Olympic Gold Medalist Adam Kreek shows us how to achieve mental toughness and peak performance. Taking us back to where it all began, he shares how he got into this mental training where he learned how important it can be whether we’re an Entrepreneur, CEO, Executive, Dad, Husband, Partner, Spouse and more. If you’re interested in being a high performer in your field, you’ll love this conversation. From his love of books, rowing, and the earth, he talks about the inspirations and values he got and how he took those to grow more as a person. As someone who is passionate about peak performance, he says it’s necessary to focus on what you can control. He shares his wisdom, advice and tips on how he became an Olympic Champion and how it applies in everyday life. Equipped with his own fascinating experiences, Adam inspires us to find lessons from every corner in our lives.
How important do you feel that mental toughness is to you winning in life and in business? We have got an expert that is uniquely qualified to talk about the topic of mental toughness. He’s an Olympic gold medalist. He’s won over 60 medals in history. He is a repeat guest of our show and I was so fascinated by his background. We wanted to have him back on.
Adam Kreek is doing a lot of amazing things. He’s a corporate trainer who walks his talk. He has a thirteen-year rowing career, over 60 medals, 43 gold medal performances. In 2013, Adam made the first ever attempt to row across from the Atlantic, from Africa to America. The subject of the NBC Dateline documentary Capsized. He’s a columnist. He’s a thought leader. He’s an expert in peak performance and he can help you achieve mental toughness and most importantly, peak performance. Adam, welcome again to the show. How are you?
Dan, I’m feeling great. Thank you for having me back here. It’s great to continue the conversation.
I was really blessed and fortunate to have parents who supported me and gave me seat of the importance of mindset. I was thinking back to when I was very young, eight, ten, twelve years old going, “What were the things my dad and mom got me that led to this?” One of the books they got me was a book by Dr. James Loehr called Mentally Tough: The Principles of Winning at Sports Applied to Winning in Business. What’s amazing is you just live this message. To me, I think of you when I think of that title. You have a book called Inches: Piece on the Path to Peak Performance. I think it ties in so well. If you could think back to when you were eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve years old, what books or people were you inspired by that ultimately led you down the path to say sports and then achievement and peak performance?
When I think back to when I was ten, eleven, twelve, I was raised in a very religious household. I had a lot of religious training when I was younger, which gave me a firm foundation in being mentally tough and being able to love yourself, love something that’s much bigger than yourself. That there is a lot of power in love and it can drive you to that next level if you harness it properly. I had a big stack of these books called The Values Book. They had usually some main character. It starts out in childhood.
He is Benjamin Franklin when I remember. He meets his little imaginary friend who’s the little penny and he talks with the little penny and you learn about the power of saving. The whole book’s about saving and learning this one value trait. There was a series of 30 or 40 of these books and I remember reading them, Johnny Appleseed, Florence Nightingale, The Wright Brothers, The Mayo Brothers, Martin Luther King. There are a lot of great people who were profiled in these books. When I was young, I was learning about a lot of biographies of these great people and the values that they needed to succeed.
That’s going to be something I’m going to start asking all my friends who come on the show. It’s like, “What books were you reading as kids?” I have a feeling the old adage leaders are readers. It starts young. You’ve been an inspiration to a lot of people. There was this incident in the Olympics where you inspired this Sing Like Kreek message. What inspired you in the ceremony? You’re going up into the ceremony for you and the other crew members to get your gold medals, you get up on this platform and the anthem comes on and you start singing. Take us back and what was running through your mind at that time that you started singing like you did and then the ripple effect of that inspiring other countrymen and even people outside of your country about what you were up to?
The story is there was a triathlete who heard me singing the national anthem after I’d won the gold medal and I was singing it loudly. I was singing it off key, off tune, and singing it poorly. He said, “I want to be like that. I want to have that same unrelenting joy. I want to experience that same uninhibited passion of victory. I want to be like that. I want to sing like Kreek.” He wrote Sing Like Creek on the handlebars of his bike and he was racing the triathlon, then goes swim, then you bike, then you run. In the final run, he was in the front group and then he’d fallen behind and then his coach shouts out, “Simon, sing like Kreek.” He takes his hat, he picks it up, he slams it on the ground, goes in sprints and he sprints and he wins this silver medal.
