row2k Features
row2k Interview: GB rower Frances Houghton (part II)
July 9, 2021
Oli Rosenbladt, row2k

Houghton (second from left) after winning the worlds in 2010

The GB's Frances Houghton is one of only two women in British rowing history to be selected for five Olympic teams. Houghton raced for Britain in the 2000,2004,2008,2012 and 2016 Olympics, capturing silver in the quad in 2004 and 2008, and silver in the eight in 2016, the first-ever Olympic medal for Britain in that event. row2k caught up with Houghton in the summer of 2021 shortly after the publication of her new book, "Learnings from Five Olympic Games." Read Part I of our interview with Houghton here.

row2k: In your book, you write about your underlying 'how.' When a lot of teams or organizations approach the discussion of identity, there is a tension or interaction between 'how' and 'why,' Which of the two do you think is more important, this underlying 'how' or the underlying 'why?'

Houghton: They're both really important. I'd say, in my experience the 'why' was really important for me personally. Then the 'how' is what we absolutely have to have clarity on as a collective. How are we going to row? How are we going to race? But then individually I really needed clarity on that 'why.' And then I would arrive to every conversation calm, open-minded, able to have constructive conversations about the 'how,' because I was in a good place with my 'why' as a person.

row2k: In the book, you list all of the things that your 2016 Rio eight did well. What were the things that didn't work out quite as well?

Houghton: Six weeks or so before the games I said, "I'm going to write this list so that we know what we do well." Because at that point, when you're racing, you don't want to know what you don't do well, you've got to go out there and play every single ace card that you've got. That was very much my philosophy anyway, is you go out and you pitch your best against anyone else's best.

Of course, there are always things that we don't do well. I don't know how it works in the States, but in the UK you get selected something like five weeks before the first World Cup regatta, then you've got three World Cups and then you've got six weeks before the Games. There's not a lot of time. So especially in a large group I could see how much more beneficial it was to be able to reframe any opportunity I could to a positive standpoint on it. So even if it was something that we didn't do well, my take on that was, "Okay, well that's something that we can now learn from." We acknowledge that and we discard it. "That doesn't work, so let's not do that." Whether that's rowing really short off the start or getting really annoyed with each other if we get a bad result on a piece, you day, "that's not constructive. So that's off the list, let's not do that again. What we are going to do is be really good at not doing that. And what we're going to do instead is this."

I think it's a case of having a pretty dogged positive upon positive mantra. I learned that from being in not great form lots of times during my career. You can very easily get into a negative spiral of, "I'm not doing anything well." I remember really specifically once before Athens, saying to myself, "God, I'm really weak and I'm going really slowly," and I just said to myself, "I'm going to switch everything into a positive." Even if it was a terrible small amount of weight that I was lifting, for example, I would say, "that's really good." It was amazing, it just turned the tide. Then you're building positive upon positive, and it's just so much more constructive to be in that mindset than the negative one.

Of course, you need to acknowledge stuff that you don't want to keep doing, but it's a short conversation. It's not somewhere you sit and dwell.

row2k: Based on the qualities of your 2016 crew that you listed, what did you think was the most important?

Houghton: I think probably the most important one that underpinned it all was a fundamental belief in ourselves that we could do it. If we had a bad day, we didn't say, "Oh God, it's true, we can't." There was always this thing right at the bottom, like a tramproline, that pushed us back up again and said, "No, okay, maybe that was a shit day, but we can do this." I think that was the thread that went all the way through for each person.

row2k: In the section on 'Racing Nerves,' you write about separating emotion from logic in order to objectively view what you're trying to do. Was the belief in your Rio eight emotion or logic?

Houghton: Is it emotion or is it logic? Lots of people ask me this question because they absolutely have to have evidence before they will let themselves believe. What I say to them is, for me, it's about giving yourself permission to believe. Whether you've got the evidence or not, can you give yourself permission to believe? For me, belief was a deep-seated feeling, so I still stand by that.

I had fundamental belief, probably emotionally, I felt that it was possible that we could win a medal. For other people, because they'd shown the speed the year before and they'd had results and they'd added up, and we knew that this crew was faster than the year before, that was the logic that some people needed.

Rio row-by after winning silver
Rio row-by after winning silver

row2k: What was the most important thing you feel like you learned about nerves and productively using nerves to help fuel your performance?

Houghton: I would acknowledge the fact that I was nervous and I was apprehensive about the physical thing I was committing to, as well as what might possibly happen in the outcome emotionally, but I could reframe it to, "well, I know that that's happening, but let's channel this energy in a constructive way."

Visualize everything being open and free flowing rather than tense. Make sure that you do keep talking to people instead of getting more and more tied up in myself.

