Be Ambitious, Be Courageous, Be Relentless: Earn Your Stripes
Becoming the best in the world at what you do - lessons for business and life. Join us on Thursday 25 February at 8am to hear Team GB Paralympic gold medalist Neil Fachie talk about lessons learned from his cycling career to helping you and those around you achieve your full potential. How do you find that edge that will take you to the next level? How do you build enthusiastic, engaged teams, who are capable of performing at a consistently high level? How do you break performance down into the key components of a winning mindset? Register here to join us for your weekly dose of inspiration and positivity.
Meet Our Inspiring Speaker
Neil Fachie MBE, 14 x World Champion Cyclist
Neil Fachie MBE is a British Paralympic multiple sports athlete competing in events for individuals with a visual impairment. As a 100 & 200 meter sprinter, he represented British Athletics at the Beijing Paralympic Games in 2008. After transitioning to cycling Neil has represented ParalympicsGB at 2 further Games, winning one gold in London and two silver medals. He is also a 10 time World Champion, double Commonwealth Champion and Double World Record Holder. During his inspirational career, he has learnt the techniques and skills required to reach the top and to stay there for a prolonged period of time.
From failure to success: How Neil Fachie earned his stripes
Neil Fachie was dropped from the British athletics team following the Beijing Paralympics. But as he hit rock bottom in the months that followed a chance encounter opened a new door to the world of cycling. In an honest, revealing and uplifting conversation he opened up about life as a partially sighted athlete, and why he’s developed a framework for success to help others.
As a young boy growing up in Aberdeen during the 1990s, Neil Fachie couldn’t see very well. He was born with a hereditary eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa, which gets progressively worse with age. His central vision is blurry, and he can see large objects in the distance, but not much detail until they get closer. Following his diagnosis at the age of four, Neil didn’t really give it much thought, however; he decided the best way to cope was try his best alongside everyone else.
At the age of ten he found the running track. Sprinting in the open air offered a new-found freedom, and it was the start of a life-changing journey for him. Neil’s passion took him all over Scotland, competing on the track against able-bodied athletes. While his times didn’t always match the top performers, his love for the sport kept him in close quarters. During his teenage years, he slowly improved. As he began to find his flow on the track, someone suggested getting his sight tested, to see if Paralympic sport beckoned.
That’s when the penny dropped. Neil was told his vision was less than 10 per cent of a normal human eye. It was a shock, but he hadn’t known any different, and had continued to live his life as best he could. The difference now was that he could compete as a Paralympian. Neil’s horizons began to expand quite quickly, first with Scottish Disability Sport, and then British Athletics. He qualified to run 100m and 200m at the Beijing Games in 2008.
“I thought the Paralympics would be half the size of the Olympics, but when I got there, I realised it was massive and I fell in love with the event,” he said. “It was incredible to see people from across the globe, coming together in the athletes’ village, with different disabilities. It was the most diverse place on earth. I finished ninth in both my events and was inspired to look ahead four years to London 2012.”
Two weeks after Neil returned from Beijing, the phone rang. It was the team with news he didn’t want to hear: ‘We don’t think you have the potential to make it London, so we are terminating your contract with immediate effect,’ they said. In that moment, his dream was shattered. It would be easy to say he bounced back straight away, but that clearly wasn’t the case. Neil went through “a grieving process” and blamed other people for what happened.
But the spark of London 2012 was still present. As he played computer games between visits to the job centre, Neil decided he was going to try “every single sport” until he found the right one. At the time, he remembers the success of British Cycling on the track in Beijing. The sport was riding high in the UK and a wave of investment was being channelled through the ‘medal factory’ at Manchester Velodrome.
One day, Neil decided to travel seven hours from Aberdeen to Manchester. He took part in a taster session, alongside members of the public, to see what it felt like pedalling the boards. Of course, he didn’t tell anyone he couldn’t see very well, and wobbled around the track learning to judge his speed on the steep banks. He loved the freedom and simplicity of riding as quickly as he could. Memories of running at the age of ten came flooding back.
On his way out, someone spotted his bag, which sported the logo from Beijing. He told Neil he was a pilot, someone who rode on the front of a tandem with Paralympic cyclists. Did Neil know anyone, he asked, who was partially sighted, and looking for a partner to ride with? It took Neil about half a second to put his hand up and say: ‘I’m your guy, I’m your guy’ – and those doors began to open once again.