It was interesting because when you’re in the moment, this is a lesson and inspiration and how inspiration happens, and the most effective way to inspire others is to not set out to inspire others, to not be contrived in the way. We talk about authenticity and trying to own who you are, own your space. If you can train yourself to live your best self, live your best life and do it in a way that’s habitual, that flows as inspiration where you go. I remember after Simon’s race, the newspapers and the press are calling me up and they’re like, “Kreek, do you realize what you did and what does this mean to you?” At first, I was blown away because I wasn’t trying to do anything special. I was simply embracing my emotional self in a way that was healthy and positive. It inspired others to say, “That’s a great way to live. I want to live like that.”
For the audience, do you want to live like that? Do you want to have that in the moment? That sense of joy, that sense of inspiration for yourself, for your family, for your friends? Maybe it’s bigger, your community, your city, your state, your country? It’s inside of you. We were talking about being in the moment, authenticity. Many times, inspiration shows up when we’re not trying to inspire and so much more. I am curious about your background.
You’re essentially a high-level peak performer, professional athlete playing at high stakes in high moments. You perform in an Olympic event, literally it’s one shot to be at your very best and if it works, it works and if it doesn’t, you got to wait another four years for that opportunity to come again. You go to Stanford and you don’t take education classes. You go into geotechnical engineering and hydrology. What is geotechnical engineering and hydrology and what was your inspiration to go into that following a sports career?
I love the Earth. I love this spaceship that we’re on that’s hurdling through space. I was able to connect to it in a very intimate way as a young child. My father would take me on canoe trips out into the Canadian wilderness. Even my athletic career, as a rower, I spent a lot of time outdoors. I had a lot of time thinking about nature, being in nature and I was very compelled by the ways that our Earth worked. I was also compelled by the luxury that we enjoy in civilization and the fact that we do this by harvesting resources from different pieces of our planet. I was interested that you can pull certain rocks out of the ground and you can grind them up and you can make different metals, steel, nickel, gold or palladium and you can do different things with them.
I also love water. Geotechnical engineering and hydrology was about understanding the mechanics behind the Earth’s soil, rocks, and water. I had originally thought that knowing that I was in a sport like rowing, which has a finite limit and you don’t make a whole lot of money while you’re doing it, I had thought that I would move towards a career in resource extraction and resource development.One of the benefits of going into the wild is humility. Click To Tweet
I was trying to think long-term and for myself, I also wanted fairly utilitarian in the tasks that I do. I want to see results and I want to know that what I’m doing is going to lead me to somewhere else. I knew to have a career as a geotechnical engineer, you could find good work in a lot of interesting places all over the world. It would lead me to a definite career path. Ironically, that’s not what I’m doing now. I’m coming from a nickel mine up in the north of Canada where I’ve been running some safety and mental toughness workshops for the minors, which is very important.
If you think about it going underground, a lot of fractured rock. There are guys who are killed and pinched and they fall. Every year, we lose someone to the mining community. We’re trying to push forward gold metal safety within the mining world using some of my background and my story. I figured if I was going to do something in school and if I was going to study something in school, I wanted to study something that was useful, something that could contribute, something that could make this world a little bit better place for all of us.
Speaking of your love for this planet and the soil, the land and the water, one of your passions, after you won the Olympics a handful of years later, you took this opportunity to pull a handful of crew together. You are going to do something unprecedented and take a shot at it and that was to attempt to row from mainland Africa to North America, which had never been done before. You go on this journey, rowing in a little rowboat, and you get capsized in the Bermuda Triangle. Can you think back to that experience? In this world, when I’m out on the ocean even if I’m on a big cruise ship or something, I am humbled by how small we are. Here you are in the ocean, in the Bermuda Triangle, and you capsized. What was going through you and the crews’ mind? What was the attitude, the mindset and what did you do to cope with this and then transform that situation into survival?
One of the benefits of going into the wild is humility. Often, as we live in civilization, we get cocky, we get ungrateful, we don’t realize how good we have it here and so gratefulness is key. If we’re talking about growing to freedom, you’ll remember all the things that we’re grateful for and it’s these small little pieces. I’m sitting in a vehicle, in a glass car where I can see out of it as I’m talking to you. I’m protected from the wind. I’m protected from the sun. We don’t acknowledge that. We don’t acknowledge the comfort that society has provided us. We are so lucky to be able to live in this way, to live in this luxury.
