In episode 14 we talk with three-time Olympian and former world champion rower, Cath Bishop about how culture impacts performance. We discuss competition, how she was chosen as the ‘last resort’ for her University crew, the psychological challenges of coming second and her pride in becoming world champion in 2003.
Cath Bishop is a former Olympic medalist rower and respected diplomat who has spent time in some of the world’s most hostile conflict zones. She is also a visiting professor at the Surrey School of Business and Chair of the Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club.
In partnership with Katherine Grainger she was World Champion in the coxless pair in 2003, and in 2004 they won a silver medal at the Olympic Games.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 15.4.17 – Ep 14 Cath Bishop- world champion rower on how culture impacts performance
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to “A Question of Performance”. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series, I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits, and drives performance. Join me for twenty minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views and what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
TP: Today, I’m with a former World Champion rower, Cath Bishop. Cath competed in three Olympics and shares some fascinating insight into the effect of culture on performance. In partnership with Katherine Grainger, she was World Champion in the coxless pair in 2003, and in 2004 they won a Silver Medal at the Olympic Games in Athens. She is also a visiting Professor at The Surrey School of Business and Chair of the Cambridge University Boat Club. Thank you very much for talking with me today Cath. I read an interview that you did, I think back in 2003, and you said about rowing that you had no intention or reason to take up rowing, and actually found it to be quite a dull spectator sport. So, I’m interested to know how do you go from finding something quite dull, to not only getting involved, but actually committing so much to the sport, that you become an Olympic medallist. How does that happen?
CB: Yes, it’s not logical I don’t think. So, it’s a strange story really I think. I went to a very ordinary state primary school where I grew up in Essex, and then went on to secondary school, and I suppose sport never really happened for me as a child. I didn’t come from a particularly sporty family, so we weren’t out in the park doing lots of sporting stuff, so I probably didn’t have a lot of fitness as a child, and it didn’t inspire me at school. We did hockey and netball, and I wasn’t very good at either, really. I just have memories of standing on this freezing cold hockey pitch and remembering how much it hurt when that hard ball hit your ankles, and so I wasn’t able to get involved somehow. I felt like a spectator always to sport and it just wasn’t for me. And the school reports confirmed that, that “Cath isn’t very sporty, but it’s okay, she can do other things so let’s not worry about it” and so I just assumed really, and was happy to say, “well, the evidence is there, the teachers have told me I’m not sporty, so that’s it” and when I went to University therefore, I didn’t expect to take up sport. As far as rowing was concerned, I had watched the boat race and thought, “well that all looks very repetitive, I’ve got no idea really what that must feel like, and I’m not able to really relate to them at all. So, it wasn’t something that I thought, “oh, I’m going to Cambridge, I really want to take up rowing”. You go to that initial freshers’ fayre where there are all these different types of clubs. There was a huge stall for rowing, a huge buzz around it. Lots of people with clipboards, lots of people signing up, and somebody came up to me “do you want to sign up? You’re good and tall, that would be great” and I just looked at her in horror and said, “why would I sign up? I’m not sporty and I don’t like getting up early in the morning” and I could already see that rowing was something that happened very early in the morning, and I’d worked my butt off to get to University and for me, it was about sitting up late at night solving the universe. It didn’t really fit into what I was going to do, or what I thought I was going to do. So, I didn’t sign up, and I didn’t really sign up for anything. I was quite overwhelmed by actually where was I going to put my time? I quite wanted to get involved in politics, arrived with quite a lot of interest in that area but a little bit of debating at the Union and actually felt I really didn’t fit in there. So, that didn’t really come to anything, and a month or so into term, lots of people had signed up for this rowing thing, and they were forever talking about it, and there was a huge buzz around it when they arrived at breakfast in the mornings having been out horrifically early to train, and I watched them a little bit and thought, “I slightly envy that camaraderie they’ve got” but still thought, “it’s not for me. It can’t be for me. It’s just not something that I could do”.
TP: And is that because of what you’d been told at a younger age?
CB: Yes, exactly. I just didn’t have any physical confidence. For me, sport was a very narrow experience that hadn’t been particularly positive. So, I didn’t have any other field of reference to think, “this might be different” and I’m just very lucky really that somebody who had become a good friend in the room next to me was doing the rowing, and knocked on my door one afternoon, and said “I need a massive favour, Cath. You’re our last resort because we know you really don’t want to do this rowing thing, but we’re a man short in our beginner’s crew. We need eight people to do it”.
