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Athletic pairings: without trust, performance doesn’t matter

After a shocking first-round loss at the 1996 Games, Child, left, and Heese came back to win bronze.

Bob Galbraith/AP

Imagine what it would be like if your professional success rested not just on your performance, but on your partner's performance, too.

John Child and Mark Heese spent years in this situation. In 1996, the two arrived on the world's biggest athletic stage, representing Canada in beach volleyball at the Atlanta Summer Olympics.

In the first match they faced off against a Spanish team, and based on pre-Olympic results , the Canadian pair was better. They were ranked higher. They were supposed to win.

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They were pummelled 15-1.

"I had the worst performance of my life," recalled Mr. Heese, who retired from the game in 2008. "I blew it."

The pair debriefed after the match with their coach and a mental trainer. To Mr. Heese's surprise, they didn't focus on what had gone wrong.

"I came out of that meeting feeling confident," Mr. Heese said. "And in some ways, it was a weird time to be feeling that way."

Mr. Child, who had just watched his teammate buckle under the pressure, said his trust in Mr. Heese never waned. "I knew Mark was a good player and I had no reason to doubt him," he said.

The pair ended up claiming the bronze in the tournament, Canada's only medal to date in beach volleyball. They played more than a decade together on the professional circuit.

With the the 2012 Olympic Games now under way, pairs of athletes from around the world have descended on London for their chance at glory in beach volleyball, tennis, badminton, rowing, canoeing, diving, synchronized swimming and sailing.

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The pair relationship is perhaps the most intimate in team sports, tantamount to a marriage. As experts argue – and as the Child-Heese example shows – developing a bond centred around communication and a shared goal is crucial to success.

Trust and confidence in your partner is key for the Canadians pairs heading to London, among them Michelle Li and Alex Bruce in doubles badminton and Dave Calder and Scott Frandsen in rowing.

The Child-Heese rebound in the 1996 Olympics is the perfect illustration of the necessary level of trust, says J.P. Pawliw-Fry, Mr. Heese's and Mr. Child's former mental trainer.

"It was a blowout, but during the game and after I didn't see some of that default behaviour of 'I don't trust you and I'm going to start doing things I shouldn't be doing,'" said Dr. Pawliw-Fry, who co-founded the Toronto-based Institute for Health and Human Potential and is an adviser to companies such as Johnson & Johnson and Goldman Sachs.

"What's really clear is that if you aren't functioning with a high level of trust, it's impossible to be a high-performing team. You're done."

There's evidence to back that up. Mark Beauchamp, a researcher at the University of British Columbia, studied pair athletes – also called dyads in the academic world – over the last decade. The numerous studies he conducted show that confidence can literally be contagious.

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"We found some evidence that in fact when athletes in these dyads display extreme trust and confidence in their partner, that actually transmits onto their partner so they develop high levels of confidence in themselves, and improves motivation. And there are performance-related outcomes," he said.

The same phenomenon was documented with high-level horse riders. In a 2005 study that Prof. Beauchamp also co-authored, it was found that riders who expressed confidence in themselves and their horse outperformed riders who only expressed confidence in just themselves or just the horse.

To develop a high level of trust, Mr. Child and Mr. Hesse sometimes met with Dr. Pawliw-Fry on a weekly basis. His main job was to create an open forum for the two to discuss anything and everything. With their common goal of an Olympic gold serving as the backdrop, it was a place were the two could be completely honest with one another.

It was marriage counselling for athletes.

Dr. Pawliw-Fry turns to the Laciga brothers from Switzerland, another beach volleyball duo, for an example of how things can go wrong. "They were highly talented, tall, and they had the perfect athletic ability," says Dr. Pawliw-Fry. "They could perform really well on the court."

But he said that when they underperformed, they would go tournaments without speaking to one another. "It totally explains why, with such talent, especially in the big tournaments, they were unable to deliver," he said.

Mr. Child and Mr. Heese had their differences too. Mr. Heese, for example, was about routine, the type of guy who needed to be at practice 20 minutes ahead of time. Mr. Child was routine-opposed. "He could show up at the tournament and, regardless of whether he nailed his prep or slacked off, he would be in the game," said Mr. Heese. "But it caused a bit of tension in the preparation phase."

Dr. Pawliw-Fry says that the failure of individuals to understand the effects of their actions is one of the most systemic problems he sees in any partnership.

"I see a lot of what is called blind impact … So you might have a partnership where everyone thinks 'I am doing my part,' but they have no clue how the decisions and the behaviours they engage in are impacting their partner," he said.

Mr. Child and Mr. Heese had to learn to trust each other's approach. "We were constantly reminded that we both had the same goals and the same wishes to succeed," Mr. Child said. "And as long as you keep that in mind, the bigger picture, little things like that won't bother you or offend you."

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