Here we were in the middle of the ocean and you have a lot of this luxury removed. You are humbled. You’re on the ocean and I said, “I always believe Mother Ocean. She’s here for hundreds of millions of years before humans even came on this planet. She’ll be here for hundreds of millions of years after we leave this planet and we’re just a speck.” You realize how insignificant you are and there’s something that’s humbling, but it’s also empowering. It’s shows you, “I’ve got this one little speck of life, how can I do it to try and make it a little better?” There we were on the boat, you are heading into the Bermuda Triangle. Sometimes life does you a favor and sometimes it doesn’t. Here we were on a crew change when a wave hit us from the wrong angle and it flooded our sleeping cabin. There I was stuck inside the sleeping cabin. The boats went upside down. It’s a very small space, four feet wide, four feet tall, eight feet deep. It’s smaller than the inside of a minivan.
It’s filling with water and you’re trapped inside. There’s a little air pocket. I found the air pocket popped out and looked around. We had prepared for the worst-case scenario. You don’t go out into the environment like this unless you have trained, unless you have prepared, unless you had made a plan. It was four and a half years of planning before we pushed off shores from Africa. We had done a lot of training up in the Pacific Northwest off of the coast of Seattle in the Puget Sound. We got trained by some of the top safety experts in the world and they train guys from the Navy to the fishermen fleets. They gave us the training to make sure that we had all the skills. When everything went sideways, we had the training because we slotted into to everything that we knew we had to do.
When we talk about mental toughness and when things start to go wrong, action can be one of the biggest cures for fear, moving to action. There we were, your boat is upside down, you look around, “Are you okay?” “Yes, everyone’s okay. Yes, we’re acting.” What’s the next step? Do we push the button? Do we push the personal locator beacon? We had this PLBs from ACR ARTEX. Anyone who goes out into the wilderness should have something like this, a PLB or a personal locator beacon. ACR ARTEX was the company we got ours from and I’ve looked and said, “This is definitely emergency. We’ve got to push this. Jordan?” “Yes.” “Marcus, do we push this?” “Yes.” “Pat, do we push the button?” He looks at me and says, “I’ve already pushed the button Kreek.”
From there, as we move into action and start laughing, we know what to do and everybody is safe. We deployed the emergency life rafts. We’re getting it all together. When fear creeps in, when you start to doubt yourself is when everything slows down. It was about two hours after we had capsized, we had set up the emergency life raft, people had their life vests and we knew help was coming but help hadn’t showed up yet and we tried to rerate the boat. We’re all hauling on the boat to try and rerate it. We had lines wrapped around but it wasn’t rerating and we fell off. I had this one moment where I was sitting there in the water by our capsized boat and I had this moment of fear.
I was floating. I was taking a breath. I was exhausted. I was tired. We’d been rowing twelve hours a day for 73 days. You picture you’re rowing for twelve hours a day for 73 days. You’ve been out there, you’re physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausted from the experience. Exhaustion is another place where fear can come in. I looked up and I was like, “What happened? Are we going to make it? Are we going to get through this?” I looked at the guys I was out there with and I had a lot of trust and faith in them, but I have also cared deeply about them. I didn’t want anything to happen to them while we were out there. It’s funny where hope comes from when you’re in these times of despair.
I was sitting there and I was looking up in the sky and I saw this bird. It was a skua. It’s a white bird with a long tail. Even in the stormiest weather, even in the middle of nowhere, sometimes these birds would show up and seabirds are an omen of good luck from time in memorial, since we, as humans, went on to these oceans. Seabirds made us feel better and this one was no different. We had a scientist and an educator. When we’re rowing across this ocean, we’re educating 30,000 kids across America, Canada, and West Africa. He was one of our chief educators. His name was Rick, but he had died. He died of a heart attack 30 days before we capsized. I look up and I see this bird and I have this moment, this experience where I locked eyes with the bird. I look at the bird in the eyes and it looks back at me and the fear leaves me. I started to feel hope. I look and I feel like this bird is more than just a bird. I look at the bird and I say, “Rick, is that you?”
