Ep.006 Athlete Story Podcast
Valuable lessons and life skills from a life with sports at the highest level from Olympic Gold Medalist. Athlete story Joe Jacobi
As an athlete, you come across many concepts in your sports career that can help you navigate in life. In fact you gain valuable skills that are actually are transferable life skills.
Olympic gold medallist Joe Jacobi is a whitewater canoe slalom athlete turned executive business coach. He has made a whole framework for business coaching out of the images and physical concepts from his sport. He shares that with us in this episode of Athlete Story.
Joe describes the world of whitewater canoe slalom and how you try to maneuver your boat in a river with strong currents while trying to avoid touching the obstacles (poles) that have been placed in your path.
You have to paddle as fast as you can while avoiding these poles, since touching them adds penalty seconds to your time and the idea is to be as fast as you can. , He describes it as one of the most fun things you can do in your life.
‘’It’s that feeling of gravity and working with a force of nature that is so much stronger than you or I could ever be.’’ he says.
It’s almost like an art form because Joe describes successful people in canoeing as people who have learned to channel their energy into making the river work for them instead of fighting with it. More like a dance with the river, and this is a way we can choose to live life as well. When you position yourself so that you can take advantage of the currents in stead of fighting them – you don’t have to fight as hard.
READ the transcript of full interview by clicking here.
Hi! This is Athlete Story and I’m Anja Bolbjerg. In today’s Athlete Story you are in for a free world class coaching session. Not only does our guest American Joe Jacobi have an Olympic gold medal in whitewater canoeing, which I think is so cool, he’s also such a reflective generous source of wisdom of all the lessons he’s taken with him from the river that he now coaches CEOs and business leaders. He’s not your typical guru hyped up kind of coach, he just has some really solid points that can just wake you up when you’re getting a little too comfortable.
Joe started whitewater canoeing when he was 12 years old on a river in Washington DC. And it was on this river that he fell in love with, the process of improving and see how he could be more efficient so that he could be faster and beat his friends. While the boys were competing against each other, they were also learning how to compete against themselves. This very competitive but still friendly environment was Joe’s incubator, and ten years later he stood at the top of the podium at the Olympics in Barcelona.
I am so excited for this call, so let’s not wait any longer. Let’s just bring him in.
Good to finally talk to you.
Yeah, I know, it’s great to connect with you as well.
Welcome to the show Athlete Story.
I was wondering if you could help me and my listeners by taking us inside a canoe in a river, before we imagine, you know, the picnic trip down a little….
I have a description of our sport that I hope you of all people will absolutely love. So I just want you to imagine that you’re in a canoe at the top of a snow-covered mountain. But it gets warm and the water and the snow melts and turns to water, and you’re going downhill in the canoe. And it’s just moving water now, instead of snow. And in our sport of whitewater canoe slalom instead of the slalom poles being fixed into the ground, they’re actually hung from wires over the river. And you have to maneuver, just like slalom skiing, you have to maneuver between the poles. The one key difference between skiing and canoeing is that if you touch the poles and canoeing you get penalty seconds added to your time. Though if you touch a pole that’s two seconds out of your time. If you miss the poles all together, that’s fifty seconds added to your time. So the idea is to be as fast as you can, paddling between the poles while you navigate this whitewater river. It is just one of the most fun things that you can do if in your life. It’s that feeling of gravity and working with a force of nature that is so much stronger than you and I could ever be. And so the people who are really successful in our sport they’re the ones that do a great job of taking the energy of the river and channeling that energy into their boat, into their paddle, into their body and get that energy working for them. It’s not your own muscle but it’s how you manage the muscle of the river. And those are the people who tend to do really well in our sport.
So you’re not fighting the water, that’s not what you want to do anyways, fight the water, you want to more like find the way for the water to help you…?
