On first meeting with Sirs Matthew Pinsent (Four time Olympic Gold medallist) and Steve Redgrave (Five time Olympic Gold medallist)
It was some time in July 1998. It was probably Tuesday 7th July, but I can’t be sure. I know roughly when it was as I started my new job on 22nd June. I’d missed the first opportunity to meet Steve Redgrave the week before. He’d cancelled his appointment for physiological testing with us up at Northwick Park Hospital, Harrow owing to a minor injury niggle. On that day I had the pleasure of meeting his other half, Matt Pinsent. I was 24 years old at the time and in utter awe of these totemic legends of British and Olympic sport. It would be an understatement to say that I had rehearsed the encounter at least a thousand times in my head, over and over, day and night, several times per hour. I did a lot of pacing up and down in the summer of 1998 to stave off the stomach-churning nerves.
The introduction with Matt went okay. The double doors to the laboratory crashed open, not because of an overly aggressive door opening attack from Matt, but the hinges having been called into rapid and unrelenting action under the pressure of the sheer mass of human entering the room. Matt has more than ‘enter the room presence’ he has ‘enter the room magnitude’ and it would give any half alert human a jolt. However, just as rehearsed, I strode over, held out my hand for a shake and rolled out my pre-prepared line, “Hi Matt. I’m Steve, your new physiologist” (Don’t knock it, it took me ages to come up with that). I received a cordially curt, response of, “Nice to meet you, Steve. Shall we do this then?” The intro’ now over and with no notable tongue-tangles or brain farts I jumped into the routine step-by-step process of taking him through the full rigours of their regular MOT – the physiological test.
My recollection of meeting Matt is stored clearly as a ‘flash-bulb’ memory. It was significant, pronounced and important enough for my brain connections to be super-charged into retaining the images, my feelings and the events in my version of high-definition.
Fast forward nine days later to Henley-on-Thames. I’d arrived and hour and a half early, just in case I needed to divert via Wales and parked up in my Citroen Saxo at the back of Leander Rowing Club car park. With my special Olympic-themed apparel suitably adorned, just so anyone going about their daily business would know I was ‘with the Olympics’ I made my way to the boat-house front to meet up with the team again.
The rowers tended to arrive en-masse at 7.59am ready with plenty of time for the 8.00am session. Sure enough, the giants arrived. After several re-greetings of rowers from the week before, I spotted a moment to make my introduction. Steve Redgrave broke away from the chit chat, presumably to make his way to the boat and this seemed like the ideal moment to make the move. First, I did the walk-over (Excellent, no trips), then I put my hand out (All going well, I had managed to lift my hand out in front of me. Superb stuff!) and now here comes my tried and trusted introductory line (which I couldn’t manage to refine further from the Matt Pinsent intro’). “Hi Steve, (This is going really well, we have the same name, we are going to get along just fine), I’m Steve your new physiologist” (And relax this is basically over. All the words were said in the right order. Pat on the back time!).
If meeting Matt Pinsent was a flashbulb moment, then this was a simultaneously synchronised, paparazzi-style cacophony of strobe-lighting, police helicopter spotlights, heaven is calling, aliens are landing, New Year fireworks climax, bright-lighting extravaganza, all while the sun was eclipsed by Steve’s massive deltoid frame! His response, was plain and simple and should have been anticipated, but it wasn’t,
“Hi. Are you going to make me go faster?” he fired back.
In a singular instance Steve sent an exocet missile at point blank range to my brain, taking everything I had ever ‘learnt’ in science and either knocking it out or turning it upside down.
The flurry of thoughts going through my mind in that millisecond of neuro-processing was at storm level of confusion. Where should I start? Maybe I should mention my interest in breathing mechanics? No, this chap doesn’t look like he lacks for lungs! How about my interest in muscle soreness and growth? No, this man-mountain doesn’t look like he lacks hypertrophy skills. At the same time, I stand at 174cm and should probably not mention growth to this man 22cm in excess of my crown. What about my thesis on overtraining? Yes, that could be a good place to start, but it would be a bit negative and I don’t know if he has ever over-trained. Well it is better than any of the others, so you could start there… Oh hang on a minute, who was one of the most referenced experts in the area? Dr Richard Budgett! Redgrave won his first gold medal with him in 1984. Alright. Well if not this, that or the other, where to start?
Hang on a minute. What did I actually learn in my course? What did I learn that is going to be useful now in this moment under this spotlight, while the helicopters are still hovering overhead? What fact or nugget had I been taught that would enable me to kick start this relationship? I don’t remember the class on prioritisation! In fact, I don’t remember the class on recalling information while adrenaline is bathing my heart and driving me to flee!
My knee-jerk reaction, albeit privately in my head, was to start with knowledge, searching for something useful I could state. My mistake was to think that facts and knowledge can be traded for recognition and status and can act as a pass into their world. Somehow I had left my undergraduate studies in a state of knowing. All I could think in the summer of 1996 was, “I know stuff”. I also knew that I knew stuff which most certainly exuded as narcissism. “Look at me, people in the street. Look at me with my degree. Would you like to know some facts? Perhaps you would like to know my degree grades? I did especially well in my third year Environmental Physiology module, you know.”
I was almost certainly suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect where someone fails to assess their competence appropriately . In the early years of experience, confidence is disproportionately high. The devilish irony being that it is one’s very own incompetence that steals away from their capability to make a fair and reasoned judgment of their competence!
The mismatch between confidence and experience from, “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.
For scientists the Dunning-Kruger effect is demonstrated by their tendency to turn to published work. To many this is sacrosanct, to some it is everything, i.e. if it is not published it does not exist. In the vast majority of cases scientists quote articles, as a symbol of their competence, handing them out like greeting cards at Christmas or food to the needy. I have worked with over a thousand athletes and I can think of only one who actively wanted to see the literature. Therefore, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for me to say in 99.99% of cases this does not work with athletes, not elite athletes, not club level athletes, nor anyone in the middle.
Standing there with Steve on that day in July 1998, I was certainly on the left-hand aspect of the Dunning-Kruger model. Fortunately, I was not ascending the confidence line, I was descending steeply into the pit of appreciating that I might actually have absolutely nothing to offer.