From Athlete to Account Director: my job hasn't changed

Bardolino Italy, June 17, 2010. It feels like yesterday. 

I remember packing the car in Davos, Switzerland at 4:00am, embarking down to Italy on a 4 hour road trip with passport, bike, race suit, race flats, sponsored clothing, and having one and only one focus: process.

It was my first European race of the 2010 triathlon season - my third European race season- which meant it was my first chance to lay the foundation of my training into place. And that focus was technique, technique, technique. The pain, the hype, the race atmosphere, the competition, the weather, the €50,000 prize pool were all merely distractions from this focus that I wasn’t to waste energy contemplating.

The race begun and all I thought for the entire 1,500m swim was keep core stable. Higher stroke turnover due to chop. Don’t get caught up in fighting round the can. Breathing 1 in 3 strokes. Sight buoy every 6th stroke. Early hand entry. No dropped elbows. And breathe early, bubble late. I exited the water mid front pack in an almost distractingly beautiful Italian mountain town as a storm rolled in, but the final two points were practically irrelevant.

I got on the bike and embarked on the 40km circuit through the Italian mountains, in the torrential rain, and I remember all I thought the whole ride was keep core stable. No pressure on handlebars, just light touching. Good posture. Straight back. React to rider attacks with delay to avoid sudden lactic acid bursts. keep knees aligned on mountain climbs. Slide to back of saddle and engage glutes on climbs. Stay in saddle for climbs until I hit the summit, then rock the bike side to side and work the top of the mountain.

With 5km to go we arrived at the 4km final descent, and hitting speeds over 70km/h in the rain two riders crashed in front of me that I managed to avoid, and I lost contact with the group. But it was again, irrelevant. My technique was good, my core stayed switched on.

Onto the run, I was not in the lead, but I was also not completely out of touch. As I racked my bike and put my run shoes on, it was the same story: core engaged. Back straight. Stay tall. Engage the glutes. No heel strike. Toes touch the ground with the forefoot first. Elbows bent. No shoulder rotation. Hands punching up close to chin. Those thoughts were all I needed to think about for 10km.

But I didn’t. At 8km I got distracted with the fact I was now winning. The closest guy behind me had been getting further behind me, and I have a crack at the biggest prize purse I’d ever won in my life. I thought about how much I wanted, needed, this win. What I would do with the money. The messages I’d write home with, what I'd update my Facebook status to, and how much pain I was in. Uh-oh. I was in pain. It hadn’t occurred to me until that point.

I ended up hanging on for the win, getting a good payday, and probably posting something on Facebook that no one except for me actually cared about (nothing’s changed). But that drop of attention toward the end was legitimately disappointing. Why? Because I hadn’t followed my process, stuck to my plan, or from that point on, raced my own race.

Ok, this photo is actually from Milan, but Italy's Italy, and a triathlon is a triathlon so you get the point.

So this experience was an almost one off, freak experience for me. Not only because I won something, but because for the usual me, for most people, hell probably for almost all people - apart from the best - I let me brain focus on the process, not the big emotional glossy moments that people like to think about.

In sport, the dream is those magic moments you envision a few days out from a race, or when you’re tired and looking for motivation to train harder: crossing the finish line in first place to a crowd of people who you think love you (but in reality, just want to be entertained). Or breaking away from the pack on the run with ease because you’re just the best. Or mounting an attack on a mountain climb just when the perfect photo of you is taken, so you have something to put up on your wall (literal or social media related) and be proud of.

In advertising, it’s the exact same thing. Maybe without the whole ‘exact’ part. The dream is that epic campaign going live and going viral almost at the same time. It’s sales going through the roof for your brand and seeing it was you, your campaign, your agency, and ultimately your impact that was responsible. It’s going to the industry awards and winning gold for your work, winning industry respect, more recognition, and even a better salary.

But these events you’re setting out to achieve, these moments you dream of, they’re not what you need to love. They can’t be what gets you out of bed in the morning.

It’s got to be the process. 

The technique. The skills. The bread and butter of your job. When I was a full time athlete, I got the perspective that I was in an industry where ‘implementation’ and ‘paid time’ was probably close to 0.00001% of my job. There were no billable time sheets. My time was spent training training training training training training training training two to three times a day 48-50 weeks a year for 10-15 years of my life. 

Racing was such a ridiculously small percent of that time, and earning money from those races even less. So if I didn’t love the process, I had no chance. And to this day I can say I didn’t love the process enough. If I had of, I would have trained harder, been injured less, focussed more on it in races and not got distracted by emotion, and would have been more successful.

So in account service, in the advertising industry, I’ve got to ‘go back to Bardolino’ (at least the first 1.5km swim / 40km bike / first 8km of run) more often and focus on learning to love the bread and butter - project timelines, campaign management, client management, foreseeing campaign problems, prioritising actions, understanding technical aspects of platforms, understanding client needs and brand strategies, liaising with suppliers and media - and think less about all the flashy things that come with the industry.

Because ironically, I believe the less thinking about what could be, and the more focus on the process here and now to achieve it always leads to getting there sooner.