At first sight, the working day of a world-class sailor might not have a great deal in common with that of a value investor. As we learned when chatting to double Olympic medallist and two-time world champion Hannah Mills on the latest episode of The Value Perspective podcast, though, a robust and consistent process is key to both – not least when it comes to the elements of your world you can control and those you cannot.
After winning a silver medal at the London Olympics in 2012, helmsman Mills and fellow crew member Saskia Clark went one better four years later when they won gold at Rio de Janeiro. Now teamed with Eilidh McIntyre, with whom she won a World Championship title in 2019, Mills has her sights set on the Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed to next year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That silver medal in London represents a pivotal moment in Mills’s life because, as she explains, it was tantalisingly close to being gold. “We went into the final race already guaranteed a silver medal because we were tied on points with the New Zealand boat in the gold medal position,” she says. “So it all came down to who beat who in what was a short final race of just the top 10 boats.
“We got off the start line in a great position with the rest of the fleet while the other boat had a really bad start – going the opposite way to us. But then we got a bit caught up with everybody else and could not go with them. Ultimately, they ended up getting a big wind shift and came in miles ahead of us. And that was it – gold medal gone.”
Revisiting that race and the build-up to it, Mills can identify any number of ‘what-ifs’ but the one thing that stands out is a failure to work through different potential scenarios ahead of time and consider how she and Clark would respond. “I look back and think what idiots we were for not thinking about this,” she admits ruefully. “With hindsight, the solution was simple.
“We should have let the rest of the fleet go and just stopped with New Zealand because actually it did not matter where we came in that race – we just had to beat the other boat. That would have been enough. But in that split-second, the racer in me was thinking, we have a clear start – let’s go. Let’s get off the line and be ahead of them. That day, it definitely felt like we had lost the gold medal, rather than won the silver.”
Fast-forward to Rio in 2016 and Mills found herself facing a fair amount of déjà vu – with one crucial difference. Again it was the short final race of the top 10 boats only, this time, she and Clark could not be overtaken on points. “We just had to finish – and that was it,” says Mills. “ But that was when the dark side of my brain came out a little bit.
“To me, we had not won the gold medal until it was around our necks – and we had to finish that race. It was quite windy and I started panicking – what if something broke? What if we capsized? These things are so unlikely to happen but you cannot help yourself. Ultimately, we started that race at the back and tried to cruise around out of everybody’s way. We just nursed ourselves round the course – and we finished.”
A valuable lesson
Clearly Mills, Clark and their support team had absorbed a valuable lesson from 2012. “Even though that London scenario of one boat just having to beat one other is quite rare in sailing, it really changed my attitude and how I prepare for big events,” she says. “Ahead of Rio, we were so detail-focused in terms of making sure all the things we could control were dealt with and were not going to be an issue.
“Sailing is full of things we can control and full of things we can’t. To have all the things you can control sorted and ticked off helps to release a big part of your energy, which you can channel towards dealing with what you cannot control. Ultimately, when you get to an Olympics, everyone is an amazing sportsperson and everyone has put in in the hours.
“What makes the difference is how you make your decisions and ensuring you have the right mental state to make appropriate decisions when you are under so much pressure. The Olympics is your one week in a four-year cycle where you have to deliver so the ability to make clear and level-headed decisions – and under massive pressure – is everything to success.”
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