Former Cambridge University Women's Boat Club rower and chair Cath Bishop explores the need to redefine success in The Long Win
Winning at all costs is a phrase that we have all become accustomed to, but what if the origin of the word was not as it has become defined?
Tracing the etymology of the word ‘win’ back to the Old English of ‘winnan’, it meant something very different, to labour or strive, while in Middle English the use included to struggle, obtain by exertion and gain.
It was not until two centuries ago that the word took on the association of victory, and now the meaning dominates our life in so many areas of society – it governs our very being in some aspects.
Cath Bishop argues that winning is not working anymore though, and that it is time to redefine success in not just sport but business, education, politics and so many other areas of life.
She does this in a new book called The Long Win: The search for a better way to succeed which was driven by her own personal experiences.
Bishop is fascinating, with a rich history in both sporting performance, an Olympic silver medalist in Athens in 2004, and professional life, as a former British diplomat who has served in Sarajevo and Basra with the Foreign Office, specialising in conflict issues.
Having reached the top in two very different fields, you would certainly say that Bishop has ‘won’ in multiple ways, but the concept for the book came from exploring her own successes and failures.
It is an area that we perhaps take for granted; after all, really we do all want to win, but it is in conversation with Bishop that you consider at what costs and whether there is a better approach.
When Bishop won silver in the women’s coxless pairs with Katherine Grainger, it was at her third Olympics and that was a starting point for the book.
“Firstly, it was a personal thought process of working out how to make sense of the intensity of the 10 years as an Olympic athlete,” she explains.
“All of that desperation, obsession, absolute commitment in order to win. When you leave the sport, you think ‘OK, well how did I do?’.
“The overall tally I definitely lost more than I won, but probably most people would say that. What’s my measure of success? Did I fall at the last hurdle by winning a silver medal at the Olympics and not going one step further?
“I was very interested in how psychology was starting to change during the period in which I was rowing in the Olympics, from 1996 when it was pretty basic and there wasn’t any psychology support to then by 2004 there was this difference in performance thinking that as an athlete you focus much more on delivering your best performance.
“You cannot guarantee the result, but what you can deliver is your best thinking.
“We get very hung up or distracted by the result, which then detracts from our performance.
“This is starting to come in, and is now quite mainstream in sport psychology although outside of sport it is not that mainstream, people focus solely on reporting results.
“The challenge is to think about the bigger story behind that.
“I was trying to work out, how did I do? What does it all mean? What was that sporting journey all about?
“Then I noticed that the theme was coming up around me all the time, it wasn’t just my own personal dilemma but something that I could see around me with a lot of other athletes also asking the same question.
“Some of those had no medals and were saying, ‘was this all for nothing?’ Some had a medal and were saying, ‘was that enough?’ Some even had a gold medal and were asking, ‘is that it? I feel a bit empty, even depressed having won’.
“It made me think, what in sport is success if people who are winning are not feeling happy, overjoyed and fulfilled? We’re starting to go down a route that isn’t right or helping us.”
There was a survey conducted in 2018 by the BBC which found that half of the retired athletes expressed concerns over mental and emotional wellbeing which begs the question whether things could be done differently.
It is not just in sport though. As Bishop uses the example, if you take education, schools are now driven by league tables and achieving as many A* or A grades as possible – does this deliver the most rounded individuals to employees? Is there enough focus on creativity, adaptability, innovation and collaboration?
“I kept seeing this miss-match of we try to set up this narrow winning, defined by short-term material outcomes and it doesn’t actually help us with what’s coming thereafter,” says Bishop.
“It’s grown really in my head since I walked away from the sport in an international capacity in 2004. What is this all about and how do we actually get the best out of ourselves?
“It is all around us. This obsession that we’re all desperate to win and come first isn’t actually helping us explore what we can do.”
There are so many different elements that come into play, and it was interesting to put to Bishop the concept of the Boat Race.
She rowed for Cambridge from 1991 to 1993, and was then chair of Cambridge University Women’s Boat Club for four years, from 2014 to 2018.
It has long been suggested that the main aim for Cambridge is beating Oxford, which draws into the winning narrative, but Bishop explained that they do have a far more important objective.
