Olympic medallist Catherine Bishop says ‘it’s not about who crosses the line first’
PUBLISHED: 10:18 12 November 2020
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The Highgate rower channels the lessons of three Olympics and a decade in diplomacy in her book to redefine winning beyond the ‘first past the post’ mentality
The Latin quote which begins Catherine Bishop’s book – translated as “do not take as gold all that shines as gold” – isn’t one you would expect from an Olympic medallist.
But it goes to the core of what the former world champion rower argues in her book: The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed (Practical Inspiration Publishing £12.99)
The three-time Olympian said: “When we think about an Olympic final we totally focus on the person who crosses the line first, but we miss a whole load of really valuable stories.
“Other people may have done brilliant things and maybe one aspect didn’t work for them. Yet we dismiss their brilliance because they didn’t get the result in the end.
“We put far too much weight on outcomes and enable those to justify or undermine what’s gone before – when the reality, of course, is far more complex.”
Bishop isn’t only talking about sport. During a decade-long diplomatic career at the Foreign Office, which followed her retirement from rowing, she served as a political adviser in Bosnia and Iraq.
And she found the same winner-takes-all mentality which characterised high-level athletics within the corridors of power.
“I’ve encountered that obsession with winning in everything that I’ve done since. A lot of diplomacy is this zero-sum game where success depends on your opposition doing badly out of a negotiation.
“Whether that was after the breakup of Yugoslavia or in trying to hold elections in Iraq, this language of ‘We’ve got to win’ and ‘We’ve got to be the best’ was still there.
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“I asked: What does it mean to win? What do you do when you win? Did you deserve to win? But there wasn’t that deeper meaning behind it.”
Bishop says the book sprang from a 20-year personal process of “trying to make sense of what winning really means.”
When she first competed at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, primitive sports psychology saw athletes speak a “macho language of winning” and little else.
But by Sydney 2004, where she and Katherine Grainger netted Silver in the coxless pairs, a more thoughtful and collaborative approach began to permeate among competitors.
“In the last 50 years, we’ve undergone this testosterone-fuelled focus in our culture on who’s the biggest, the best, the meanest. That’s not actually how we operate as human beings. There is a short-term dopamine hit that comes with winning medals.
“But they are far less effective than if we tap into the system of meaning and purpose within our brains, if we strive for intrinsic motivation which is sustained and meaningful.
“We should be thinking harder about the sorts of stories athletes leave sport with and stop fixating on the short-term rush of winning, which athletes including Jonny Wilkinson and Victoria Pendleton have said brings only diminishing returns.”
Bishop, now a business coach advising on team and leadership development, ties that hunt for medals to recent scandals involving doping and abuse in gymnastics.
“When you have athletes saying they’d choose to give medals back if it meant avoiding traumatic experiences in sport, as Amy Tinkler did, we have a real problem.”
If winning isn’t working even for the winners, she says redefining what winning means could help us reach our potential in a more meaningful way.
“What Gareth Southgate said at the World Cup has stuck with me: ‘Success isn’t about winning the tournament. It’s about allowing the players to have as good an experience as they can.’ It’s no more than that”.
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