You can’t prove if it was Rick or you can’t prove that it was not but it felt like there are people who are not there with us who were there with us at that time. The spiritual world was stepping up and had our back in that moment. It was an amazing moment of hope. It was an amazing moment of faith. Faith is most important when we’re in times of doubt and thank God for that seabird. I thought, “If this seabird can be here and be safe, so can we.” We’re able to hold out through it and five hours later, US Coast Guard shows up, diverts a giant ship who comes, up and we get plucked out of the water. We go back, call our families, tell them we’re safe, and I apologized for putting them through whatever scare we had to. It was totally okay. It was an experience, that’s for sure.You have to be a little bit wiser with your energy expenditure. Click To Tweet
That is a wild ride that you just took us on. For the audience, what can you take out of this? Do you live in faith or do you live in fear? Do you live in hope or do you live in doubt? Do you live in inspiration or are you letting that little voice of doubt creep in? Let’s go back to where you’re capsized. You’re out in the ocean in the Bermuda Triangle where rumors are boats go to disappear and you’re on a rowboat. Do you have a team of 40 people? Do you have a boat next to you that’s riding along? What is it like in the situation?
We are fully self-supported. We’re lone. There is no other boat with us. Picture being on a small little boat with three other people completely alone. We had prepared properly for this. We had done a 24-day adventure circumnavigating Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest. We got up and down the state of Washington. We’ve done a lot of other preparation on land to make sure that we had the skills and we’re up for the challenge, but we were completely alone.
We were talking about the difference between an adventure experience like this and the Olympic sprint of training. Speak a little bit about that.
They’re slightly different because in an adventure out there and you are on 24/7. There’s no relaxing or recovering from an adventure. You have to manage risks and challenges a little bit different. Whereas when training for an Olympics, we have a two-hour practice and then you have two hours of recovery. Then you have a one-hour practice, then you have two hours of recovery. Then you have two-hours of practice and then you have the whole evening to recover. You’re pushing, recovery, pushing, recovery, pushing, recovery. Whereas in an adventure, you go out there and you’re going, you’re going, you’re going. There are slower times and there are harder times, but you don’t have that time to step back and make that recovery happen. You have to be a little bit wiser with your energy expenditure.
You even look at the Olympic race, we pushed as hard as we possibly could, and you push your body so hard that you can cross the finish line and you collapse. It probably took me about six to eight weeks to recover from the damage and the pain of that Olympic race. Whereas rowing across the ocean, you’re out there for 73 days, so you can’t push yourself to that limit. You always have to keep a little in reserve because something could go wrong. Mother Nature is indifferent, especially when you’re out in the wild and she can rear her ugly head and you need to make sure that you’re going at maybe 80% levels and making sure that you have those reserves just in case something pops up because it most likely will.
I could spend hours digging into the psychology of this single experience and it sounds like you have thought about it. Knowing what you know now, looking back at it, your day 73 or your day 74, you capsize. What would you have done differently if you could turn back the time to have not capsized?
It’s interesting because I am in the world now. I visit a lot of heavy industry sites. I am coming from a nickel mine up far in the North of Canada where I work with a lot of the miners. When you look at a lot of the issues that show up in some of these extreme work sites, a lot of it can happen around shift change because you’ve got extra people where the work is happening. There’s conversation and there’s distraction. Maybe the communication isn’t happening as effectively and that’s where it happened. Had this wave hit us five minutes earlier, five minutes later, in the ten-minute window of shift change, it would’ve been a wave and it wouldn’t have done anything.
There we were, we were going through shift change, the door was open. I had climbed in and laid down. Pat was there by the hatch door and kept it open. While brushing our teeth, we’re like, “It’s so hot.” Let’s keep the airflow before we have to shut it again to stay safe. He was brushing his teeth, getting ready to hop into bed and then it hit. If we were to do something different, there’s a couple of things. One, we will be more prodigious and the way that we governed our crew change. The hatch door would stay shut especially in seas over a certain size. Seas over a meter high, door stays shut as often as possible no doubt.
