Mentoring: Driving Performance and Saying ‘No’ to Zoom

When I retired after a 20-year career in rowing, taking me to five Olympic Games starting with Sydney and finishing with Rio, I was keen to support British Rowing in setting up a mentoring programme.

When I started mentoring, I thought it would be about advising and that I would be passing on my experiences. But I soon realised good mentoring is about understanding the individual and working out the right questions to ask them. It is very much about listening to the mentee, downloading what’s on their mind, reflecting it back to them, and maybe cleaning it up to help them hear what they’re thinking or experiencing more clearly. Often there are common themes and it can be really helpful for a mentee to become aware of this.

Simply put, it’s holding up a mirror without any judgment.

Importantly, it’s not just about them as an athlete, it’s about their context – they’re a whole picture. It’s about what makes them tick as a person. It can take time to build that understanding between the two of you, but it’s well worth it.

I also always encourage mentees to tell me when things are going well, so that if they’re not in a great place, I can remind them of what they’ve told me has worked before. That’s the point we want to reach back to, reconnect with and re-establish.

When we set up the British Rowing mentoring system, the motivation was to give athletes a place they could come to and share openly, to feel understood by someone who had been there, who ‘got it’. I remember talking to retired athletes when I was still competing and asking, “have you ever felt like this?” or “did you find this was really difficult?” Hearing that people I looked up to – World and Olympic Champions – had doubts or difficult days just like I was having, was very reassuring.

I wanted athletes to feel they had someone they could go to that was on their side, regardless of their form. Because you often don’t have that relationship with a coach, and coaches often can’t relate to what it’s like being an athlete and facing those day-to-day challenges of tiredness and stress.

A mentoring relationship takes time and effort to build. I go into my conversations curious and interested, open and exploratory. It’s not directing or coaching. When I first meet my mentees I explain there will be times when you just need to offload, but over time I hope that these conversations develop to be about optimising performance.

I’m here to help them maximise their opportunities from their time in sport. The ultimate aim is for the athlete to realise their full potential, to have enjoyed doing so, and know they’ve done it themselves, as their whole self.

I contract with my mentors very early on. As I’ve evolved as a mentor I increasingly think this is important as it’s a lot easier to set those expectations at the beginning. My contracting essentials range from assurance that our conversations are confidential (vital – they need to know this is a safe place to share their thoughts); or basic expectations like replying to text messages to fix a time to talk – and sticking to it!

I also encourage them to understand that the conversation is between the two of us, and it’s not advice. If we talk through an idea and they form a plan off the back of that, that’s their intention, it’s not “Fran said I should do this”.

I aim for my mentoring sessions to be guided without me dominating or controlling the conversation. For example, “How do you feel you’re preparing for your upcoming testing?”; “Let’s review how that went”; “Let’s talk about how it went well last time, is it still on track?”

When I’m up at the British Rowing training base I have a lot of ‘corridor conversations’ with athletes. These are brilliant because these are often conversations you wouldn’t have otherwise, or athletes who wouldn’t respond to a text to arrange a time will approach you and say, “Fran now you’re here… I just wanted to mention this…” and you get those reflections people find hard to reach out about.

I use phone calls rather than video calls. Mentoring is all about listening and I find telephone calls are more free-flowing. The video picture gets in the way of that.

When I’ve spoken to people in other sports about mentoring programmes, people say the athletes know it’s available but there isn’t much take-up – but it’s good enough to know it’s offered.

I’ve found that you need to be very pro-active to engage with the athletes, more than you would be in traditional executive coaching. We’re told that it should be mentee-led, but having been an athlete I know how it feels to have finished a three-session day and be completely wiped out.

Endurance athletes are in a state of extreme fatigue most of the time, so picking up the phone and arranging a time can take too much brain space.

That’s all part of understanding your sport and your context. I’ve found if you are pro-active, you do get a really good take up. I think it’s only natural it takes time for athletes to understand how they can utilise the service, the value of feeling understood, why it’s worth their time in performance terms, and you really have to demonstrate that proactively as a mentor.


~Frances Houghton, 5x Olympic Rower
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