Actually, that is such an insightful question and observation because I think it’s– I remember when we were competing, you know, 25-26 years ago here at the 92 Olympic Games, my canoe partner and I were the smallest lightest weight team in the race, Like, our combined weight was under 300 pounds. Most of our competitors were much bigger and stronger than us upwards of 350 pounds combined. And I think in a lot of ways, when you’re strong, you get this idea that it’s a fight. And I think that a lot of times when you’re smaller and you have to figure out other ways to work with the energy, it’s more like a dance than a fight. And I think that’s always a nice kind of disposition to take with you, not just out on to the river but in life. I think there’s a lot of forces out there that we can work with, every day we have to kind of consciously choose, do we want to fight that force or do we want to try to work with it? And just have to decide and then…
That’s a nice image.
It’s at least something nice to strive for. It doesn’t always work, sometimes we do get into our fight mode, but hopefully you choose the dance mode a little bit more than the fight mode.
How does courage come in to this? Is there fear and courage involved in jumping into whitewater?
I think being honest with fear has a role. I mean, I think these two are very joined at the hip, sort to speak. You have to be honest with what scares you, with what’s bothering you. I wrote a post about courage and confidence. I think everybody wants confidence, they want that feeling of confidence to arrive when they’re in the start gate. And you can probably remember instances in your own competitive situations, sometimes confidence showed up and sometimes it didn’t. And that leaves you with one more choice. That’s when you can choose to be courageous, confidence either came or didn’t, but courage was a choice. I think as long as you spend time being very honest and open with what isn’t working well for you and maybe what are points of fear or what are challenges that you’re working with, I think it becomes then much easier to choose courage in the right moment and in the right situation and in a way that works for you. But it’s a practice, it’s a practice like anything.
So, what you’re saying is that if you’re being honest to yourself about what it is that you’re afraid of, then you can deal with it by choosing to be brave or that part whereas if you are not being honest to yourself it’s always gonna be another reason to excuse to not do it?
Absolutely, I was the chief executive officer of the US Canoeing Federation for five years and we were always talking with coaches and athletes about you know, the pursuit of high performance and I think a lot of organizations and federations and Olympic committees tend to focus on the physical, mental, and technical aspects of getting better. And what you are just alluding to right there is more what I believe are the emotional and spiritual sides of manifesting energy and manifesting performance and the things that you want to show up in the start gate.
But then there’s another added– It could be added difficult or it could be a help, but you were too in your canoes, right?
Yeah, another really great observation. I think that when you decide to strap yourself into a canoe with another person, there’s a lot of trust that has to happen. You know, you want to know something about what that person is made of, because his thoughts are now your thoughts, his choices are now your choices and–
Probably the sport it compares the best to at the Winter Olympics would be the bobsled.
Yeah, I think so. I mean, certainly when you think about the team element and the trust, things are happening so quickly that I think one of the really transferable life skills and business skills I think from sport like bobsled and whitewater canoeing in a tandem situation is the unspoken communication, how you communicate with your body language. I know that I was in the back of our doubles canoe and my partner Scott was in the front of what we call the bow and the way we actually paddled was I would always be looking towards his body movements to indicate to me what he was trying to do with the boat. You know, if he dropped one shoulder and put his paddle out to the side, kind of indicated that he wanted to move the boat left. And then once I knew that, when and I could instinctively do a stroke, that could help the boat move left or help him turn the boat to the left. And so you’re always kind of looking at those, reading the other person and trying to understand what’s happening and it did require a lot of time and a lot of work together. But it is such a– I don’t know, for lack of a better word, joyful experience to paddle well on a course on a race course and share that experience with another person. I think you and I could both think about our business experience and our client experiences and imagine where that nonverbal communication becomes very important. I think one of the great life lessons that the river has taught me regardless of one person or two people that every advantage that the river gives you there’s always an equal and opposite disadvantage and you just have to kind of work with those different forces.
If we stay with the image of the bobsled for a bit, you have all the winter sports whether it’s on snow or ice. It’s about the glide, and I guess water sports is the same.
