Tom James is a double Olympic gold medalist. In 2008, at the Beijing Olympics, Tom raced in the pinnacle boat for GB rowing, the cox less four, where he won his first gold medal.
Four years later at the London Olympics with Alex Gregroy, Pete Reed and Andrew Triggs-Hodge he won his second Olympic gold, again in the cox less four boat. The crew managed to overcome a semi-final defeat to Australia before going on to reverse the placings in the final.
In between his two Olympic golds Tom also won gold at the 2011 World Championships in Slovenia.
Aside from being Olympic and World Champion James also studied at Cambridge University. In 2007, in his final year at university, he was elected President of the Cambridge University Boat Club and led his crew to victory in the University Boat Race, after three previously failed attempts.
What I learnt from Tom in his own words:
“When you go training, it is a very basic competition. Just being next to somebody is a motivating factor. Innately, I think that everybody is competitive. Even if you just go and play table football or something, when you start playing, you get competitive. That is a very basic form of competition from my point of view. That is essentially how our training works. You are placed side-by-side, to see who wins.”
“If you are a sportsman, people look at you like a hero and act as if you have done something really amazing. That’s fine but, in what we do, you hand out medals. In rowing you are ranked first, second or third but you don’t get that in the business world. In the business world you get a pay cheque. In sport it is very visible, it is very clear to see what you are doing. Your motivation is very selfish. I am not doing it for anyone else. I am doing it for me. I have always found that slightly uncomfortable.”
“I am not a big fan of training. I don’t like it. I enjoy the racing and I enjoy getting out in good boats. If it is a tough session, you are only rewarded at the end of it because you come away from it having performed well. That is really satisfying, but day in and day out, I do find training hard.”
“I would say that with something like rowing, it is very important that you plan out your motivation because a lot of the sessions are tough. Your goal is so far away that it doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day.”
“The best bit is the build-up to the race, actually. Suddenly, once the race is done, there is a certain amount of enjoyment about it and relief. Then, afterwards, it is bit of an anti-climax.”
“Most people go into races underprepared. The expectation is about physicality; whereas, actually, being tough is not something that is just physical. Often, it is a real achievement and real skill to get yourself into a frame of mind where you are completely confident that you are going to win that race, and then you go out and do exactly what you say you are going to do.”
“When you are coming up to races, you have got to be explicitly and visibly overconfident. It doesn’t mean that you shout about it but it is in the way you act and the way you behave. That changes how you row. It changes the people around you and how they feel confident. Then, that reinforces you. That is all mental. That is how the teams operate. We feed off each other. We feed off each other’s body language.”
“Your body is very good at maintaining itself with just the bare minimum to get the result that it needs. Once that has happened, the injuries then come out. That definitely means that there is a psychological and mental link between the two. I ended up with this pattern, and then it was quite interesting understanding this. Stress is very interesting in the way your mind operates. With your physical stress particularly, there is a lot of interesting science in how your mind reacts. Actually understanding the stress signals and how to relieve those, particularly against my heart with my air quality was crucial.”
“Education. For me, it has been the most motivating factor. I love the idea that you have a pursuit, you get better at it, you understand it better than anyone else, and that it is your thing. That’s the way I have tried to view rowing: seeing it as a subject. Most people in the sport see rowing as a physical label that describes it but that is only half the picture.”
“I am probably quite an analytical person. I very much enjoyed that challenge of thinking through the dynamics of how you could apply yourself to make the boat move quicker. Maybe I have got the right to be arrogant about it, but I think that this is where I have been able to be successful. I have been very lucky in the education and influences that I have had but I think that I have applied that well. With the number of hours that we spend training, I find it frustrating sometimes how little people think about the analytical side. To me, it’s a massive motivating factor as much as an ability to be successful.”
You can read more about the character traits that drive greatness in our book Great Traits. The e-book and paperback versions are available via Amazon or visit your nearest Waterstones to buy in store. To receive new content and podcasts from the Great Traits Project sign up below: