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Leadership lessons from an adventure-racing champion

SuuntoRun — 10 března 2016

Nathan Fa’avae is the captain of Team Seagate, a world champion adventure racing team. He knows both sides of endurance sport – individual and team competition – but is renown for his ability as a team captain. We caught up with the New Zealander to find out what it takes to build a winning team. 

Adventure racing has taken Nathan around the world. © Nathan Fa'avae

White-water and sea kayaking, climbing, caving, orienteering, trail running, trekking, road cycling, mountain biking, ski touring – Nathan Fa’avae does it all. If the lifelong adventure junky isn’t doing one of the above, he enjoys taking his children on adventures in New Zealand’s stunning wilderness.

The 43-year-old has been a semi and full time professional athlete for 16 years and competed in 12 world championships. Remarkably he has done so while battling a heart condition that he’s had surgery for three times.

His role as the captain of Team Seagate, which dominated the adventure-racing scene for years, has earned Nathan wide respect as a leader. 

Any big races in 2016?

I’m not sure what racing I’ll do in 2016 and beyond, if any. I’m always fit and active, I love the sport but I’ve done a lot of it. I’m an adventurer so that’s a lifestyle for me, not something I’ll stop doing.

Team Seagate has one multiple adventure racing world championships. © Nathan Fa'avae

Why do you enjoy about team competition?

With the team racing I like the fact we battle together, as a stronger united force. It’s nice to be on the start line with friends and know we’re in this thing together. I get strength and courage from that.

How do you see team versus individual competition?

As an individual you can control your pace to suit, if you want to ease up, go harder, whatever, but in a team you’re dictated by the speed of the team. The support and camaraderie of a team often makes the major challenges more enjoyable and achievable.

Nathan has paddled in 15 countries and many exposed situations. © Nathan Fa'avae

How do you manage with team dynamics?

As a team captain, accommodating and nurturing people to get the best out of them is an important role. My strength in captaining teams is communication and composure. I place high value on open communication and not sweating the small stuff. I try to see everything in a positive light and always look for solutions to problems.

Cross-country mountain biking was his first competitive sport. © Nathan Fa'avae

How do you choose your teammates?

Building a team is about matching people who will add value to one another’s skill sets. Team work and unity spirals up if you get that mix right, blending together like-minded people with similar attitudes. It’s important we enjoy being together, socially and competitively. For me personally, I tend to only race with people I truly consider friends, people I respect and trust. That’s how I choose my teammates.

Part of adventure racing is dealing with the unknown – how do you deal with that?

I think our team has always dealt with the unknown because we always expect it. In adventure racing, the thing you have not planned for is going to happen, so you need to be flexible and adaptable, roll with things and not get worried and stressed. My motto is ‘nothing can shock me’, that means when we get last minute surprises, they’re never actually a surprise. 

© Nathan Fa'avae

Do teams make better decisions in the outdoors or individuals?

There’s no hard and fast answer to this question. From my experience, I feel safer in the outdoors on my own. I know my limits and capabilities and act accordingly. The close calls I have seen were in groups when group culture meant they did something dangerous they wouldn’t have done as individuals. People do tend to show off in front of other people and subsequently take more risks.