March 2023, Articles - Events

Waddell: Perspective Key to Success in Sport and Life

Being at the start line of an Olympic final is an incredibly daunting experience. So, too, is getting to the finish line of a career in high performance sport – and coming to terms with the realities that you still have the majority of your life to live.

The key to finding comfort – and excelling – in both of those scenarios, says 2000 Olympic single sculls gold medallist and America’s Cup sailor turned businessman Rob Waddell, is ensuring your life has a purpose wider than the pursuit of athletic excellence.

“How do you get to that frame of mind where it all doesn’t come down to winning a medal, winning a gold on the day?” asks Waddell. “And what happens when you lose that routine, that daily certainty, the income, the identity that you had in sport and you try to move on in life?”

Those are the questions Waddell tackled at Performance Summit 2023, cohosted by HPSNZ, Paralympics New Zealand and the NZOC.

“I hope in time that all of our athletes lining up for pinnacle events know that they are not defined by that one moment in time,” says Waddell. “They are defined by the people that they are, the values that they hold and what they have done to help inspire others.”

Knowing that takes the pressure not just off sporting performance, but also what follows as athletes transition into life beyond their sporting careers.

Waddell has a handy acronym for the traits he believes set athletes up for success both during and after their careers: W.E.A.L.T.H.

It stands for: Work Ethic; Excellence; Attitude; Leadership; Team Work and Happiness.

All of those factors cross over from elite sport into the business world.

A key to making the successful transition, says Waddell, is leveraging the opportunities an elite sporting career provides.

“In New Zealand sport buys you a lot of goodwill. A lot of people around you want to help you. But you don’t get the million dollar deals for being on the front of a Weet-Bix packet. At some point nearly all of us will have to make a go of a career path in New Zealand.”

Having a network of contacts who can assist by providing sponsorship, a job, or even simply introductions is a huge help – and something athletes should work on during their careers.

“That can really help get you started when you are thinking about ‘what on earth do I do next’?”

That can be a tough question for athletes who have been laser-focussed on achieving success in their chosen discipline.

From the time of his first selection in a national U20 rowing team through to the end of his third America’s Cup campaign, Waddell believe he existed for one reason: “to do incredibly well in sport”.

But he also found himself questioning the nature of that existence.

“I found myself asking what is the meaning of what we do every day?

“You ask yourself ‘how many opportunities will I have in life to be the very best at something? Subconsciously, many of us search for that after our careers and keep trying to find it post-sport.”

While it was vital to stay 100 per cent focussed on the task at hand when competing, perspective was also vital. The challenges most of us face in our personal lives can put sport in perspective.

“That is something it is always important to think about when you are sitting at the starting blocks.

“Make no mistake, it is absolutely imperative that when we line up we are 100 per cent focussed on what we are tasked with. But I do believe in balance.

“It is important for a number of reasons, having certainty in our lives, having wellbeing, feeling good about ourselves. Coming down the course, that neutral frame of mind is incredibly important.”

A balanced life was also hugely beneficial when dealing with the reality of retirement.

In high performance sport – and life in general – time is the most precious of commodities, believes Waddell.

“It is easy to do something for 10 years and then wonder if it was the best use of your time.”

Athletes pondering retirement should ask themselves three things, he says.

“What do I love doing? What am I passionate about? And the third thing is – what am I good at – and what might I be brilliant at? We are all brilliant at something.

“I genuinely believe one of the main goals in life is to find the things we love doing. If we can do them in a way that helps other people and make a career of it then we have achieved something not everyone does in life.”

Rob Waddell during the 2020 NZOC Workshop Tokyo Accreditation session on February 29, 2020 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by James Jubb/Getty Images)