as our success.
I am not saying that exceptional performances should go unnoticed and unrecognised, of course they should be celebrated, but it should never change the social hierarchy of a team. After every event, we always hand out awards to the highest performing athletes, however, in Tokyo, we also handed out awards for ‘best cheerleader’, ‘biggest personal best’, and ‘most supportive teammate’. These awards celebrated athletes who may have otherwise gone unnoticed. If our team culture only valued performance through contributions to the medal tally, it would have failed to recognise those who made less tangible positive impacts on the team.
Resilience is a real buzz word at the moment. It is bandied about in inspirational speeches, leaps out of resumes and tops the list of coveted personal attributes. We are great at celebrating resilience once it has been cultivated. We proudly brandish achievements delivered by resilient people, applauding their strength and marvelling at their resourcefulness. However, what we are not good at, is creating environments where resilience is allowed to grow.
Resilience is not born of success. It is not the product of triumph. It does not exist atop the podium. Resilience is found in the dregs of broken dreams, in mire of disappointment. In the heart-breaking depths of failure.
It is the lessons learned from these trials, the ingenuity we have to find and the strength we are forced to muster that fosters resilience. We discover and expand our limits by taking risks, by challenging and pushing ourselves. Yet if we are in an environment which only values performance, which does not allow for failure, we are less likely to take those risks needed for growth. We will be stymied by fear, shackled by caution.
If failure is met with anger, ire, ridicule or simply ignored, we will also be less likely to go back and thoroughly interrogate the result and therefore miss out on key learning opportunities. When the outcome is steeped in shame, we will instinctively push it down or away, wanting to place as much distance between ourselves and the result as possible. But if we acknowledge that failure is part of the process of success. If we can value people first and interrogate the process of a performance, divorcing it from the outcome, second. If we are able to sit in the pain and discomfort of failure without drowning in it, only then we are able truly able to learn and grow form that experience.
By developing strategies to address and mitigate the stigma and shame surrounding failure we fostered an agile, creative, challenge-receptive team in Tokyo. We also helped those who fell short to pick themselves up and try again - which is the very definition of resilience.
The Australian Dolphins Swim team left Tokyo in 2021 with a total of 20 medals, 9 of which were gold. From a hugely challenging covid-impacted Olympic campaign, where the Olympic were delayed for a year pushed back to 2021 from 2020. Where we competed in front of empty stands and had to comply with stringent health measures. We managed to navigate all of these challenges and deliver results in the moments that mattered. We returned to Australia as the most successful team in Australian Olympic swimming history partly thanks to the performance environment we managed to foster.
In the world of high-performance, where limits are being tested and records broken, it is often tempting to retreat into the comforting realm of stats and data. To allow binary pixels on a screen to dictate our every move, decision and direction. Of course, data has its place and allows us to track and monitor change over time, but if we focus too heavily only on the output, we often forget that in most cases, behind the numbers, behind the stats there are real people. People who are complex and multi-faceted. People who cannot be distilled neatly down into numbers on a spreadsheet. If we truly want to impact performance and the bottom line, then we need to address the intangible, invisible element: people. Create an environment centred around addressing the human element first, where your people drive results, not your results drive your people. Your workforce and your bottom line will thank you for it.