Roger Black and Steve Backley have teamed up to form BackleyBlack, to bring Olympic performance into the workplace.
When we greet them, Black & Backley are no less impressive in stature than they were on the track and field respectively. Charming, animated, good humoured, plus both cheeky and charismatic; Backley is the steady, measured and calming influence, while Black is the gregarious maverick and live-wire of the two.
Delivering elite performance has been a way of life for the pair throughout their sporting careers and it’s something they’re both passionate about. They’ve long since hung up their spikes and spear, yet the lessons Black & Backley learned on the track and field are immeasurable.
Roger Black won individual silver medals in the 400 metres sprint at both the Olympic Games and World Championships, two individual golds at the European Championships, and 4x400 metres relay gold medals at both the World and European Championships.
While setting the world record twice, javelin thrower Steve Backley notched up an impressive four gold medals at the European Championships, three golds at the Commonwealth Games, two silvers and a bronze at the Olympics and two silvers at the World Championships. He’s the only British track and field competitor to win medals at three different Olympic Games.
RB: There are lots of people out there with so much talent but they’re just drifting. Talent alone is never going to be enough to get you to the top. Even Usain Bolt or Michael Johnson who have amazing talent knew they couldn’t just turn up. They had to apply their talent. In the Olympic space everyone tends to be at a similar level with that exceptional talent, but the difference between those who have long sustainable careers, deliver regularly and win medals is not just about physical ability, it’s also about behaviour.
Bolt makes a good job of making it look easy and fun, but for most of us it’s a lot of pressure and the stakes are high. The Olympics is black and white and your training converges over a four year plan. You’re in a world where every year you set yourself a structure. If you get this race right, it changes your life. If you get it wrong, you have the next four years to wait to have another shot at it. You’re very aware of that one piece of metal.
Talent will get you to a certain level but to really step up to Olympic performance you have to constantly think differently and change your behaviours. You don’t have to overcomplicate stuff and measure everything though. You can overanalyse too much.
Pulling together as a team
RB: Bottom line is, all I had to do was run around the track once (Black points at Backley, laughs and jokes) and all he had to do was throw a spear. Although we look similar, we’re very different (we all laugh). Steve had to be much more technical in his event than I was in mine.
Quips in Backley: The subtle difference between Roger and I is in the interaction of the team. I had to be the leader as I was the one chucking the spear. Any changes had to come from me. I had to communicate clearly and have a decisive clear vision. The organisation and input of the team dynamics came from me and if I made small tweaks, everyone had to be aligned. I had to be aware of everything and I couldn’t relinquish that responsibility to anyone else. We were all being judged as a team as we all had the same outcome in mind.
RB:...he had a big team around him. We come from both angles when it comes to teamwork. Although I ran individually I also ran in a relay team. Back in the World Championships, 1991, the 4x400m relay team (Kriss Akabusi, John Regis, Derek Redmond and myself) won the race. We were running for each other, daring to win. We had clear leadership with myself and Kriss as the heart of the team. We had to respect one another, but be able to challenge each other. We had a communal desire to win; we had to take risks by changing the running order of the team. We were a collective group of individuals who worked at being a team both on and off the track, and that’s what made the difference.
SB: The Olympics is brutal. It all starts with a dream and then believing you can achieve it, whatever it is. It’s about surrounding yourself with talented people, having clarity, a plan which you adapt along the way and having the ability to tap into what is my maximum. To say ‘it’s ok, I tried my hardest’.
You get a slight injury and you can’t train or compete. Look at Kelly Holmes. She kept on getting injured but she never gave up or lost her belief. Her journey is a great demonstrator that it’s not ok to give up. That passion and pain she felt took her to Olympic glory.
You have to understand where you are, where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. It’s about planning, strategy and communicating that with the whole team, and accepting it’s going to be a bumpy road but we’re going to work with that because we want to be high performing. We have looked at the fundamental behavioural parts of a successful Olympian’s journey and broken that down to the fact that in any industry, it comes down to skills, knowledge, attitude and behaviours of the individuals and team. We have a deep understanding of the behavioural elements.
