row2k Features
Book Review: 'Learnings from Five Olympic Games' by Frances Houghton
July 2, 2021
Oli Rosenbladt, row2k

Olympians tend to write books; just in the past year or so, we've seen a couple of Olympic memoirs, a sports psychology book with a strong rowing undercurrent, and a business management volume from Canada's Adam Kreek, and more. Rowing lends itself to many topics, both literally and metaphorically, and Olympians, by dint of their achievement, can occupy a perch that most folks in sport can only aspire to.

If any rowers could be described as perching loftily, it would be GB's Frances Houghton; Houghton participated in five Olympics for Great Britain, and captured silver medals in 2004, 2008 and 2016, in addition to winning the world championships four times.

Given her lengthy career, and certainly the amount of stories that could be told about five Olympics, it's all the more surprising that Houghton's new book, "Learnings from Five Olympic Games," clocks in at a tidy 100 pages. (By contrast, in "The Kiwi Pair," the book detailing Eric Murray and Hamish Bond's achievements between 2012 and 2016, the first Olympic Gold appeared on page 173; at this pace, Houghton could have delivered an 800 page coxswain weight, but, tellingly, did not do so).

Houghton (3rd from left) on the podium at the Rio Olympics
Houghton (3rd from left) on the podium at the Rio Olympics

But telling stories is precisely what this small, fine, book is not about. As Houghton told row2k in a recent interview, creating the book took a good four years of sitting and distilling her Olympic experiences down to their essentials (it's also partly the reason you won't find this book on Amazon; in order to keep her vision for the book and the integrity of the project intact, Houghton opted to self-publish).

What this book is about is, as the subtitle of the book has it, "creating performance," and in seven very succinct chapters, Houghton outlines those habits and routines that allowed her to continue rowing and performing at a high level through five Olympic cycles. In the book, Houghton covers Teams, her Rio crew, the silver-medal winning GB W8+, and their approach in the run-up to the Games, Racing & Nerves, Daily Training, Meetings & Debriefs, Technique Fundamentals, and Injury.

The book's format is intriguing; part narrative, part list, and part graphical material, it gets at the essential subject matter it seeks to present in a direct and effective way. And, in its presentation the book ranges from the straightforward ("Sunglasses off in debriefs," Houghton writes in her section on Teams. "Disagreements never got solved quicker by avoiding eye contact."), the practical ("It's not the will to win that matters--everyone has that," from the Training section. "It's the will to prepare to win that matters.") and the profound, the book has mines a deep vein of rowing knowledge.

With a deft touch, Houghton mixes keen observations on rowing with her own experiences. In a segment on self-awareness, Houghton reflects on the realization that, what she thought was a strength, was actually a negative.

"Personality profiling was a powerful tool we used in the team to help us understand both ourselves and each other. When I first read my profile, I thought it would be great to work with someone so driven, detailed and focused on the end goal. But once I started to try and see that from the outside, and see what effect me being like that had on other people--especially then knowing a bit more about their personalities, I realised that it was often super destructive. We would always end up performing better than if I had been the 100% focused, no-stone-unturned version of me."

Equally as practical is Houghton's description of what she learned from the GB team psychologist, Dr. Steve Peters, when she went to see him in an attempt to get a handle on rowing more confidently. "The first thing he said to me when I walked into the room was, 'I don't believe in confidence. I won't talk about confidence.' He explained to me that what people perceive as confidence is a feeling that constantly fluctuates with mood, perspective and expectations depending on how prepared they feel for what is about to happen. To think clearly and pragmatically under pressure, to feel ready and prepared to perform no matter how you feel, and a state that is a lot more powerful and robust, involves being able to separate emotion from logic."

From there, Houghton writes, she learned that, "at my best, I saw performance as a creation, a chance to pit what we had put together against what anyone else brought on the day, not a fight, not win or lose, and certainly not judgement day."

In today's context of the looming Olympic Games and COVID, Houghton's section on coming back from injury may be the most apropos. Listing her go-to injury mindset as "Why is this going to be the reason I won?" Houghton inverts the typical athlete's anxiety about a lag or lapse in performance as a result of an injury and describes the attitude necessary to use an injury or break away from the sport to reset mentally. Given the amount of strong performances across the rowing world that we've seen in the past year, as the sport emerges from COVID, you'd have to allow that she is on to something.

In terms of perspective, Houghton addresses that to, in the form of a picture that she "kept at my kitchen table so I saw it every day over my breakfast and every day when I came in from training."

Simple, yet powerful.

In short, the book has everything that a currently practicing athlete (or coach) in rowing might want; in fact, the only readers that might come away from the book disappointed are those who are seeking inspirational Olympic stories. Houghton's book is inspirational, in spades, but it also makes you work for it--the book will reward multiple readings, and both athletes and coaches can glean any number of habits and approaches to apply to their daily practice that will have a positive impact on their performance. (In fact, we know of one coach who was so impressed by the book that he bought copies for his entire staff after reading it.)

So is Houghton quietly positioning herself as the next great rowing coach? Hardly--she's now a chef. But, without stretching the cooking metaphor too greatly, in her book she offers both ingredients and recipes for any competitive rower (or coach) to make formidable strides in his or her career by keeping a few key tenets in mind.

Frances Houghton's "Learnings from Five Olympic Games" is sold on her website.

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