In episode 10, Andy Barrow talks about living in the bubble of elite sport, his time as GB Wheelchair Rugby captain and his current role inspiring other people.
Andy Barrow is a triple Paralympian and three-time European gold medalist. He was a professional Wheelchair Rugby player for Great Britain for over a decade, captaining the team for five years spanning the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing. Andy competed at London 2012 Paralympic Games before retiring internationally to pursue a career as an inspirational speaker and mentor.
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: 15.2.17 – Ep 10. Andy Barrow – triple paralympian on leadership and inspiration
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR[Music]
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 20 minutes of discussion twice a month to hear a range of views on what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.[Music]
Today I’m talking with triple Paralympian, Andy Barrow. Andy was a pro wheelchair rugby player for GB for over a decade and retired after the London 2012 Paralympic Games to pursue a career as an inspirational speaker and mentor. I’m interested to talk to Andy about motivation, his own and also how he motivates others. We discussed living in the bubble of elite sport, his time as captain for GB and his role now of inspiring other people.
When you look back at your life or your career in sport, are there particular parts that stand out to you?
AB: Obviously you look for your Paralympic Games and it is an obvious one to say London, but obviously that as a home Games was so so special and that as not only a home Games but my third Paralympic Games where I really had the head space to take it in as a life event and not just a sporting event was really important to me.
TP: So just to look back at your career a little bit. Right at the start, what was your motivation for getting into sport in the beginning?
AB: That’s a good one. Straightaway it was that idea that I’d gone through a life changing event in having a spinal cord injury, the fact that I was keen sportsman before – not a good sportsman just keen, but [laughs] was important to me because of the enjoyment. But also, as I say, with having a physical disability it was a really simple thing for me, you were fighting for your independence, which is right up there in the basic needs of things but the most important things we can have as people I think. I think it’s probably second only to your survival, so that was hugely important for me to remain physically fit in order to be able to live my life as independently as possible with the changes that my body had undergone due to disability.
TP: And why wheelchair rugby?
AB: I’ve always loved team sports and rugby was my favourite sport. I’d always loved rugby because it’s a game for people of all shapes and sizes and no matter what your skill set is there’s a place for you. And the idea of working together in a team, the camaraderie of being in a team achieving something together that you would never be able to do individually and then just looking at the sport, just the sheer aggression involved in it – the contact, the speed of the game – it just looked fantastic to me.
TP: A lot of people play sport but you played it at an elite level, why go all the way?
AB: I think it’s your changing desires of what you really want from sport. We all start sport, and I think we should all start sport for fun, there has to be that base motivation of wanting to do something, why do I want to do this? And you start for fun and you start for the camaraderie and you start for enjoyment – you might start for fitness, and then all of a sudden it’s when you start climbing that mountain – you don’t know you’re on the mountain but suddenly the clouds are clearing and you can see what you could do. As an able bodied sportsman I was never going to be fantastic, not because I don’t think I’d have been good enough because I believe you can get good enough through practice, I believe I lacked application. But when I started playing disability sport I realised the opportunity of far fewer people being involved, so that came after the fun the realisation of, wow, where could we go here? And then as you start getting more and more involved you start committing more and more, and you have to have that fun to be able to put down that commitment. You can’t just draw up a brand new person into an elite training schedule because they’re be like, ‘Well I’m not doing this, this is unenjoyable to me,’ but your enjoyment changes and what kind of does it for you about sport changes? And from the start of my career it went from being fun to the thing that was the most fun to me in winning at the very very top level, that was the drug that was the feeling you did it all for.
TP: What happens then when you don’t win?
AB: Do you know it’s hard. Two things it either breaks you or it motivates you that is your power, your anger, your energy to draw from because I’m not feeling like that again ever. So when you don’t win you use that feeling because you don’t want to replicate that. When I speak to school children all over the country and internationally – yeah, I’m at pains to tell them there’s nothing wrong with winning I want you to want to win. And also it pains to tell them there’s nothing wrong with losing because when you lose you learn, you learn something from negative experiences, it’s the giving up that I have a problem with. And so when you lose or when you have a negative experience in life that’s just energy, that’s the fire to push you on to push your further.
TP: You not only played in the team you were also captain and you captained the wheelchair rugby team at the Beijing Paralympics, can you talk to me a little bit about maybe the highs and lows of being a captain?