I wrote about this idea of glide in one of my Sunday morning job posts. I feel like one of the things that I learned from my time in canoeing or even for the little bit of time that I spend on cross-country skis and you know you push on one ski and you just want to see how much energy you can get out of one push. And if you can just be patient and quiet enough– This team seems to have a little more of a patient style. Kind of let the energy just take care of itself. Kind of waiting for the race to come to them. I think people would be surprised like how much momentum that you can take with you on your journey. Yeah, they just control the boat put it where it needs to be and the rest of it happens. If you get very proficient at the idea of glide– I like to see that especially on the top of the course. You’ll find that you actually have more capacity and more energy to use at the moments when you really need it. I think when you miss out on the idea of glide and as a concept of kind of letting a unit of energy kind of ride out its course and in anything whether it’s presenting an idea or whether it’s a stride on an ice skate or a paddle stroke in a canoe. I think when you just give yourself the patience to let that energy carry you, you begin to see that a lot of times you don’t need as much force and energy and that quiet disposition gives you a chance to really feel what else is going on and where else you might be able to take on more energy. One of the things I really learned about canoeing is that when you weren’t taking a stroke, you could feel the current of the river even better. And if we believe that we’re navigating river currents of life and business, we have to slow down enough to quiet ourselves enough to really understand what the direction of business is going, for example. I think we just get so hyped up you try to check the next box that we just forget that idea of how to glide.
That kind of leads to what– I know you’re talking about course correction. Can you tell us about what course correction is? How does that apply in your sport?
And how do you use that image in your coaching? It’s putting yourself in the position to respond to what doesn’t go well. What I think happens in the course of doing whatever it is that we want to do well, whether that’s ski down a hill or navigate a river or run a marathon or launch a business it never goes as planned. I think people kind of get a little impatient and they get set up and they just sort of want to jump ship and move on to a new river, sort to speak.
I use the navigation of a whitewater river as a metaphor for performing better and business and in life. And I would say one of the most popular, if not the most popular breakout session among companies and organizations last year was this idea of course correction.
One of the things that I talked about when we won the Olympics back in 1992, I never say that we were the best or the fastest boat on the day of the Olympic Games, what I tell people that I feel like we did well was that we corrected mistakes and anticipated mistakes a little bit better than the competition did that day. Can you take us back to when you started this sport? I was very lucky in the way I started canoeing. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. The fortuitous circumstances you have in your life that are kind of beyond your control. So, I grew up in the Washington DC area on the Potomac River where there was world-class whitewater in a major metropolitan area, which is very rare in the sport of canoeing. At that time the legendary coach of the sport all the world champions, the US team was paddling really well at the time. I was 12, this was the 1980s. And the coach was trying to recruit some new people into the sports and their recruiting efforts yielded me. That is not saying a lot, it wasn’t like I was a very athletic or fit person. I just like showing up with this group of people, and I guess, I was almost too young to understand how good these athletes were. My first workout on the Potomac River, everybody there had won a world medal of some kind, a World Championships, a World Cup Race. They were truly high-performance paddlers. And what was crazy about that was ten years later, on the day that we won the Olympic Games, everybody who was at that first workout was either my teammate or had retired and become one of my coaches. And even my coaching and training programs today, I talk about this idea of cultures of excellence, and that’s what really kind of brought me along and I was so lucky to grow up around those athletes and we were very transparent the way we shared information with each other. It was a super competitive environment. I think having that level of competition every day was important, and so today we hear about this idea of deliberate practice. I like that expression how can we–
And by deliberate practice you mean practice as if it’s competition? Yeah, absolutely. So, does that mean you would do full runs in practice always?