One of the reasons why we wanted to keep the door open was because it was hot in the cabin. Another thing is get a vent, a little computer fan. Hook it up to the solar panels and make sure that there’s constant air being sucked through the events so that you can close the hatch door. You leave it open just a little crack but if that door was shut when the wave hit, it would’ve splashed off and again we wouldn’t have tipped.Leadership requires an element of distance, but it also requires a safe space where you can have conversations. Click To Tweet
Three, the other thing we would have changed is in the event of a capsize, you can go underneath, and you can close the hatch door, but we didn’t have a way to pump out the water within the cabin. To have a pump within the sleeping cabin, just to be able to pump the water out of the capsized sleeping cabin and once the air returns to that cabin, that would create buoyancy and then it’ll be easy to rerate the boat. You have the equipment you need although within a capsize, a lot of our electronics were compromised, so we would have lost some of her ability to communicate with shore and that would have created some worry that we certainly did not want to have happened. You don’t want to worry the people who are ashore who are waiting for you when you’re going out to do these extreme things.
I’m picturing a bathtub floating and then picturing a little boat in the ocean doing the same thing. A little rowboat with basically three to four guys and then it flips over in the middle of the ocean and nobody around. I want to jump into a rapid-fire round where we get into breakthroughs and some different things here. Thank you for sharing from your heart this very powerful story of faith, hope, belief, and teamwork. It gets easy to be a sunny day person when it’s sunny out, but when your boat flips over and you’re in the middle of the ocean or a big thunderstorm or tornado or hurricane, it’s not that easy to be a sunny day person.When you focus on what you can control, you can find more power in the journey. Click To Tweet
It sounds like you have this demeanor, joyous and grateful. We have a psychology, it says you’re one breakthrough away from achievement, from greatness, from being your very best. If you were talking to your fans and your followers and you’ve got a big group, a big tribe that you inspire regularly as well, as you look back over the last months, what’s one, two or three things that you would say have been the biggest things you’ve personally experienced or your clients have experienced that could give our audience their biggest breakthrough?
There are two things. We’ll talk personal life and then we’ll talk about business. Personal life would be me and business would be one of the CEO that I coach. In a personal life, I had my third child and we moved house. Every time I have a new child, every time I move from a house, it’s stressful, especially being a high-performance person who has a lot of professional goals. It’s a lot of work and it’s also very important that you nurture this new child, especially in its first year. Your professional life has to slow down a little bit. Moving houses as well is one of the most stressful things that you can go through. There was a lot of slow grinding. It’s not as exciting as being in the ocean, but it’s something where you need similar tools when you’re going through these big transitions and change in your life.
One of the key things for me through within capsizing in the ocean as it was pushing for the Olympics as it was building my successful speaking, coaching, training career. It’s all about focusing on what you can control. We need to have a very high locus of control. When you focus on what you can control, you can find more power in the journey, you can get that one breakthrough that puts you on that growth path to freedom. There are lots of things that you can’t control. I can’t control the weather, politics. A lot of people love talking about politics. Unless you’re in there, you can’t control what the politicians are doing, what’s happening. It’s distracting. Shut that off.
What I can control though is I can control my response to a situation. I can control my mindset. I can control my attitude. I can do things that I know that will give me power like exercise, meditation, and journaling. I can talk to a coach. I can talk to my religious advisor. I can find a psychologist, a psychiatrist. There are a lot of tools that I can control if I’m going through a low point, if I’m going through a stressful point.
Second thing that I dealt with, I had a leader who was a little too sarcastic, a little too abrasive on the team that he was leading. His team rallied behind his back and did a bit of a mutiny and went over his head to the board of directors. The board of directors got involved and sat him down and said, “You need to shape up. You have six months to shape up.” Here’s a guy who had worked his entire career on a very heavy industry, very specialized industry and it terrified him. He knew that he had to change.As we move up the levels of leadership, we have to change who we are, we have to change how we behave. Click To Tweet
As we move up the levels of leadership, we have to change who we are and how we behave. It can be difficult because we’re seeing parts of our being die and we can’t live those in the workplace, especially when we’re leading large amount of people. What he learned through that is that leadership requires an element of distance, but it also requires a safe space where you can have conversations. Through that, I was able to help and work through that as an executive coach. He was able to find a few other key people that were able to give them insights and he was able to get back on the path of rebuilding trust.