AB: Absolutely. It’s a terrific honour to be captain to not only wear the shirt that’s a big enough honour for your country, but to lead them that was the proudest moment of my career. And when you’re that first person to get his or her hands on the trophy and you’re a figurehead and you can say, ‘I lead this team,’ that’s huge. What comes with it, behind the scenes, is an inordinate amount of work and many many distractions that can actually take you off your game. The first thing you need as captain is to justify your spot beyond all question; you’ve got to be fit for purpose, you’ve got to be good enough to be there, you’ve got to have the respect of your team mates and you’ve got to be the one running through the walls in front of everyone else. And I don’t mean that you have to be the massive talismanic leader, people do leadership in their own way. When I started being captain I was one of the youngest members of the squad and I’m like I’m going to have to get this done and work, I’m not just going to be your sort of Martin Johnson ‘Follow me because you should because look at me,’ I don’t mean that, that sounds really negative on him but he was a really talismanic character, these people that you wanted to lead. I don’t believe I was like that when I started, I was just like, ‘Look, watch how much I work, this is how much I want it; I want to be your leader; I want to do everything I can to pull this group of people together,’ so it’s that what you do off the court is almost more important than what you do on it.
TP: And how do you pull a group together, how do you motivate them to go out there and achieve success?
AB: I think it’s really important that people know each other well, especially when you’re in a sporting environment and especially when you’re in an elite sporting environment. I made sure that my team knew really kind of intimate thing about each other in the best possible way. I wanted them to understand the way every other member of the team ticked and the achievements we had within this, the quieter achievements; the people who had slightly different lifestyles; people from different ethnicities; people who were a fascinated by a particular hobby; people who’d just done all these things but mentioned it to them. So bringing that together creates trust, it creates a bond; making people accountable without riding roughshod over them in terms of ‘these are rules’ making us agree the rules and take it forward as a team, making my team leaders as well. I wasn’t the best at everything by any means, I certainly was the star player on my team I had my faults in different areas. And just making sure the best people did the best things on the floor and off the floor, and just making sure we were all accountable and all honest with each other. Our coach used to talk a lot about trust, honesty and respect, and I think those are some fundamental building blocks for a team right there.
TP: You’ve talked a lot about I suppose your individual motivations and also that what get a team going. I suppose what might the flipside be? What kind of extinguishes that drive, that desire, did you ever experience that?
AB: Yeah, definitely. I think negative energy is ten times worse or you have to work against it ten times more than you do with positive energy. It only takes a small negative, a small doubt, a small crack and what sport does it applies pressure and when pressure is applied to something small it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. So any lack of honesty or trust within the team or lack of respect between people, or a feeling that maybe somebody wasn’t doing as much as training as somebody else that’s a fairly innocuous little thing that’s going to just tear out into a chasm when you find yourself two or three down in a semi-final so it’s kind of really important to safeguard against it. And obviously there’s times behind closed doors on international teams where people have got to be frank with each other, it’s elite sport and you’re deriving your fun a different way. I don’t want to say it’s not fun because it’s tremendously fun for the people involved, but you’ve got to make sure that you’re always there for someone, you’re always rallying round them and able to really help through the dark times, and likewise, to be fallible enough to admit that you get some times where you question yourself, question your motivation and your ability, so managing that and keeping that balance, I think is hugely important. Balance is a massive word that you need to bring into the equation as you get more mature as a sports person.
TP: You’ve retired now from professional duty, how do you know when it’s the right time to retire?
AB: I think what you have to do is you have to have that ability to take a massive step back and really look at the bigger picture. And what you’ll find is the very best athletes have that ability to do that both on and off the court, both within their life and professionally. Because as athletes we spend all our time obsessing over the details but you have to be able to step back and understand what it’s for. And the perspective on that is the idea that elite sport is a fascinating bubble but it is just that and it’s a small part of your huge life. So to be able to step back and understand what it means to you then gives you a decent perspective on when to make that choice, and it could be for a number of reasons. Now for me there are a couple of key factors, it was obviously my life outside was changing, I’d met the person I wanted to spend the rest my life with; I’d done three Paralympic Games; I done the home Games; I’d won medals in European championships but I hadn’t won medals in world championships or Paralympics, but I looked at the opportunities I’d have in the future to win those medals and the work that would need to be done to lead to those opportunities, and it no longer added up for me. And even the idea that I’d even considered any of that, I think lets you know that you’re at a turning point in your career and you need to make serious choices about what way you want to go, because for me it’s 100% job and you’re in or you’re out and there’s no grey area.