“We defined success as our best performance,” she says. “We need to know what that looks like, we need to know what’s required and that has to be the highest possible level that we can obtain.
“But I realised from those conversations that it’s not just that year it’s our goal, it always has to be our goal. As a club, we cannot win every single race, and we shouldn’t win every single race – and that can feel like heresy in the Boat Race world.
“Of course, we are always looking to maximise our performance but for the health of the event it’s about each side raising their game each time and taking the challenge to their other.
“It is this sense of redefining success in a broader way, with broader criteria in order to reach our best, but also to avoid going on this rollercoaster whereby if we lose everything is rubbish and we’ve failed, and if we win it’s glorious and we’re brilliant.”
It is why how we define success is so important.
At each stage along the way to an Olympic medal, you could argue that Bishop was succeeding. That is from the moment that she first picked up an oar at Pembroke College.
“I hadn’t been very sporty at school, I was very tall, I was a bit uncoordinated, I couldn’t run very fast, and I didn’t like getting up early in the morning, so I initially didn’t sign up to row,” she says
“But loads of people who were becoming my friends did, and they roped me into it when someone got injured in one of the novice crews, and I absolutely fell in love with the sport.
“It had nothing to do with wanting to become an Olympian, and I’m so grateful for that.
“I loved being on the river, the camaraderie, and when you are in a boat, you can’t get out, you can’t stop like I did on the sidelines of the hockey pitch at school.
“You’re in it, you’ve got to opt in and do the best you can alongside the people next to you.
“I had that love of rowing and even when I got to university level, we had these brilliant coaches, Roger Silk and Ron Needs.
“They gave us that – although at a higher performance level – love for the sport, the love for the feel of the boat moving, pushing ourselves but not in a crazy ‘you’ve failed if you’ve lost’ kind of way.
“They left me leaving Cambridge with that tantalising feeling, you’ve got some potential, maybe you should get into the Olympic team.
“I think I had a brilliant introduction to the sport, and that enabled me to keep going through the really tough time that followed, finding my way through an Olympic sport.”
After finishing seventh at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and ninth in Sydney in 2000, it was only after taking a year out of the sport to work that it gave Bishop a different perspective on things.
She headed back to training knowing that the experience had to be more than just dependent on the result – well aware that the outcome could be the same again.
But the context was that the result was not defining – and that it is some feat in itself to compete at an Olympics.
“I had a crisis after coming ninth in Sydney and I realised that then things had gone too far in feeling that the result defined my own personal worth,” she says.
“It was that change of perspective and having a life after rowing also now set up – so it wasn’t the be all and end all – that helped me perform to my best, explore much more what was possible and having my two most successful years.”
The new focus worked, as Bishop and Grainger were world champions in 2003, and then earned the silver in Athens a year later.
“Essentially, I’ve been continuing to challenge and think back on the assumptions we make about what a champion looks like and all of this heroic sporting narrative that still exists but I hope is going away,” she says.
“I hope it is being drowned out by fresh, performance-focused thinking that allows athletes to develop as people.”
With that in mind, Bishop advocates in the book a broader way of looking at success, including the three Cs of long-win thinking – clarity, constant learning and connection.
“How we frame success in sport is important and I believe it must go beyond your ranking, whether you come first or not, I think you can have wins far beyond that,” she says.
It is such an enthralling subject and you can see that the book has been a labour of love for Bishop, who teaches on the executive education faculty at the Judge Business School.
The research has helped form relationships and connections with others who are asking similar questions and want to change the status quo on how things have been done traditionally.
Medals are of course part of the picture, but Bishop wants it to be a stage of the process and also more about exploring potential, which is one of the reasons for the name of the book.
“It’s about making sure when we have a measure of a medal, that medal isn’t a moment on the podium that is then separated from whatever becomes before and after – it’s connected to the experience that you had that led to the medal,” she adds.
“That matters to me, the experience you have in winning.”
The book, released last week, has already earned glowing reviews, and fits into a broader conversation taking place about so many aspects of sport and beyond.
*The Long Win costs £12.99 and is available at multliple outlets including Amazon, Waterstones, the Book Depository and Blackwell’s.