That’s a great question. It wasn’t that we would do full run, it just means that we were competitive in everything that we did. That was just such an acceptable way to kind of work with each other and against each other, but really with each other. To your question, I think it just seemed that whatever we did on the Potomac River we did it competitively. In your career you made a decision at one point to move your whole base camp and trains in another spot. -In North Carolina, exactly. -Why did you make that move? There were a couple factors that went into that. You know my canoe partner had worked at this amazing whitewater raft company in Western North Carolina called the Nantahala Outdoor Center. There was one other time that whitewater was in the Olympic Games, it was a one-time deal in 1972. And in 1972 Olympic team for the United States were employees or became employees of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, So, there was a great history there. One of the things that the Nantahala offered that was so different for us was that in a place like Washington DC that was expensive, you had to either go to school or have a job to live there, At the Nantahala, you could put the proverbial eggs all in one basket and just say, “This is what we do.” We don’t want to get to the finish line of the Olympic Trials or the Olympic Games and ask ourselves, was there something more we could have done? Maybe, if we hadn’t taken that extra shift at work. Maybe, if we hadn’t taken that extra class in school. But what if we just put everything in and said this is our life, this is what we do and it just turned out that the remote nature of Appalachia and the people and the culture and the spirit was like the perfect place for doing that. It also gave us a chance to instead of just be a part of a top-notch training group, it gave my canoe partner and I a chance to build our own. And that’s what happened. And it was also a very important part of my development, not just as an athlete but as a person. A lot of what I do in my life today is– A lot of it is modeled after the two men who founded the Nantahala Outdoor Center. And their approach on serving me outdoors, their approach on finding flow in your life, and just the way that we try to work harder to get more people outside and outdoors. Those would be underpinning of our existence at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for three years as we pursued the Olympic Games. It was a wonderful way to live and train for the 92 Olympics.
-And it paid off.
-Well, it did. Those French athletes are here because they’re starting to practice for the World Championships that are gonna be hosted here in [inaudible] in 2019. That is what we started to do one year before the Olympic Games. My canoe partner and I spent almost 100 days in [inaudible] in the year before the Olympic competition. If you want to be good at the Olympic course, you got to spend time at the Olympic course. And we did that.
This is kind of a weird question to give to you, but I would like to have your input anyways… There seems to be a generation of parents who have kind of tried to avoid competition for the children. What is your take on competition?
I am a huge advocate of competition. One of the things I always challenge people is how can we turn deliberate practice into deliberate competition and not back away from that? And I would actually take this opportunity, it is pretty interesting, my family and I left the United States to move to Spain for a lot of reasons. So, I’m here with my wife Lisa and our 16-year-old daughter Seu, who competes for the United States program but practices with the Spanish program here in La Seu. We embrace competition so much at all levels that I think one of the great opportunities for us to be here is for our daughter to be able to take advantage of traveling throughout Europe with other friends and other athletes, and all the experiences that go along with that are fantastic. You know, for where the sport of canoeing is competitively in the United States there just are not a lot of race opportunities, there’s not a lot of and there’s not a lot of people to race against. And you compare that here in Europe where the sport is really strong. There’s a lot of kids who do it, and there are races everywhere.
I would also say that I think even for athletes like yourself and for me that I think as we get older our outlook on competition changes as well. It’s not about getting rid of competition out of our life, but it’s working with competition very differently, so today I run marathons, my goal is to win. The way that I approach marathon training today remind me nothing of the way I was as an athlete, I very rarely wear a watch, I don’t measure very much what I do when I’m running, I just go and enjoy myself and I do find ways to challenge myself but that’s what competition does for you. It gives you a bit of a measuring stick every once in a while to say this is who I am, where am I? And I think that question it’s really healthy.
And maybe it gives you a reason to go where that pain is that you would otherwise avoid.
I love that, that is Anja it’s 100% spot-on. And I think that in life as we get older, we need to find ways to awaken ourselves. And I think competition is the perfect way to do that, and again it’s not competition in terms of I have to go win something or I have to go beat somebody, but it’s just being courageous enough to show up on the day and say I’m ready to be measured, and see where I am.
It can be tempting to opt out of that being-measured part.
I think so, you know it I don’t want to feel like I’m making judgments about other people and the way they look at competition but I think it’s just a reality of the way the structures and networks of our own communities, of our world work. I think competition gives people a path to rise and ultimately our communities and our structures are very dependent upon the development of new leaders, and there’s no doubt competition helps to do that. I think it could be maybe the worst time ever to be moving away from competition.
