British Olympic hurdler, Lawrence Clarke, breaks the mould on the track and in the boardroom

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We talked to British sporting sensation and add-victor alumni, Lawrence Clarke, about his transition and how his sporting career has given him the edge in his new profession.

Lawrence Clarke is a professional Double Olympic 110m hurdler who, going up against the reigning world champion and several Olympic medalists at the London Olympic Games, notably finished in fourth place in the 110m Hurdles Final. Glittering track career aside, what sets Clarke apart from most professional athletes is the fact that he only started training in his late teens, which is as much as a decade after his contemporaries.

It’s this alarmingly swift rise to the ranks of the world’s greats, as well as Clarke’s unusually high pedigree schooling at Eton College and the University of Bristol and Bath, where he completed his Masters in Management, that makes this star British athlete and now banker, so interesting and inspiring to talk to.

Having come from such prestigious, high-level schooling and only beginning your sporting career in your late teens, do you think this unusual background helped you in any way or did you find it to be a disadvantage?

“When I went to school, I was very academic focused. Sport wasn’t on my horizon until, quite later on, I realised I could run fast. It was only in my last year of school (2008) that I thought, hang on a sec, I can do something here. I used to think that starting so late was a disadvantage – most of my rivals started training when they were 10 – until I realised that if I’d started as young, I might have burnt out or, being so young, lacked the maturity and focus to stick with it.”

Lawrence Clarke started training for track and field when he was 19, which is typically considered very late for most Olympic athletes. It was only in the last year of his schooling at the prestigious Eton College in Berkshire that he began training with Malcolm Arnold (OBE), the National Event Coach for Hurdles and Senior Performance Coach for UK Athletics (and former coach of Colin Jackson CBE and John Akii-Bua).

“Understandably, there aren’t many from my background in track and field so I was a bit of a novelty with the media and it differentiated me in many ways. I think it proved helpful because I spent much of my athletic career in front of the media and as the subject of a lot of discussion and curiosity. So, I had to learn to be in the public eye, to field questions, to carry myself well, and generally be erudite. Being in front of the public has served me well in my current role in work because it is exceptionally client facing and I need to hold my own in high-pressure environments.”

 

There’s the generalisation that a lot of athletes work exceptionally hard because they feel that it’s the one area in which they can excel. Do you have a natural work ethic that dictates that no matter where you find yourself, you apply yourself fully and work hard? Is that how you’ve managed to make a success out of athletics and your role in business?

“When I love doing something, I care very deeply about it. But I also have that tendency to want to do the minimal amount for the maximum gain. And if you know how to get there and you can see the right path towards the goal – you work the path hard until you get to that goal.”

“In the case of my track and field career, I was given a very clear path by my coaches and when I moved to Paris to train with Giscard Samba Koundys, they were all very clear about what the goals were and what I needed to do every day to get there. Seeing the path ahead of you and understanding what you need to do – what those performance metrics are – makes it easier to channel your focus and work hard.

“I’m also not someone who would work in an environment in which I don’t see myself continually hitting my performance targets. I want to achieve. I’ve always pushed myself to be the best in class at whatever I do. It was my choice to be a 110-meter hurdler so no matter how hard the pain, no matter if I was throwing up on the track, I would come back the next day and push myself again to the same limit.”

Of course, anyone will naturally do better at those subjects or careers they love and choose to do, rather than those they are forced to do. But Clarke believes that it’s in the athlete’s nature to apply themselves with greater focus than most in whichever competitive environment he or she is placed – it is simply in their nature to achieve and compete well – whether in the boardroom or on the field.

“As an athlete, you have a cultivated ability to push yourself much further than others because of the way you did your sport. I don’t know any footballers that have gone into football just because and have worked that hard to get to the top just because. In the same way, no one has travelled across the Antarctic just because. They have to work bloody hard to do it. They love the idea that they’re breaking boundaries and it’s those people who push themselves to previously unrealised limits.

“When we’re talking about transition as an athlete into a working environment, I’m very lucky in that I’m exceptionally engaged by what I do. I genuinely love it and if I come in at 06:30 in the morning and leave late, it doesn’t affect me.”

Clarke goes on to explain that even though his career as an athlete would seem to stand at the opposite end of the spectrum to a career in business and finance, the two share remarkable similarities in that focus, grit, and attention to detail are key. On the track, a split second can mean the difference between gold and silver or a breaking world record and being just another competitor. It’s for this reason that athletes are constantly in hot pursuit of perfection.

What about your mind-set? In which way does your mind-set enable you to push yourself past the limit?

“It all comes back to that comment: you do the minimal for the maximum gain, which is not about laziness, it’s about optimising the productivity and value of every effort and every hour of your time spent.

“If you think about sport, the average training session is three to four hours and the order and nature of every exercise is designed to ensure that you peak at exactly the right time. You begin with a warm-up, which is incredibly prescriptive, methodical, and precise, and then you hit the track for several practice runs until you achieve your best time. On the day of the competition, however, you get one chance only.

“In business, I operate much the same way: my decisions are guided by the intention to get it right the first time and, in pursuit of that perfection, I operate in a more thoughtful, philosophical, and methodical way that allows me to maintain keen focus. One misread document could lead to a crucial error that sets you back hours, days or even weeks. Similarly, not warming up properly could cause injury that sets you back several weeks from being in top form.

Athletes, according to Clarke, have a structured, methodical approach to their mastery and this translates well into the working environment. They understand where to spend their time and energy and while they do push themselves hard, every joule of energy and bead of sweat is bled to yield optimal results because, when you’re competing with the world’s best, nothing short of perfection is going to get you that gold medal (or that million dollar deal).

“People choose to go into athletics or sports and it’s because of this choice that they push themselves hard; often well past the point of pain or fatigue or even sickness. When you choose to do something you love and are fiercely passionate about, you will be willing to put in the hours and the work and achieve great things. My work ethic is driven by my passion for what I do, so it’s not that I inherently have this superhuman work ethic, it’s just that I’ve pursued the things I’m passionate about.”

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