TP: Was that true or was it a mischievous way of getting you involved?
CB: Oh no, it was true.
TP: It was true.
CB: Yes. I mean, nobody at that point had any sense that I was going to.
TP: [Over speaking] that you might become an Olympic medallist.
CB: Yes, it really wasn’t obvious in any way, and so they bribed me with alcohol really and said, “look come out tomorrow morning. You’ll be fine. We’re all beginners. We’re all rubbish” and all the things that went through my head, “it’ll be embarrassing, I’ll look stupid, I’ll be awful at it, I won’t enjoy it”, you know, they batted all that away and said “look, for goodness sake, don’t be so silly. What have you got to lose? Just try something different” and I’m grateful for them, that they persisted, and that there was in my head somewhere a little voice that went, “come on, what have you got to lose? Why don’t you try it?” and so I did. And so the next morning I got up horrifically early.
TP: How early are we talking?
CB: Oh, 5:30, 5:45, that sort of thing.
TP: Yes, that sounds horrific.
CB: Yes, exactly. And I got on my bike and went to a different part of Cambridge to where the boathouses were on the river. I have to say even that, we’re all cycling down the road together, there was obviously no traffic that early in the morning, and even that was quite thrilling. I didn’t know where we were going. There was a huge buzz when you get to the river, all these novice crews zigzagged up and down the river, shouting here and there. Chaos, but there was a buzz around it. The river was very beautiful first thing in the morning. It was all very new. It was a long way from that hockey pitch, and that’s how it started. It didn’t start in any spectacular way. In fact, in my first outing I broke a blade because they put me at the back of the boat and I was holding on so tightly to my oar that as we drifted towards the bank, it crumpled along against the bank, which was their mistake for really not putting me in the middle of the boat. I wanted to get out, and they said “no, you’re not getting out”. The coach went round. We’d hardly gone more than a few yards. He said “I’ll get you another oar” and so we carried on. And in a way, it was a lovely beginning because I just fell in love with the sport. We were the second novice crew so there was no expectation on us.
TP: Well, you say you fell in love with the sport. Was it the camaraderie? Was it the physicality of it? What kept you there at the beginning?
CB: It was a combination of things. I think largely that river environment was just something, I just loved being out on the river. It was just so different from anything I’d experienced before, and you’re so close to people in a rowing boat in a way that on a hockey pitch you’re not. You were all spread out. Actually, I could just stand there on a hockey pitch and do nothing. You can’t sit in a rowing boat and do nothing, so therefore I had no choice to opt out, so you start opting in. And of course, once you start opting in, then you’re in it. You’re doing it. You’re trying it. You want to get better at it. You want to work with other people and you don’t want to let them down. So, for me, it’s a tighter team experience if you like, and that was great.
TP: So how did you go from being on the University team to being in the GB team that went, I think your first Olympics was at the Atlanta Olympics?
CB: That’s right. So, I started at college level and crept through each level gradually, and then got into the University level, and by the time I left University, the coaches said, “you’ve got potential”. We had a really good standard of coaches who had worked with the national team, and they said to myself and another girl, “you have potential to carry on and go to the Olympics. No guarantees, and it’s a lot of extra work, and you’re here and there’s still a big gap to where you’ve got to be, but we think it’s possible” and that was another moment of thinking, “well I had expected to go and get a job, and my parents were expecting me to go and get a job” but now I had this other option that looked very vague and came with no guarantees of what would happen, but if course there’s also something you couldn’t stop thinking about. Thinking, “well where could that go?”.
TP: Yes. You were in three Olympics; Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. You medalled in the last one. What was different? What enabled you to get the medal in the last where it didn’t in the previous two?