Why is that?
I just think because of all the change and innovation that’s just coming into our world right now. But I think about the habits and mindsets that it takes for us to engage with the dynamics of societies and the change and technology and innovations, and the challenges that come with it. I think competition is exactly what gets people to ask themselves more challenging questions. What if we did that? What if I learned this? That’s the gift the competition gives us.
— PART 2 —
I sit here in our apartment in La Seu d’Urgell – the town that hosted the 1992 Olympic Games.
As I look over the top of the screen I can see the French athletes literally training on the white water course where the Olympics were held.
Gosh we are loving this adventure, living here… we are so happy here. It is really cool
and what about your daughter, does she like it there ?
Everyone is happy here. It’s been great for us as a family and t’s been great for us individually
So our daughter, Seu, she is 16.
She competes for the United States but she practices with the Spanish program here.
The Spanish are going to host the world championships here in 2019 and that will be the Olympic qualification race. But, that’s the course that we, my canoe partner and I, raced on at the 92 Olympics.
And our daughter is named after the village here, or the town that we live…
When we were expecting our first and our only child, I remember we found out it was a girl. We got into an elevator just afterwards. It was a very short elevator ride. Lisa looked at me and she said: Well?
I said name? And she said: Yes. I said: Seu?
And she goes: DONE!
It was the shortest conversation that Lisa and I have ever had!
You know, I met my wife Lisa after the ’92 Olympics.
She came here. She loved it.
It think there was always something about this place that kind of was calling us back here
And we love it.It’s wonderful experience for us individually and as a family
I guess it helps your daughter too if she is trying to qualify for those world championships – or is she too young for that?
No. It’s a great opportunity for her. I think that one of the things that you and I know from our respective sports is that when you have an individual sport that has especially an element of risk.
It’s just head-to head racing it’s just one person on the race course at a time. The way that the athlete work together, it’s very healthy, it’s very positive, the sense of community is very, very strong
So at 16, Seu is learning great life skills right now.
And do you work with the team there at all?
Anytime the coaches ask me to help out, I always volunteer.
And even as I trained for my marathon several of the athletes here, they go running with me. Which gives us an opportunity to get to know each other.So they have become very important people in our lives here
And it certainly gets me thinking…and I’m sure you are thinking about this as well
we can watch the Olympic Games that are happening now and we can appreciate the experiences they are having, but i’m sure you and I probably think a lot alike in ….. what are they going to do after?
What could their contributions be to their greater world, to their greater communities?
How can they transfer this very unique experience into something that will help more people…
And I do that a lot here with the Spanish athletes….I think about that a lot.
I’m always wondering about ideas and I trying to get them to speak about it and be open about it.
And they have incredible coaching all around them that will definitely make them better athletes. And I see their talents as people and if there’s anything I can do to help them grow as people – I know they are helping me to grow as a person – so if there’s anything I can do to help I’m honored to do.
I read that you were using training logs, is that something you advice these young athletes to do?
And I love this topic. I just want to figure out some very tangible ways that we can help athletes begin to explore that sense of gratitude for the opportunities that they have
I think you and I both know that the lessons they stand to learn being and elite athlete with the people they meet and the experiences they are going to have really gives them an edge in life assuming they are self aware enough to begin to pay attention to that at an earlier age.
And doing a training log in paper and pencil is the perfect way to do that.
I started keeping mine when I was 12 years old – and I logged every word I did through age 22 including the day I won the Olympics.
I eventually made my way back to the Olympic Village and I opened the desk drawer and pulled out the notebook and I wrote an entry like it was another day of just filling out the training log.
My competitive experience in Athens – it was my second Olympic Games experience 12 years after the first one in Spain. And I didn’t win. I was 8th place. But that experience is like the ultimate proof in my life that you learn more from your losses than you do from you wins. It forces you to kind of look at what happened and how you can improve yourself. And we can be grateful for hard lessons and we can be grateful for losses – you know, when you win – you can come with all these reasons why it matters – it’s too easy because you won the Olympics!