TP: You’re now a motivational speaker and you go around the country, you also talk internationally, what do you find that people latch onto?
AB: I think people do latch onto the big picture, people see you as a person with a disability, as a person who was going along minding their own business and something bad happened to them and then they overcame that. I’m always really careful to point out to people that we generally don’t give ourselves enough credit as humans of what we can achieve when we’re under pressure when our backs are against the wall, and I say, “Look, if it happens to you it’s happened you can’t change it. Am I really grateful that you’re impressed by that but everyone has their own stuff to deal with – you can see mine and maybe the way I came about having a disability by having an accident or the fact that I use a wheelchair is a bit more headline than maybe somebody who is looking after a sick husband or wife.” And also they do latch onto the inspiration but I do like make that clear distinction between inspiration and motivation, there is a very – for me, the really simple way of putting it is inspiration is potential energy, motivation is actually kinetic energy actually doing something with it. You can be as inspired as you want, you can go away feeling fantastically inspired from a book, a TV programme, a sporting event, a life event, a person, if you do nothing with it that energy is just going dissipate. That’s really important to me that people take action off of the back of something because I always like to say if you want to feel what inspiration is like just go and get yourself a double Espresso because that buzz is similar, then if you do nothing with it nothing happens.
TP: That’s a really really good point. How can people push themselves over, does it have to come from within motivation?
AB: There are a few big things you can’t control but only a few, everything else you could control and you could control the way you react to everything. Every single person has had the worst day of their life and every single person living and breathing listening to this podcast at this point has absolutely got over that and moved on. And it’s just that perspective for me.
TP: Is motivation a decision then?
AB: I think so, I think it’s a choice and it’s one of the many thousands of choices we have. Obviously, your attitude governs your level of motivation and your wellbeing governs your attitude, so there are all these small things we can do to make sure that our choices are that much more positive or the ones that we wish to select, but it is up to you at the end of the day.
TP: Reflecting on what we’ve talked about, how would you define success or performance?
AB: Oh that’s good, success is good for me because I spend a lot of time answering questions in and incredibly long winded way if you ask anyone that knows me. Somebody asked me recently and I just said success is what makes you happy. Performance that is how you carry something out. Again, that’s another thing that all us sort of elite sports people and sports psychologists like to try and un-blur the whole result versus performance, you can win a game of football two nil and play awfully and you can lose a game football two nil and be the best player on the pitch, that’s not performance. So performance is how you carry something out and it’s up to you to sort of govern how positive you want that to me. And by monitoring your performance is obviously a way to potentially chart games success, as well keep track on any sort of negative trends and losses.
TP: I’d just like to ask you a few quick fire questions now. What did you eat for breakfast?
AB: This morning? Pineapple. How lucky am I? Chopped up pineapple.
TP: [Laughs] Your favourite piece of sports kit?
AB: Oh, my rugby wheelchair, without doubt.
TP: Sporting hero?
AB: Johnny Wilkinson.
AB: The work – I don’t subscribe to talent, I believe you get talent through work. The humility as well I think.
TP: Most useless piece of advice that you have either been given or given to somebody else?
AB: God, the most useless? I can’t even think.
TP: Okay, let’s flip it round then, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
AB: I just think it’s just work as hard as you can every day. If you give your 100% is the best bit, or that’s all you can do. Your 100% changes every day, some days you feel crap and your 100% looks small but it’s still your 100%, give your 100%.
TP: Greatest passion outside of sport?
AB: Travelling and music.
TP: And last one, best performance enhancer?
TP: [Laughs] That’s brilliant, Andy. Thank you so much for talking to me today.
AB: More than welcome.
TP: If you want to get in touch Andy you can do so via his website that’s andybarrow.co.uk or via Twitter at andybarrow2012.[Music]
TP: Thanks for listening. You can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook and also don’t forget to subscribe online to aquestionofperformance.com.[Music]