Locker room meets the boardroom; Australian Olympian James Chapman reveals how the lessons he learned as an athlete have helped him perform in business

Last updated on August 26, 2021
When someone believes in us, anything feels possible. We are a product of our own determination, skill and dedication – but success is not a solo pursuit. Join Allianz in celebrating the Olympic and Paralympic Movements through the lens of four remarkable Australian Olympians and Paralympians, as they share their success stories and celebrate the people who have helped them #SparkConfidence every step of the way.
Photo credit: Erik Dresser, row2k.com

Two-time Australian Olympic rower, James Chapman, knows a thing or two about what it takes to be successful. Having represented Australia at the Olympic Games London 2012 (where he won a silver medal), and previously at Beijing in 2008, today James works for a leadership and management consultancy, helping to coach the business leaders of tomorrow. For James, the lessons he learned on his journey to the peak of sport have had direct applicability to the boardroom. And sometimes in ways you might not expect.

As a member of an elite rowing squad, James learned over a decade ago something that many of us are only beginning to realise today – diversity equals strength. As James says, “In a rowing team, you need people who are taller, shorter, have more power, or better technique. To go as fast as possible, you need to get the blend right. And it’s the same for any team in an organisation. You need everyone to come together, build on each other’s ideas, and contribute their specific strengths and different attributes.”

While team diversity might seem like an obvious lesson to translate from sport into business, what James learned about building confidence, resilience, and allowing for proper recovery has been put to effective use too.

As James observes, “When I think about the people who gave me confidence on my Olympic journey, it was contextual. We all have certain types of confidence for different situations and activities. So, we need to actively build confidence in different areas.” It’s something James says needs to be consciously worked on. And it’s the same when it comes to building resilience. Although, as James notes, building up resilience is something you have to do before you need it, “You need to have latent resources that you can access when you need them. We know that in future there will be adversities, and that’s where a lot of organisations come unstuck because they’re running so close to the edge of their capacity; there’s no flex – no resilience – when adversity strikes.”

Another key learning James has adapted from his time in sport is factoring in recovery time for business leaders. As an athlete, James’s training schedules were highly structured to ensure that he could perform at his peak at just the right time, but also at a high level over 12 years. For James, it was a strategy the corporate world desperately needed to learn, “Business is a high-performance environment, it has very similar elements of stress, requiring people to perform at specific times. And so the question I started asking was, how are leaders structuring their recovery in a relevant way to their world? Were they allowing for it at all? Because you have to understand your recovery if you want to perform for sustained periods of time, now, in the future, and over your whole career.”

Given the current raft of challenges facing so many people, both in Australia and globally, the principles of building confidence and resilience, while allowing for recovery couldn’t be more timely or appropriate. But for James, there’s one more critical thing business leaders need to actively do, “We’re missing out on hope. We need to be giving our teams optimism and energy. People need to see that the energy and confidence from leaders is there, even while acknowledging the reality of the challenges we’re facing.”

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