But what I tell the kids today that I would do differently, the one question that I never asked myself – every day was: how did I serve my sport today ?
So, I just want you to imagine how powerful that could be to every young person that participates in young sports write that questions out and answer it in paper and pencil.
How did I serve my sport today?
It doesn’t have to be an elaborate answer.
It could be as simple as sending Anja an email, thanking her for her service. For what she contributed to the sport.
It could be helping maybe a spectator that came to watch practice to just tell them what the rules were. . or it could be helping out one of the younger athlete who is less experienced than you.
I just want athletes to feel maybe a sense of emptiness if they leave that question blank.
If they just do it one time nothing change sbut if they do that every day for years, you really being to see yourself as a part of something bigger than yourself
And I think then they are on that path og being more grateful for the opportunities and then they can
convert that gratitude into serving and contributing to something bigger than themselves.
I think it’s just exposing young people to that practice a little bit earlier.
And that you don’t have to just be selfish and it’s all about me in order to perform well in your sport.
This idea of being grateful doesn’t make you less ambitious. It doesn’t make you less driven. It just makes you more self aware of what’s happening.
And maybe it can help you detached a bit. Because detachment is a big thing when you want to perform on the day.
100 percent! You just gotta keep doing it and your disposition begins to change. It’s not a tool it’s just a disposition of where you are and of noticing that you are able to detach a little bit.
and boy, what a life skill that is.
I look at the things that I do to start my day today with meditation and writing and doing some journaling in the morning beforehand . I look back and I wish that these were things I would have practiced more when I was an athlete
I smile a lot when I hear some of the young athletes that are using like one of the mediation apps
like Calm or Headspace – and they are 20 years oldI that’s like, that is so cool! I love to hear that. And that’s happening more and more and more.
In canoeing, do you use visualization before you go – or can that be actually a handicap?
No you definitely visualize the course. I think when you do it in the doubles boat the idea is that you have to talk a lot with each other – so that when you get to the visualization
you hope that the two guys are visualizing the same thing – or else it can get messy! Haha.
It’s about how you change – how you course correct. If plan A doesn’t work well, how do you go to plan B? -when there is no time to think about plan B – you just have to trust yourself that you know how to jump into it. But you know what Plan B is. And plan C and D and E
And that seamless transition that I think happens in these flow – gravity sports where things come at you very quickly – like skiing and whitewater – I think these are hugely transferable skills in life and business. I know they can be practiced. And it’s one of the reasons that every organizational groups I work – it doesn’t always work out this way, but I always offer them the option to come getout on the river with me. Let’s get onto a raft. Let’s set up exercises.
Because once we get them out on the river…Again it’s not about their ability to execute it’s about their ability to respond to what is changing in front of them and you learn about their habits nad their mindsets and you can see in very real life what needs to be worked on in that situation.
so visualization yes- but ultimately it’s with a twist – what are you gonna do when you get off course?
So you do camps or retreats where you take people out on camps or retreats or whatever you call it ? I’d like to do that!
So, it actually it happens in a couple of different ways…so one thing that I do with all my coaching is..
I’m not one of those people who look for the latest trends in coaching and what people are talking about… all I do is that I work with concepts and lessons and habits and experiences that have had a dramatic impact on my life. As an athlete, as an executive….And having written about them for a long time I’m also very good at transferring them to whatever situation is front of an individual or an organization.
So especially with the business I take concepts from the river.
It’s all concepts of navigating rivers and using that as a metaphor.
So whether I’m in Europe where there’s a lot of manmade whitewater courses and a lot of access to rafts and good raft guides and good athletes to kind of interact with – Or in the United States, where I tend to use the whitewater center in Oklahoma City for a lot of my programs.
It’s not just like recess on whitewater. We really go out and whatever an organization is trying to work on – whether it’s a new mission statement or it’s new company values or it’s an on-boarding process taking those values – .