By acting in a way that was derogatory and disrespectful in a workplace, especially as we were talking about leadership, everybody deserves dignity, everybody deserves respect. If you’re not delivering dignity and respect to other people, you are not achieving your leadership potential. When that was broken, the trust was broken and he’s on the path again. He’s regained the support of the board. The leadership team were slower to come around but they say, “I see that you’re trying to push in the right direction.” You stay positive, keep that dignity, keep that respect moving and pushing us into the right direction. Those are the two things.
What would you say would be one to three action steps that you would encourage our audience to take as a result of our time now?
First action step is observe your emotional state. Step back and say, “Where am I right now? Am I in that ideal emotional state where I feel like I can let go, I can focus on my task?” If you’re not, first step is observation. Second step is take a deep breath. We are unique animals on this planet and that we are the only animal that can control its breath consciously and choose to do so. The other thing that makes us special is that we have our higher brain, our prefrontal cortex.
By controlling our breath, we can activate our higher level of thinking and move out of our reactive, emotional animal brain. That’s our smaller brain. The three points I’d say is watch your emotions, take a deep breath, and then use your higher brain and say, “What can I do to be a little bit more empowered? What can I do to be a little bit more positive? What can I do to give more dignity and respect to other people?”
You can start to get a glimpse of the wisdom and what Adam stands for, who he is, what he represents as an Olympic champion, helping not only his team achieve peak performance, but entrepreneurs, business owners, big company and small company. I want to encourage you, if this has sparked your interest, to go deeper with what Adam has available out there. Adam, how can people reach you? Where can they go to learn more about what you’re up to? You’ve got so many exciting projects from your book, Inches: Piece on the Path to Peak Performance, Gold Medal Safety and a whole lot more. Where can people get in touch with you?
The easiest way is my website, which is KreekSpeak.com. You can sign up for my newsletter. If you’re interested in talking, you can send a note through the website. There’s a Contact form. I’m also active on LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Those are the ways to be in touch. I’ve got a blog. A lot of people like reading the blog. It’s crazy. I probably have 100 to 300 people signing up every week just to follow my blog.
I want to encourage the audience, if this has sparked your interest a little bit from his story to his journey to achieving peak performance, helping others do the same, go checkout. Adam, it’s been a pleasure and a privilege to have you with us again.
It’s a pleasure, Dan. Keep doing what you’re doing. What you’re doing is really making a difference. Kudos and congratulations. Keep up the great work.
I want to encourage you to take action with what Adam’s shared. I’ve got notes here from hope and faith and how that beats fear and doubt. How being in the moment is incredibly important. If you to give a great gift not only to yourself but your kids, The Values Books. Being your authentic self and talking about taking action, watch your emotions, take a deep breath and operate from that higher-level mind. What can I do to be more empowering and to show up? If you want to catch Adam’s previous episode, you can do that at GrowthToFreedom.com/158. If you never want to miss an episode, you can do that at GrowthToFreedom.com/subscribe. Thanks for being with us. Seize the day. We’ll see you next time.
An Olympic Gold Medalist, columnist, adventurer and social entrepreneur, Adam is a corporate trainer who walks the talk. During his 13-year rowing career, Adam won over 60 medals, including 43 gold medal performances. In 2013, Adam made the first ever attempt to row unsupported across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to America, the subject of the NBC Dateline Documentary, Capsized. Adam is presently a columnist with CBC Sports; in his columns he shares health and wellness strategies for Peak Performance. An engineer by training, Adam serves on the board of Cowichan Energy Alternatives, a low carbon start-up on Vancouver Island. Adam is also a Champion of the Canadian Men’s Health Foundation, an organization dedicated to bettering health through science-based strategies. A seasoned corporate trainer and coach, Adam teaches strategies of high performance to clients globally. He began training students as a young athlete, then moved into corporate training after his team won Olympic Gold in 2008. Adam is well read. His real-life experience enables him to offer practical, powerful, and transformative teaching on personal leadership and effective teamwork that result in changed perspectives, behaviours and ultimately, revitalized organizational cultures. Adam holds a degree in Geotechnical Engineering and Hydrology from Stanford University.