CB: A lot changed. I was very lucky to come into that, in that last Olympiad really, to be able to benefit from the huge difference that Lottery funding and the English Institute of Sport coming onstream made. So, when I first went to the Olympics in Atlanta, life was very different for a women’s minority sport who up to that point had won no Olympic medals, and I was very excited to get into the team, but pretty quickly it was made clear to me that women’s rowing was not a performance priority for the rowing team, because we weren’t delivering results and the men were, and we didn’t have really a means of changing that. We didn’t have paid coaching. We didn’t have good equipment. We were struggling to survive, holding part-time jobs to try and keep going and of course then not recovering enough. So, in that downward cycle really, and that was transformed by the Lottery in 1997 that suddenly meant things were put on an equal footing and that we had a paid coach, and we had the facilities that we needed, and of course, results started to come. Now they didn’t come immediately, and I had a really difficult up to Sydney where physically I was improving and coming into my peak, but we didn’t have a positive training environment. We had a very difficult coaching regime that didn’t really bring the best out of people. It was very tough. It was absolutely last man standing, it was quite a negative competitive environment. I always thought that competitive is competitive, but I experienced different competitive environments that were set up differently, and in that one, it was very much one person’s win is another person’s loss and that doesn’t help everyone to improve. It was tough, grim, survival really and by the time I got to the Olympics, I was exhausted from just surviving that and it hadn’t been a positive experience, and it certainly didn’t allow me to perform at my best. That was really difficult to come back from and at that point, I stepped away for a year and felt, “well maybe that was it”.
TP: You say it didn’t allow you to perform at your best. Do you think that was other people’s experience as well?
CB: Yes, certainly we had a few people who did well and of course we did win the first women’s rowing medal there, but we had a large proportion of the team that didn’t. So essentially, four people did well, but neither the eight, the double or the pair. So, again, that was 12 people who did not reach their peak performance and so I was again fortunate that in that last Olympiad, we ended up in a different coaching setup that suddenly there was a much more positive basis to it, that therefore you might beat somebody in the team on one day, but that was good for you and it was good for them as well, because they’re doing the same programme, there’s no reason why they can’t improve, and they’re doing other things right, and if you don’t do some of those things, then they’re going to beat you next week, and it lifted everyone up. It was a very different competitive setup.
TP: So, the “let’s improve together”?
CB: Exactly, instead of a zero-sum game almost that there are losers in the first one, and there are people who will drop out the bottom. This was much more about everyone helping each other to improve performance and that was a radically different experience. The support by that point we’d had for several years in terms of the quality of nutrition advice and psychology advice and that sort of thing, so I’m just so grateful that I was able to experience that Olympiad and I feel sorry for all the women who were there in the nineties before those opportunities were there, who were excellent athletes, but didn’t have that environment or opportunity to actually be the best they could be.
TP: With Katherine Grainger, you were the first GB pair to medal in that event. Is that important? And what I mean by that is, is that important to you, and also is that important to people who come after you?
CB: I don’t know to people who come after. I think to us there was so much that was new. There were so many firsts for the women’s rowing team. Everything was a first really. Getting consistent results, getting an Olympic medal, getting World Championships medal in that boat class, winning the World Championship, so it felt like all the time we were doing things that hadn’t been done before and that weren’t expected of us, and so we were proving people wrong if you like. Proving that women could do it. So, I think there was a real incentive that we’d now gotten rid of some of the barriers to success. We’ve still got to do this now. We’ve got to make this happen because if we don’t, then when is it going to happen. So, I think there was a sense that we were slightly pioneering if you like, and that was a spur to us. “Let’s prove we can do it because we know we are capable of it”. So, I think it was an additional spur but ultimately, you’re trying to be the best you can be with whatever situation you’ve got and in a way that didn’t change I would say, it’s just that there were things helping us to get closer to that.
TP: What enables you to keep that focus when you’re going through failures for instance, and you talked about leaving the sport for a year was it?
TP: How do you regain that focus?
CB: Certainly, stepping away was essential. I was crushed by coming ninth in Sydney and having such a difficult experience throughout that Olympiad, and I had lost a lot of self-belief and in a way, I still had the same hunger that I wanted to achieve that, but I could no longer see that it was possible, or I doubted so much whether I could do it.
TP: So, what changed?
CB: I took myself out of the environment for a year. I actually started my job at The Foreign Office and took a complete step back and of course with perspective comes a different view on what’s happening and a sense that actually, it was unfinished business. I hadn’t been able to deliver my best, I wanted another go and I maybe needed to just get that out of my system. I needed to prove to myself that that was the best I could do or maybe there was an opportunity to have one more go. So, it’s putting that to rest I guess. I didn’t feel happy that walking away from the sport with a ninth place was the best I could do. So, it was, “well, put yourself in the frame again, with no guarantee you’re doing to do better, but maybe you can change it”.