Whatever the objective is. I’m really good at taking that objective and making a whitewater transfer to that objective so that people are really experiencing it and we kind of see where they are and that works really well.
And then what I’m launching this year, are these active lifestyle retreats here in la Seu d’Urgell
So the idea is to come here and to do some of the wonderful activities that we have, whether that’s hiking or using the Parc del Segre, the food, the relationships, the culture, the way of the people and then figuring out ways to plug that back into their life.
So I’m not suggesting that everyone needs to go back to the United States and sell their home, sell their car and get rid of all their possesions and move aways.
I think it’s more about:
How do you take these beautiful elements of the Catalan lifestyle and incorporate that a little bit more simply into your complicated life in the United States.
I think people really more and more crave that sense of simplicity – and it’s there, but like everything, it’s a practice.
And I think, even the fact that you are just going away from your home, and going with the focus to work on something – that’s something that’s natural to us as athletes because we go on training camps whenever there’s something we want to change or improve – but most people don’t get the luxury of doing that. And going on a retreat or a camp like that where you go away and you don’t have to think about who is doing the laundry, who is picking up that and who is walking the dog – you are there with a purpose and that just adds to the whole experience right.
That’s a great point, Anja!
When you think about how much you and I practiced. How many hours and weeks and months and years that we practiced. Just look how in business, how infrequently we ever practice. It’s just like all we do is race. We are just racing around, performing, performing, performing. Check the box, check, check the box!
And so rarely do we actually ever put ourselves in that training camp environment.
When you fail to do that as a leader, as an organization…. When you just kind of keep grinding and keep grinding
The only thing your are grinding is yourself. The only thing you are grinding is your own motivation, your own intentions, your own health.
And it takes removing yourself from those conditions. And it’s just one of the most important lessons that you and I learned as athletes.
Talking about grind, we talked about how we were lucky that our sports – mine being freestyle skiing and freeride skiing and yours in the canoe – how that’s a fun sport. Like it’s physically thrilling and that makes you want to go there even those days where you get hurt, and you know…What about you running a marathon – is that fun ?
It’s not that I like one more than the other but I value having both kinds of exercise and competition in my life. I think there are some activities that just keep you very mindful and present
And then there are some, like even marathon running, where you can be mindful and present of each step and it’s its own challenge but sometimes you drift a little bit. As I tell people:
I can maybe think about what I’d like to cook for dinner without feeling that I’m going to get hurt.
Because if I were paddling a river and you were doing aerial tricks and you though about chicken or…fish – you have no teeth at the of that thought
In whitewater canoeing you have to learn a lot of different techniques and then you have think startigically decide when and where to use which techniques. So a little like skiing, yes, you can practice going fast in a straight line but there is never going to be more than a millisecond before you are setting up some kind of turn. And I think that constant change is the antithesis of running a marathon …step by step by step by step by step.
what has been the hardest moment for you in your sports career ?
The one that always jumps out.
It was about one year and a half before the 1992 Olympics, I was out running a river for fun. You know that’s one of the nice things about canoeing, it’s not just training, but you go out and you run rivers for fun. Sometimes you paddle bigger whitewater rapids than you would normally race on. I remember it was like a year and a half before the 92 Olympics and I dislocated my shoulder while running a river one afternoon. And it was an awful dislocation too. And it was in a remote part of Tennessee.
Were you alone?
I wasn’t. But I was with one other person but he had leave me to go get help – with the shoulder not being reset.
So the shoulder ended up being out for five and a half hours before it was reset. And I was very tense – which didn’t help the efforts to try to reset it when I was on the river bank. So eventually I got to the hospital in the middle of nowhere and got a lot of drugs into my system where they could force the muscles to relax so they could reset it.