“Just by chance, I bumped into someone who put me in touch with the right people and got me a trial with British Cycling,” he said. “I went to my first World Championships and didn’t really know how good I was. I crossed the finish line and heard the announcer call a new world record. I’d gone from absolutely nothing to being a world champion in just over a year. It’s been up and down since then, but it’s led to a great deal of success, which I’m incredibly grateful for.”
As part of his career in high-performance environments, Neil has started to apply what he’s learned in other ways. In recent years, he has set up a coaching business, become an author and is thinking about life beyond the velodrome. But while Tokyo has been postponed until the summer of 2021, he is also targeting the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, before fully embarking on the next chapter.
In his 2020 book Earn Your Stripes: Gold medal insights for business and life, Neil develops a framework to help others succeed. He looks at drive, performance, the team, a champion mindset, and performing under pressure. It’s called the Five Stripes model. “If you master these five stripes, you can achieve champion status,” he said. “Earning your stripes takes time and effort, but the rewards are worth it.”
Drive is different to motivation because motivation comes and goes, he explained. You might watch a great speaker, or attend a sporting event, and leave feeling really motivated. But a few days later that feeling will subside. Drive is something else; it’s an internal feeling that can be called upon. Neil says whenever he’s feeling jaded, or lacking in motivation, he reflects on awakening those feelings. This could be simply changing his training regime to find the joy in cycling again. Through reflection he is able to access the same feelings of freedom and flow he discovered at the age of ten.
Neil also shared two contrasting views about performance. When he’s lifting weights in the gym, or riding sprints on the track, he will break down his goals. Instead of thinking about the number of reps, for example, he’ll think about the percentage he’s already completed. By breaking down the goal, and focusing on what he has already done, it helps him to achieve what he’s trying to do.
In a second discussion about performance, Neil spoke about burnout, in response to a short presentation from Abhishikta Talukder at Protiviti. She described some of the challenges that people have faced working at home, and how colleagues were finding ways to look after their wellbeing. Long days at the screen have been tough for everyone. Neil said the best way to maintain high performance was to find a secondary focus away from work. For him, walking the dog and writing the book, helped him to feel fresher getting back on the bike.
The importance of teamwork is also clear for a partially sighted tandem cyclist. Two bike riders travelling in excess of 50 miles an hour around a tight wooden track will only succeed if they work together. Neil explained, however, that even if the top two bike riders in the world rode together, they might not win a race. But two people with complementary styles, and power-to-weight ratios, could produce a world beating combination.
He also said it was easy for fans to overlook the group that works behind the scenes: from nutritionists and mechanics to physios and coaches, success on the track is only possible with a wider set of expertise. The team also spends a lot of time debriefing to understand what went well and what could have been better. Neil said this process was fundamental to success.
As Neil gets older, there’s a chance he will become completely blind. But his stripes model suggests he’s well equipped to deal with the challenge. He knows what it’s like to overcome adversity and also has the right people around him. Neil’s wife Lora, who is also an elite athlete and a source of inspiration, has been blind since the age of five. She was one of the first blind people in the UK to go through mainstream education and trained as a physio before entering the world of sport. Together, their experience can help businesses to understand partially sighted and blind employees, too.
“Blind people take on life, like everyone else, they just approach things in a slightly different way,” he said. “They are good problem solvers, because the world we live in isn’t really designed for people without sight. Allowing people to do things the way they want to, is the key. Lora trained as a physiotherapist, which is a very visual job, but she approaches it in a different way. She can tell how people walk almost by hearing them do it, for example.
“I think things are improving for partially sighted and blind people in businesses,” he added, “but there are still a lot of limiting factors. Companies aren’t always able to change the way they work. So, it’s important to be open minded, see things from other people’s perspectives and allow them to be themselves. Lora has been a massive motivation for me. She’s helped me realise that while the future might be different and a bit scary, there’s always a way to thrive, for all of us.”
Neil Fachie was speaking on Protiviti’s weekly Collaboration Forum, which is now in its fourth series. Click here to find out more about the event. If you would like to learn more about Neil and his Five Stripes model, click here.
Click below to view the entire series