TP: At that sort of elite level I imagine every little change that you make has some…the idea of marginal gains.
CB: Mm, definitely.
TP: What were the sort of small little changes that you made that made a massive difference?
CB: I think in that last Olympiad, it was lots on the psychological side. It was having more experience, being less bogged down in small day-to-day crises, stepping back a bit more. The fact that I’d gone into a working world gave me a huge perspective that actually going backwards in a boat as fast as you can isn’t always the most important thing in the world, and that was enormously helpful. There’s other stuff going on there. You get so obsessed with a tiny dip in performance, or one bad score somewhere and it just stopped me getting bogged down in those little dips.
TP: So a pressure release?
CB: Becoming less deep really, so you know, getting my mind off it at times, being able to switch off from it, being able to look act actually what’s important here, and maybe you had a small dip for a good reason, so it’s not indicative of “things are going into terminal decline here”, it’s just, “it’s got a reason, so let’s learn from that and move on” and rather than dwelling on the negative stuff, focusing more on the positives and really thinking, “you’ve got one shot now, you’re not going to keep going after this” and it was very clear in my mind. So, sort of “don’t hold yourself back, don’t limit yourself” because I was doing a lot of that. It was hard to shake off a lot of early negative experiences. I’d lost a lot of races. It’s hard to shake that off and you’re aware of other people looking at your record and thinking, “well, we wouldn’t put money on her to win an Olympic medal this time” and people saying to me “don’t come back again. You’ve got a good job, you’ve been to two Olympics, that’s great, walk away” and it’s hard to think, “gosh, I’m going to put myself in a hugely vulnerable position again and may fall flat on my face” but at the same time.
TP: You did come back and you got Silver in Athens which is phenomenal. I’ve read research that says that people who get Bronze medals are happier than people who get Silver medals. Can you respond to that at all? Does that seem like a fair assessment?
CB: Yes, I’ve read that research too. Yes, Gold medallists and Bronze medallists are so much happier, yes. The Bronzing medallists are so happy they didn’t come fourth. I can. I think at one level when we crossed the line, I felt devastated we hadn’t achieved our objective, but very quickly, I think I felt, going back to my earlier comment, “do you know, I can live with this. I can walk away with second and it isn’t what I wanted, it isn’t what I dreamed of, it isn’t what I went out to do, but I can walk away and live with it” and I very quickly I think came around to that reckoning. That said, I do, I’ve thought about it since then in my own mind, there’s this question “is it okay to come second?” and I find myself going over that. For years, I’ve gone through that question and thought about it from different angles and argued it both ways and thought about how other people would argue that. You’re in a world where only winning counts. There’s so much that values that Gold medal above everything else, but I think increasingly, maybe you get mellow with age, there’s a huge experience that comes with, whatever the result is, and facing up to that result and the world can’t exist with people who only win. The Olympics can’t work if you only have winners, so you’ve got to have people of high quality in all those other positions, but it is a question I think about a lot.
TP: It’s funny isn’t it, this “I came second” or “I came second in the world”.
CB: You can be so quick to dismiss a result that isn’t first, and I think that’s a shame. And I think I look more broadly now. I think there’s a real danger that we lose so much that is good and when I look at my young five year old son going into the playground and talking about winners and losers and all that, and already there’s this sort of categorisation going on, and it breaks my heart really, because there’s so many different talents in different ways and there’s a real risk we lose that if we try and put it into a simple winning-losing brackets and I think that’s true of so much that we get excluded from things early on in our school experiences, childhood experiences, because we haven’t won at something, in whatever that is, not just in the sporting world, and I think we lose a lot by that. I kind of wish they would, in the Olympics, want to run a newspaper that has all the stories about all the people who don’t win, and actually sometimes they’ve achieved much more because of the hurdles that have been in their way, and you can’t say that that doesn’t have a value, and it’s such a shame that we perhaps don’t put the value on that as much and lose out I think in some way.
TP: When you’re looking back at your rowing career, is that Silver medal your highlight? The thing that stands out? Or is there something else that when you look back at the rowing career?