I just think about that experience as not just something that I did to myself but I was in a doubles canoe – not when the accident happen – but my responsibilities were in part to another person – and that just felt awful. That just felt terrible. To the degree that I let Scott down and that was a significant chunk of time out of the boat. And it was at that age – I was about 20 years old when that happened – it was hard to get the perspective that sometimes can also be silver lining as well. That you can learn lessons. That you can do different things when you are injured. First of all, you can strengthen that part of your body. You can make it stronger than it was before. That’s a good thing But then you can do other things in your sport because you have time…
Do you still go out on the river – and the river still gives you insight?
It’s actually a big part of the reason that I go out onto the water. It forces me to re-learn.
The river itself has changed very little since 1992. I’ve changed a lot, the equipment has changed a lot, the culture around the sport has changed a lot.
Is there anything that you would say that your sport has given you, that has come unexpectedly ?
Unexpected? Gosh it feel like everything!
I really feel that the lessons and the concepts of the river have been my greatest teacher in life.
When I just look at what the river does. How energy moves. How water moves through a set of obstacles. And through a channel. And on a river. And where the energy goes and how you work with it. And gosh if you just look at that and you transfer that to another situation – It’s energy, it’s science. It’s never wrong! It’s just what it does.
I don’t want to make the assumptions that just because I get older, but I don’t know…there is something that I’m more in tune with today about the water and the way it moves that I seem to be able to pull out applications to a whole lot of other situations whether that’s choices whether that’s health whether that’s relationships, whether it’s business, performance
The river seems to know what it’s doing, like where energy goes, where it moves… And I think maybe it helps me to be more aware of how to position myself relative to those movements – provided that I give myself the space to just step back and look at what’s really happening here – so that I’m fighting less and maybe dancing a little bit more.
You can also watch a video version of this interview here.
Valuable lessons and transferable life skills from sports
About our guest
Joe Jacobi won the Olympic Gold medal in the doubles whitewater canoe slalom in 1992 together with his canoe partner, Scott Strausbaugh. After a 5 years as the CEO of the
After his athletic career he worked as a commentator for NBS before he landed his dream job – CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the sport’s Olympic and Paralympic governing body that supports America’s best competitive paddlers. After many years at the head of this organization he found out that he was heading for a lifestyle that he and his health didn’t like. He made did some soul searching and made some important changes in his lifestyle to regain his health and well-being.
Today he teaches what he has learnt from navigating whitewater river currents as a method to navigate your life to business leader and the corporate world – so that you can work with the forces out there in stead of fighting them.
“Course correction is putting yourself in the position to respond to what doesn’t go well. What I think happens in the course of doing whatever it is that we want to do well, whether that’s ski down a hill or navigate a river or run a marathon or launch a business it never goes as planned.
I use the navigation of a whitewater river as a metaphor for performing better and business and in life. And I would say that one of the most popular, if not the most popular breakout session among companies and organizations last year was this idea of course correction….
what I tell people that I feel like we did well was that we corrected mistakes and anticipated mistakes a little bit better than the competition did that day.”
Whitewater canoe slalom in Joe’s words
So I just want you to imagine that you’re in a canoe at the top of a snow-covered mountain. But it gets warm and the water and the snow melts and turns to water, and you’re going downhill in the canoe. And it’s just moving water now, instead of snow. And in our sport of whitewater canoe slalom instead of the slalom poles being fixed into the ground, they’re actually hung from wires over the river. And you have to maneuver, just like slalom skiing, you have to maneuver between the poles.
The one key difference between skiing and canoeing is that if you touch the poles and canoeing you get penalty seconds added to your time. Though if you touch a pole that’s two seconds out of your time. If you miss the poles all together, that’s fifty seconds added to your time. So the idea is to be as fast as you can, paddling between the poles while you navigate this whitewater river.
It is just one of the most fun things that you can do if in your life. It’s that feeling of gravity and working with a force of nature that is so much stronger than you and I could ever be. And so the people who are really successful in our sport they’re the ones that do a great job of taking the energy of the river and channeling that energy into their boat, into their paddle, into their body and get that energy working for them. It’s not your own muscle but it’s how you manage the muscle of the river. And those are the people who tend to do really well in our sport.