High-Performance: Lessons From Music & Sport!

Cath Bishop 8 December 2016

What do Olympic rowers and musicians have in common? They both operate in a world where high-performance is key - and Cath Bishop, an Olympic rower and a British diplomat, is no stranger to delivering under pressure.

During a recent workshop, she explored the parallels between the worlds of music and sport - with some interesting findings! Read on to uncover her lessons.


Seeing a Concept II rowing machine right in front of an organ, next to a grand piano, and in front of a harpsichord, makes for an unusual sight.

The mixture arose as part of a session I led, which delved into the high-performance worlds of Olympic rowers and musicians from the Royal College of Music. With three Olympic medalists in the room, an Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race coach, a guitar quartet and a music professor, the scene was set for my favourite topic!

An unusual sight: A Concept II rowing machine in front of an organ

I am a self-confessed high-performance junkie, always looking for those ‘marginal gains’ that can be taken from one experience and applied to another to achieve greater insight, fresh thinking and ultimately improved performance. I think this is something that started right from my early days where I was a reasonably serious pianist growing up, and it sits at the heart of my work as a speaker now. I took up rowing at University and went on to compete at 3 Olympic Games, becoming a World Champion and an Olympic silver medallist.

Moreover, working as a diplomat for 12 years and specialising in conflict issues around the world meant that getting the detail right within the big picture was critical. Increasing understanding between different worlds and different cultures lay at the heart of our work, hence my natural curiosity to bring the world of Olympic rowing into the hallowed halls of the Royal College of Music to explore the subject further!

There were remarkable linguistic similarities – both groups of athletes and musicians talked of technique and rhythm; of getting to know each other and understanding each other as critical to teamwork and performance under pressure; of the importance of trust and confidence as critical elements to reaching the highest levels of performance.

Like music, rowing requires practice, mental rehearsal and self-management

There were some wonderful assumptions challenged. The musicians stressed the importance of relaxation and not rushing when performing, assuming that this formed a contrast to the rowers’ world after seeing them demonstrate a burst of power on the rowing machine a few moments earlier: “I mean, it’s totally different to sport, we have to be relaxed and not rush.” All the rowers’ eyebrows shot up and faces lit up as they quickly explained that relaxation is a fundamental aspect of top boat speed: in between the powerful strokes in the water, it’s essential that rowers are as relaxed as possible in order to conserve energy and to feel the boat running underneath them and sense how the other rowers are moving in the boat to be as closely in time as possible. And it’s the same for the application of power within the stroke as well - as with tennis or golf strokes, so with the rowing stroke: tension prevents maximum power and perfect technique. And as for rushing, the commonalities soon emerged.

The music professor described rushing during a musical performance as one of the biggest challenges for musicians to overcome. The rowing coach then explained that under the pressure of a race, there is a remarkably similar tendency to rush in between the strokes when sliding forward to take another stroke that destroys rhythm and boat speed. That tendency has to be overcome through practice, mental rehearsal and self-management under pressure.

Both rowing coach and music professor agreed how some athletes/musicians needed more pushing and more support than others, but in all cases, honesty about performance was central. Both agreed on the importance of ‘being in the now’ when in a concert or in a race in order to achieve the best performance, and regular reviewing was a given in both worlds.

Olympic medallist Cath knows a thing or two about high performance

The passion for performance came through all the comments, alongside a resilience to do the difficult stuff and keep learning and improving, even at times when it felt difficult to get to the level required and dreamed of.

So much resonated with my experience of organizations outside the worlds of sport and music; of the importance of building greater understanding of what is happening between people, understanding differences and harnessing those as part of developing the team. There was a buzz of conversation as we all left the room with so many interesting new perspectives on high performance – seeing things through others’ eyes, stepping outside our own worlds, can truly be enlightening and inspiring!

Looking to book  Cath Bishop , or for another  motivational speaker  on high-performance and  teamwork ?

We represent a total of over 6000 speakers, with 1000 listed on our website. For more info., call us on +44 (0) 20 7607 7070 or email us at  info@speakerscorner.co.uk .

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