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Goal setting & a healthy dose of self-belief 13/10/2011

Two time Olympian and six times World Champion canoeist Anna Hemmings, MBE talks openly to Natalie Cooper about how setting goals helped her not only to win 11 medals in total but also the battle she had to fight to overcome a two year illness which made her reassess her approach to life.

Goal setting & a healthy dose of self-belief

Click to jump to section

  1. Who inspired you?
  2. Why is it important to have goals?
  3. Best piece of career advice?
  4. Handling chronic fatigue syndrome?
  5. Mental state & attititude?
  6. Emotional / spiritual journey?
  7. What leadership lessons did you learn?
  8. Podcast: wellbeing tips from Anna
  9. Downloadable document

Who inspired you?

I first dreamt of competing at the Olympic Games after watching the LA Olympics in 1984 when I was eight years old. My heroes on the track were Sebastian Coe and Carl Lewis. In my early years it was my mum who provided me with huge amounts of encouragement and support. She made me believe that I could achieve anything that I wanted to. Later in my career I was inspired by the older athletes at my canoe club and subsequently the world champions in my sport who I dreamt of emulating.

Why is it important to have goals?

Without goals I have nothing concrete to focus on. I’d be in danger of drifting along aimlessly. Goals can be powerful motivators but they have to be your own and they must generate excitement. If your goals are compelling enough, you’ll do it. You keep setting new goals to challenge yourself.

Best piece of career advice?

From a young age I worked with a sports psychologist and one of the very first things he said to me was: ‘learn to love adversity’. As it turned out, I faced a lot of adversity and I had to learn to love it otherwise you struggle to see light at the end of the tunnel and you would never come out the other end.

Handling chronic fatigue syndrome?

CFS kept me out of my sport for two years. I was permanently exhausted and fatigued after very light exercise. The muscles in my body ached, to the degree where it became painful. I slept loads. I can recall an occasion when I just fell asleep at the dinner table. Then there were periods when I suffered insomnia. And those were just the physical symptoms; the emotional battle was something else. It was a desperate position – there I was, going from being someone who makes their living from being a professional athlete, someone at the pinnacle of sporting excellence, to a condition that wouldn’t allow me to even move on some days.

Suffering from CFS was the most challenging period of my life. There is a lot of mystery regarding what it is and its causes. It’s also an illness that most people can’t see and understand. On some days I actually wished I was covered in spots or that my skin was see-through so that people could see the pain and understand it. But they didn’t. People who I thought knew me better said awful things and started to doubt me. They thought it was ‘all in my head’ or that I was just being lazy. The doctors said there wasn’t a cure for it – I was to just rest and wait. One doctor even told me it was time to retire from my sport and accept what my body was telling me. That went in one ear and out the other. The comments were tough to take and it’s pretty hard when everyone doubts you. During my worst days I relied on my dreams and ambitions of competing at the Olympic Games and winning World Championships to inspire me and keep my spirits up.

Mental state & attititude?

When the times are tough, you’re feeling low, things are going wrong, you realise that there is always one thing in your control – your attitude. I’d been struck by this illness and there didn’t appear to be any answers. I didn’t have the energy to do the things that I wanted to do. I couldn’t train and compete in the sport that I loved and consequently I lost my funding from the British team. I’d just bought my first flat and was going to struggle to pay the mortgage. But I realised that I could choose my attitude. I needed to stay positive and focus on finding a solution. It’s the attitude that you bring to the table that determines where you go next.

Emotional / spiritual journey?

I discovered the intrinsic link between the mind and the body and ultimately how powerful that connection is. The illness helped me to put sport into perspective and realise what was really important in life. I also realised that that no matter how diligently I trained, without your health, and without happiness, you cannot reach the highest level in any walk of life.

What leadership lessons did you learn?

This is a great question, because my motto is to ‘learn and move on.’ I discovered how important it is to take a step back. I was so focused on my goals that I failed to see the fact that my approach to working towards them wasn’t working. I needed to do things differently. Sometimes in order to reach new heights you have to be prepared to change. I had to change some of my routines, plus drop old habits and processes. I needed to keep one eye on my goal and one eye on the bigger picture. It’s the same in the business world, you need a goal and a vision but there are often a number of paths that you can take to reach that goal. You have to be prepared to be flexible, know and understand why change is important, embrace it and adopt new ways of thinking.

For example, I discovered that I wasn’t very good at working as part of a team. I had to create a team of the right people around me; people who I could trust. My coach became the leader of my team and I realised that when someone else wholeheartedly believes in you that is hugely powerful. Great leaders help you to believe that you are capable of more than you thought.

I learnt that it was ok to ask for help and that this wasn’t a sign of weakness but more a sign of strength. To be successful I had to learn to work as part of a well-trained team and it was the way that we worked together as a team that got me to the start line and helped me win medals.
How do you keep raising your sights

I heard a great quote once by Norman Vincent Peale. He said: “Become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities – always see them for they are always there.” That always reminded me to never lose sight. During your worst times and moments, if you lose sight, you lose hope and then you’ve lost everything.

Podcast: wellbeing tips from Anna

How to look after your wellbeing in the workplace.

Downloadable document

Goal-setting-and-wellbeing.pdf (644kb Pdf)

Natalie Cooper, editor, Changeboard

Natalie Cooper, editor, Changeboard

I’m a storyteller at heart. Do you help develop your employees, provide them with a career that gives meaning to their life or offer advice to help empower people? If you have a story to share, please email: natalie@changeboard.com