CB: I’d say the highlight is the year before when we won the World Championships, because we got the Gold medal, we heard the National Anthem, we were on the top step, and although to the outside world the Olympics counts highest, I think to me, again I take great comfort that we had one day when it all came together and it worked and I’m again, entirely grateful that that happened, because so many people have challenges and injuries and all sorts of things can happen that you can’t control that can throw you off. So I think for me, that was pure joy. It wasn’t in any way guaranteed. I’d literally come back that year. I’d almost not made the team because I messed up one of the trials. Nobody would have put their money on that and that was a result of pure joy and pure achievement for us as a pair really, against quite a few people who weren’t really backing us.
TP: Beyond sport then, you’ve moved on to do other things within your career. Was your experience of sport important to those other areas?
CB: Yes, lots. I think there’s a huge amount that sport trains you in. It gives you that drive and that discipline and when we were training, we used to say, sort of every day I’d think to myself, “why am I doing this?” and I could answer that question really clearly. I had such a clear goal, such a clear dream. It’s very inspiring on a daily basis and I still look for that. I still look for “why am I doing things” and I need to feel that there’s some purpose in it. So I think I’ll always have that driving force to get better at stuff, to keep learning, to never stop learning. Also, not to be put off easily, so again, that resilience just to keep going and actually things can turn out alright, however bad they’re looking. To keep finding new ways of doing things. So I think there’s a lot that’s helped me to persist in other challenging situations, certainly.
TP: This podcast is about performance. It’s about how different people see or define what success is. Do you know what success is for you and has that changed over time?
CB: Again, it’s like the Silver medal question. I think about that quite a lot, “what is success?” and perhaps what I started off thinking was success was probably defined more in medals, and actually now it’s defined much more in experience and integrity and how I behaved and things. And I look back, I don’t think really of the medals. I think more about how I behaved in different circumstances and how I dealt with really challenging mentally and physically challenging situations. So for me, success is about managing the difficult stuff, I think. The things that people don’t see, the less glamourous side of things, and really how you support others. That human element, again the relationships. The people you supported when they were having a bad time. For me, that’s the stuff that actually counts that I would say I was most proud of as those times when we stuck by each other when other people were doubting us, or doubting one of us. So, for me, success is actually much more around what you’ve done to support people around you and get the best out of everyone and not just be solely focused on yourself.
TP: Just some quick-fire questions then. What did you eat for breakfast?
TP: Today, yes.
CB: I was standing up because I was getting my kids ready for school, and I had yoghurt with some nuts and seeds.
TP: Brilliant. Favourite piece of sports kit.
CB: That’s a difficult one because we wear a lot of Lycra in rowing and it’s hard to say that any piece of Lycra is particularly favourite, but I think my old University kit, where it all started, where things really changed and I suddenly, you know, the sport just became part of my life, it would be an old piece of Uni kit, now really falling apart.
TP: Sporting hero?
CB: Again, not one person. I did grow up watching the Olympics and particularly, was fascinated by the 1984, the Los Angeles Olympics that had Daily Thompson and Tessa Sanderson, and Ovett-Coe rivalry and Steve Redgrave, and there was something magical about watching all of that and I watched it like a Hollywood film, in that I thought, “wow, that’s absolutely amazing and not anything I would ever do” and so there was something that definitely inspired me from that Olympic era I think, and knowing and rowing with Katherine Grainger has been a really massive privilege.
TP: Most useless piece of advice you have been given or given to somebody else?
CB: I think it was people who said to me, when I was thinking about coming back for the third Olympics, all those people who said “oh don’t bother, don’t put yourself through it again. You’ve got a good job. Why would you do that again?” and I’m glad I didn’t listen to them.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
TP: Music? Okay.
CB: I love music. I grew up with a lot of music.
TP: Do you play?
CB: I play the piano and music is there for you in the good times and the bad times. It’s there for you however clever you are or however not clever you are, however rich you are, however poor you are. Music is something that can uplift me and I think all of us. Music is an important universal gift that we all have. I love music and I wish we could have more music in our worlds that we work in and live in and go to school in. All of that.
TP: Well, this might be the answer to the next question then, as well, but best performance enhancer?
CB: Yes, music is part of that. I think it’s the mindset really. It’s actually self-belief and a knowledge that you’ve done all you can and it’s time to go out and see what happens on the field of play.
TP: Brilliant, thank you so much Cath.
CB: You’re welcome.
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.
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