RB: It’s ok to say: ‘I know I can step forward but I don’t really know what to do. I’m feeling disillusioned’. We’ve been there.
SB: The difference in business is that it’s a greyer world. It’s not as simple as coming 1st, 2nd or 3rd. We work with clients who have a talented group of individuals, who are doing really well, but there could be something missing. We give leaders permission to share how they really feel so they can take that step forward. It’s often not a great big step, just a change of focus and thought. Leaders in the business community often face barriers because there are so many agendas to deal with.
As a leader ask yourself, what is success for you? Does everyone know their roles, responsibilities and deliverables. You can never have enough clarity. You need to understand everyone’s individual strengths and weaknesses. You need to stay focused, not get distracted by stuff that isn’t directly related to the target. Be ruthless about pushing aside irrelevant distractions. Begin with the end goal in mind and then set small goals and keep stretching yourself.
Defining career moments and conversation
RB: There are moments that shape and define you. There were two in my life. I wanted to be a doctor but I messed up my maths A-level exam which forced me to have a year off to retake. In that year I took up athletics – at the age of 18 – that’s late. I soon realised I could run faster than most people around me. I was able to identify that talent, make a career out of using it by developing my talent over 14 years.
Ten months before the 1996 Olympics, I was drifting and finding it really hard because of my injuries. If I kept doing what I was doing, I thought I would probably make the final and I might, just might, be able to win a medal. I went out to dinner with an ex-athlete who had messed up his own career. He made me aware that I had one more shot at the Olympics and it’s a long time regretting in retirement what you might have been able to achieve if only you had tried harder. He woke me up and made me realise I had to become accountable for my performance, and focus on the things I could control. If I hadn’t had that conversation I wouldn’t have gone on to win the silver. He was the right person at the right time to do that. It’s a very simple concept, but I had to really ‘get it’.
That conversation changed my career and set me on a rigorous 10 month training path of momentum that took me to the Olympics and ultimately to my achievement of winning a medal. I really believe that the biggest factor about whether someone can change is not what we say, it’s about the state that person is in.
What frustrates me is people who have talent but ignore it. You often get people who come in and are having a bad time. If you can connect with those people on some level, you can make huge impact. I absolutely believe that whether it’s through a conversation, watching a film, or reading a book, people can change their attitude in a heartbeat.
SB: I spent hours in training pulling a 20kg sledge forwards and backwards at 2,500m altitude, followed by a circuit session, pushing myself until I felt physically sick. It was gruelling and at times I dreaded it. My heart would be beating out of my chest. You feel in tatters.
Before those sessions I was all nerves and anxious but it made me want to do it even more. Afterwards, there’s a contentment that’s so hard to describe. You’re living your dream. You have that inner calm because you’ve spilled everything into training. It’s a fantastic feeling. Athletes tend to plateau. When you do that you have to question what you can do differently. Sometimes you need to shake up your normal routine. The journey of an Olympic hopeful is like that – if you try something and fail, it’s the next bit that’s more important, to learn and adapt. It’s ok to fail as long as you don’t make the same mistakes twice. Keep on reinventing yourself, that’s the key. Never give up.
RB: Yes, hang in there. Have your dream and if you really want it, project ahead and think, if I don’t keep going, am I going to look back and think ‘ugh’? That was the big one for me. Ask yourself: ‘if I give up now and look back in five years’ time how painful is that going to be?’ If that pain is so great, it’s non-negotiable – if not maybe step off this path and do something else. Be honest with yourself.
SB: There’s a feel good factor in doing something better today than you did yesterday. Wherever you’ve got to, you have to keep looking to the next level.
RB: Everyone should get the piece around creating an environment where you can fail. In the last few years, the business culture where people are allowed to take risks and fail has been quashed because everyone’s so scared. Leaders need to create an environment to allow people to make mistakes and have the freedom for people to be maverick and go for it. If you want to push for high performance, you have to take risks and make mistakes. No successful person has ever achieved anything without making a mistake. You just need to make the time to communicate as a team and keep the lines open.
Future for Backley Black
London 2012 is merely a ‘catalyst.’
RB: “We want to sit down after the Olympics and think, this isn’t the end, it’s just the beginning for us as a business.”