Canadian Olympic chef de mission Curt Harnett on reaching peak performance

The former Olympian talks about motivating people under pressure, overcoming imposter syndrome, and why cycling is the new golf

Team Canada chef de mission Curt Harnett

Team Canada chef de mission Curt Harnett. (Bernard Weil/Toronto Star/Getty)

As chef de mission of Team Canada for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, former Olympian Curt Harnett is responsible for rallying the troops for peak performance across a range of sports. Harnett, who started cycling as a way to train for hockey, went on to win three medals over four Olympic games. He tells us about keeping people motivated under pressure, overcoming imposter syndrome and why cycling is the new golf:

Normally, someone would get years to prepare for this job. You were given four months, taking over after Jean-Luc Brassard quit in April. Any tips on how to hit the ground running in a new gig?

It’s communication 101, and by that I mean listening. I’m kind of flying in to this job, so it’s important to be able to trust the experts below me on the org chart. When you’re working toward a pressure-cooker situation like the Olympics, it’s critical to establish relationships in advance so that when things start going a million miles an hour, communication is easy. You don’t have to be soft around anyone; you can just get the job done.

Your job for Rio, as it was as chef de mission for last summer’s Pan Am Games, is to make sure the athletes can do their jobs. What leadership style helps you do that?

I’m both a cheerleader and a team player. The organization kind of flattens out when we get into Games mode. It’s important that we are all committed to our own tasks, but I have no issues with washing bottles, delivering tickets or getting an athlete back to the village. That’s important, too.

Canada is one of a handful of countries that require their chef de missions to be former Olympians. What is the advantage there?

I think it brings respect within the community. When I stand in front of the athletes and start talking about the challenges of, say, Olympic transportation, they know I’ve been there. I’ve always been a coachable person, but when somebody gives me information, I need to know the source is valid.

We hear a lot about how competitive sport is both mental and physical. Was that your experience back in your own Olympic career?

The physical side of training is very measurable: I go out, I ride my bike 500 metres, I do it again two days later, and I’m either faster or slower. The mental side is a lot more tricky. [When I was competing,] I used sports psychology professionals with abandon, and they were really key to my performance. When you start asking, Do I deserve to be here? Am I ready for this? that will really mess with your head and, ultimately, your performance.

Your Twitter bio reads, “I’m not perfect. I know that. So don’t expect me to be.” Do we overvalue perfection?

The trouble with having perfection as a goal is that it makes things so absolute. I’m the sort of person who is always happy to weigh in with an opinion, but then I’m always open to having my opinion evolve depending on new information and what I’ve learned from others.

When you retired from competition in the ’90s, you famously said it was time to cut your hair and get a real job, but those locks are still looking quite long and lustrous.

Well, I did get a haircut. I climbed various ladders only to realize maybe that wasn’t me. I realized people either saw me as the guy from the [1992 Pert Plus] shampoo commercial who went to the Olympics or the Olympian who did the shampoo commercial. So I stopped running from that and embraced it.

You now run a company, WHM Signature Experiences, that organizes corporate cycling excursions. Why do you think biking is the new golf?

At a golf tournament, the CEO is stuck in a cart with three other people for the whole day. With cycling, everyone mixes and connects. It offers people more access, and that’s so important for building relationships.