Chad Le Clos and Coach – A Winning Leadership Formula

According to Graham Hill, Head Coach of SA Swimming and Personal Coach for Olympic Gold medalist Chad Le Clos, his achievement was absolute destiny!

He explains: “Two years ago at the Dubai World Short Course, Chad races in the first race of the meet, a four hundred medley, he finishes fifth. Three days later he lines up in lane five, with the world record holder from Brazil next to him. He wins the race in lane five by .05 of a second. Two years later we go to London, Chad lines up in the first race of the meet in the four hundred medley and he finishes fifth. Three days later he lines up in lane five, with the world record holder Michael Phelps in lane six, and he wins by .05 of a second.

This is destiny! How can it be explained in any other way?” Having interviewed both Chad Le Clos and Graham Hill separately, it seems destiny is where unmatched motivation towards a vision, detailed planning, disciplined execution, hard work, and a bond of trust and mutual respect converge. Surely this is a formula that serves any worthwhile endeavour; principles relevant in any leaders life.  

Being on the national team since 1997, Hill has been closely associated with most of our successful swimming athletes – Ryk Neethling, Roland Schoeman and many others. He has been on countless trips with them, including four Olympic Games. He compares being a personal coach to one athlete like Le Clos with a circle: “Chad and I are in the middle. Then we have different support people around us – a doctor, agent, the physiotherapist and family (athlete and coaches). To define my role – at the end of the day I am the boss. I’m the one who puts it all together. I say what can and what can’t happen. And the team around us all understand that.”

Yet he understands the role of the coach is to remain in the background and believes “the glory is there for the athlete that you coach. And if you are that good a coach you will be recognized along the way.” This has been the case with Le Clos’s victory; both the athlete and coach are receiving recognition.  

The magnitude of Le Clos’s achievement was in another league, especially after he beat his idol, the legendary Michael Phelps at his favourite event. Hill describes the after effects: “It was a whirlwind; it went crazy. For about three days we would leave the Olympic village at 7:30 in the morning and only get back at about 23:30 in the evening, jumping from one function or interview to the next. We were driven by a driver and we would be in the back of the car talking and forcing ourselves to have quick power naps.” They spent a lot of time together, just the two of them, and were able to build an even greater relationship along the way, which included conversations about how to handle the future.

Hill explains the essence of why Le Clos won: “Chad executed the game plan with exactness, one hundred per cent; you could not get better. The way he executed it, the only result was the gold medal. We knew we had to be at this point on Michaels shoulder; we knew where he had to be on the last turn and we knew we could beat him on the last fifty – we had trained for it; we prepared for it, exactly like he swam.”

So, detailed planning, hard work and execution with exactness constituted the formula. Hill adds: “I don’t think people understand, the amount of times we watched the videos; Le Clos would go home and watch, then we would discuss in detail.” 

Before the race Le Clos mentioned to Hill that he felt nervous but relaxed, almost as if he did not realize he was in an Olympic final. Hill simply replied: “Chad, we have done the work, you are confident, and that’s why you are relaxed. You are ready for this.” Then, just before Le Clos walked through the door Hill looked at him and said: “This is it. You remember one thing, you’ve dreamed this, and you want this so badly. This is your last chance to beat Michael Phelps. He is not going to swim another tournament butterfly ever again. You want your dream to come true, this is your only chance!” It was his attempt to get his athlete into the zone. It most certainly contributed. From Le Clos’s angle he comments as follows about the race: “In the race I felt like I switched mentally, because it was something I wanted to do since I was a young boy. I remember thinking this is the last time to beat him and I want to beat him.”

The bond and connection between Hill and Le Clos is evident. Le Clos respectfully describes it as a fiery relationship: “We have spent twelve years together. We know each other backwards. He is a nice guy outside the pool. I like to have him in my house and with my family. Seriously, he is a cool guy to be around. But, when we are training he is different; in the pool he is the boss and in charge. I can’t think of a full week where he did not shout at me, to be honest”. But Le Clos does not take anything personally and realizes fully he needs his coach, and Hill is very aware that he is now dealing with a man and not the young boy of the past, an Olympic champion, and “this is now a whole different ball game, I have to change my ways and thoughts on motivating him, a whole new challenge, a whole new journey so to speak, moving forward to 2016,” explains Hill. 

Hill believes further one of the factors that create top athletes is this bond between coach and athlete: “The way you create the champions like Chad lies in the bond (connection) between coach and athlete. It is almost as if that sixth sense is there. If he does something he will look up at me and I will know what he is up to, just in everyday life. That’s how close we are. We trust one another with our lives. The trust and the bond we have is what I believe makes great champions. Yes, obviously he has a natural gift and talent to be a winner, a champion, to be able to focus and finish events off. But I think it is the relationship of a coach and an athlete that makes the big difference.”

What made him different from other young kids that were even better than he was is that he wanted it more than anything, from the age of twelve: “I wanted to be an Olympic champion. I wanted to be the best in the world. I wanted to compete against the best, and Michael Phelps was the best.”

Still, his resolve was often tested when other distractions surfaced – different sports, girls, sleeping in, and much more. But the drive to become an Olympic winner against his idol trumped them all. And, like all top achievers, moments of self-doubt do rear their head, even for Olympic athletes. Le Clos confidently confirms this: “The last two years I always had doubts in my head. I was always worried about what would happen if I did not get into the final; will I be able to come back from that?” After the win against Phelps, Le Clos mentioned to Hill that he hoped it wasn’t just luck, and his response: “Great athletes make their luck”. According to Hill, in any game one needs luck, including in the business world – “right place; right time.”

Today both the coach and athlete thank Phelps for being such a role model in the sport as to motivate Le Clos to achieve an Olympic gold medal. But what will motivate Le Clos in equal measure to move on and achieve even greater heights? Going beyond London has always been part of their thinking. Le Clos wants to beat Phelps’s record of single medals. And, if they can be successful at developing other great swimmers to win medals in relay, then he even wants to challenge Phelps’s overall medal tally, starting with eight medals at the next Olympics.

This entire story is a perfect example of an ultimate achievement because of a passionate vision that truly motivated, detailed planning, hard work, disciplined execution and a deep connection between two individuals. Business, political and other leaders will do well to fine tune their abilities to implement the same formula in their areas of responsibility.

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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