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Derrick Campbell, coach of Canada's short-track speed skating team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
Derrick Campbell, coach of Canada's short-track speed skating team for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.


How to be a calm leader amid the emotional storm Add to ...

Surveys routinely show that many employees aren’t all that enthusiastic about their jobs, putting motivation at the top of many managers’ to-do lists.

But for Derrick Campbell, head coach of Canada’s short-track speed skating team, motivation by his charges is essentially a given, particularly in the period just prior to and during the Winter Olympics. The issue, instead, is making sure they aren’t overly motivated – too tense and high strung – and handling the disappointment when highly competitive skaters slip and fall.

A former Olympic skater himself, winning gold with the 5,000-metre relay team in 1998, he oversees a team of 18 skaters, but focuses directly on the eight members of the national team.

“Because the talent pool in Canada is so good and it involves head-to-head competition, it requires mental toughness. If you’re not motivated, you’ll be weeded out,” he said in an interview.

Still, over the years of preparation, motivation can wane somewhat. Just like regular employees, Olympic athletes might have relationship problems, experience financial stress, or be set back by disappointing results. Mr. Campbell said he has to watch his charges carefully during their practices at Montreal’s Maurice Richard Arena, sensitive to their body language and the words they are using, as well as their performance results.

As with managers everywhere, there is no universal prescription. Sometimes, the answer is more rest. Sometimes it’s revisiting their goals. Sometimes it’s reminding them of the value of the training sessions and how those are linked to improved performance.

Very close to and during the Olympics, however, the challenge will often be too much motivation. Nerves can ruin their performance. So can the many distractions of the giant gathering. Short-track competition begins on the second day of the Games and continues to the second of last day, a long period to maintain focus. “How you ride it for two weeks is important. You have to make sure the highs don’t get too high. When you experience disappointment, you park it and move on,” he said.

In Sochi, he was intently watching Charle Cournoyer, the team’s youngest member at 22, in his first Olympics. The skater is very talented technically and physically, but his 500-metre competition was on the final night for short track, a long, expectant wait during his first major international competition.

Mr. Campbell kept pressing upon him the importance of fighting – going all-out in the race. “It was a night when he skated to his potential,” Mr. Campbell said. “At the Olympics, it’s all about the event that day or night. You have to be prepared to go after it. And that night, he was.” It worked. Mr. Cournoyer won the bronze medal.

If managing motivation is easier in his sphere than elsewhere in the working world, a contrary issue serves as his toughest challenge: Managing disappointment when his talented skaters have a mishap or otherwise fail. That includes his own disappointment, as well as their distress. After all, he has invested a lot in their performance, too, and feels a strong sense of responsibility when they don’t meet expectations. “I’m a very competitive person,” he said.

Over the years, he has become better at managing his own emotions. Indeed, he believes as a coach and leader, he must model a calm, assured manner, given that his skaters can be excited and nervous.

The relay team – the defending Olympic and world championship team – experienced major disappointment after François Hamelin tripped on a marker and fell halfway through the semi-final. But his team knows a fall can occur, given the 80-kilometres-an-hour speed, with 16 skaters taking part and exchanges every 1.5 laps. In large measure, they managed the situation themselves.

“It has happened to everyone. So when we went down, everyone understood … . The gang was very close and pulled together. Everyone was super disappointed but everyone knew you pull your teammates up after it,” he said.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t play a role in managing their disappointment. He talked to each of them individually afterward, to get them focused on their next events. But as with most successful projects, much of his work came beforehand. These are team mates who compete against each other but also race together in the relay. They learn from each other in practices, at the same time as they fight to place higher in competitions. It can be a delicate mix, and he worked to develop a team culture so that they weren’t fighting against each other.

With team veteran Charles Hamelin, older brother of François, it was a case of managing motivation, distraction and disappointment at the Games. He won a gold medal the first night in the 1,500-metre race but still had the relay and two individual races ahead.

“Our message to him was: That’s the first goal in the first period of the game. That’s all,” he said. After the relay reversal, in which his brother fell, Charles Hamelin slipped in the 1,000-metre race. Since he is a consistent performer, who always rebounds from disappointments, they expected him to rally for the 500-metre event, but again he fell.

All the coach could do at that point was offer support: “They’re at their limit. The smallest thing can take you down,” he said.

The high – and low – moments of the Olympics are now gone. But for the speed skater, and their coach, the competitions and collaboration continues.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail presents the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Coach Reward Program, which recognizes the coaches of the Sochi 2014 Canadian Olympic Team medallists. As part of this series, we will be asking six Olympic coaches who are receiving the awards to share their stories on motivating, leading and managing talent.

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