I think the thing that I learned over time was that I performed really well when I had a lot of perspectives. When I have perspective, I was much more like, "all right, I'm doing a rowing race. I remember that I need to do this and this." Whereas if I was really far inside it and I didn't have perspective then I would be overthinking it and overtrying and not trusting myself.

It's going to be different for different people, but I think what I wanted to convey is that it's okay to step away sometimes, which might be something that actually increases your performance, and it's not something that you should feel guilty about doing.

There's such a norm of leaving no stone unturned, and having absolute focus, that's what we think of athletes from the outside. But actually, we're all individual people and we all know that sometimes we have a really good day for seemingly no reason. But if you actually review and analyze that, it might well be because you saw a great friend a few days ago, or you've caught up on some rest or, you've come back up as opposed to trying really, really hard.

row2k: The way you put it in the book was this idea that when you were on the line you would stop obsessing about or stop focusing as much on the outcome, and instead focus on what you planned to do.

Houghton: When I was injured in 2014 and I went through all of them and I said to myself, "how do you perform at your best?" I realized that especially in those quads between 2004 and 2010, when I performed at my best I wasn't focused on the outcome, but I did have absolute clarity about what I was going to do. I genuinely didn't feel like my whole life depended upon how well we did and whether we won or lost.

It came from really constructive reviewing of what I'm like at my best. That made me focus on having real clarity on what we do. Each day in the eight from the beginning had to have an absolute clarity about the pattern that we row so that when we sit on the start line and when our heads have gone foggy we know what we're going to do because our minds will jump to the outcome. But the way that we can counteract that is, "I don't know what's going to happen," but I do know what I'm going to do. The work of knowing what to do starts in every single training session.

At the start at Worlds
At the start at Worlds

row2k: Do you think these daily habits also are transferable outside of sport itself into other pursuits that require similar focus as sport does?

Houghton: For me, even beyond that to just everyday things. Wen I was pursuing winning the Olympics, one of the biggest factors was making sure that I'd eaten well and that I slept well, I was well recovered. And those pillars of having a good day, if really it boiled down to that, then surely that's applicable for any of us having a good day. So for me, absolutely and beyond sport.

So many people think sport comes down to magic tricks and being really talented, and I find that really frustrating because actually it's this really, really simple stuff and just doing those fundamental basics exceptionally well over and over and over again and to have the patience to do that. A lot of normal people think it can't possibly be that simple and basic.

row2k: But it is.

Houghton: But it is, it's having the balls to do it and believe it.

row2k: In the book, on your section on injuries the phrase that you use is, "Why is this going to be the reason I won?" How did that come about? I mean, can you describe a little bit about how you arrived at that thought process?

Houghton: When you're practically up against a wall and you realize, "this isn't good," you've got two choices.

Either you say, "I'm going to stay sitting in this place, but clearly this isn't good," or, "there's a sliver here, and if I inhabit this sliver I'm going to get my foot in the door and wedge it open." Because number one, thinking about it in a positive way is going to be much more helpful in every moment and every interaction and in making progress than sitting in the negative framework about it.

I always knew that there were going to be different things I would get out of that period of time that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to get out of it had I been just on the standard program. It was a way for me to 'press play' on being a bit creative about what else I could get out of it, and maybe I could add something else to my armory.

I had also seen when I've been injured that having time away from the program, for example, enabled me to freshen up a bit and being an introvert, having a bit of space away from the intensity really helped me on a couple of occasions.

I just always had this faith that if I looked for it and I made it, if I created something, even if it was, "Well, all I can do is sit on a bike, well, I'm going to do a hell of a lot of hours on this bike. And then my third 500 is going to be incredible because my capacity is going to be even bigger." So actually, this is a period of time I really want to use and be thankful for.

I think it's about being up against the wall and training in an instinctive response in that situation to say, " this is what I'm going to do about it." It's a bit like being down in a race. If you're down and you think, "shit, I'm down." Or you can say, "it'll bloody impressive if we come back from this." Then you say, "right, if you're going to come back from this then we've got to hold our length and we've got to make sure we're using our legs." And suddenly you're already on the right mindset again.

Racing at Worlds in 2010
Racing at Worlds in 2010

row2k: Your book's title is "Learnings From Five Olympic Games," and in those five words, there's a massive, massive body of not only achievement but experience. What do we learn from seeking to compete or perform at this highest level possible as humans, as people?

Houghton: That's a really hard question to answer succinctly but I'll have a go. I think it obviously is different for different people, but for me it came down how I wanted to feel when I stood on the podium, not what I held in my hand. That was the nub of it for me. Then back from that, everything else flowed. How do I want to feel when I get there?

So when I say to people who are involved in sport, "what would make the hard work worth it? How do you want to feel when you get there?" Because every day it's hard. We've got so many challenges. And I think it's when we go back to the original question about goals and having clarity about that long term goal. And within that goal, being very clear about how you want to feel when you get there. That for me, was what it boiled down to.

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