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Olympic Medalist Thomas Hall’s Journey From Canoe Racing to Sport Leadership
Olympic Medalist Thomas Hall’s Journey From Canoe Racing to Sport Leadership
Naeem Ahmed

Posted by

October 1, 2019
Naeem Ahmed

Posted by

October 1, 2019

Former Olympic medalist in canoe sprint 🛶 for Canada, Thomas Hall, is now the National Manager of Game Plan, a collaboration between the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Paralympic Committee, Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Sport Institute Network (COPSI Network), and Sport Canada. Game Plan was designed by athletes for athletes to provide education on ensuring wellness throughout and beyond their high-performance career. Actually, Game Plan is quite similar to what legendary luger Shiva Keshavan did in India in creating the Olympians Association.

Much like Keshavan, Thomas Hall is a man who knows all about balance ⚖️. When he was training for and competing in international competition, he was balancing himself on canoes 🛶. Now, through Game Plan, Thomas Hall is helping current, former and aspiring athletes balance training with the grind of everyday life.

Thomas Hall | Olympic Medalist | Canoe Sprint | Game Plan | CPC & CPC

Having over 20+ years of experience in the sporting world, Thomas spoke to me about his adventurous, well-rounded and challenging journey to be where he is today. Whether you are currently an athlete or someone aspiring to work in sport, you will enjoy this honest and engaging conversation with one of Canada’s most likable Olympic medalists, Thomas Hall.

Please note: The interview with Thomas Hall was conducted via phone. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

Tell us about your role as National Manager with Game Plan. What does your day-to-day look like? 

My day-to-day involves coordinating the team of game plan advisors and the regional teams in the delivery of game plans, programs, and services. Also, coordinating, the national staff. There are four of us on the national staff that supports the advisors in the delivery of game plan programs and services. I also help with delivery of national programs and services. 

How did you get to this position?

I was on the national team for 15 years and representing Canada probably later in my career when I got involved being an advocate of sport basically making it safe and fair and healthy for athletes as possible. I was an elected representative of AthletesCan, and at the board of Canoe Canada, which was my sport, and while I was involved in that, this job is really a general continuation of that. My job now is to build a program that helps athletes be as healthy as possible while pursuing sport or life after sport.

When was the point you realized that you were meant to do this career? 

When I first left sport, I went into journalism and I was working as a special projects editor at Canadian Geographic magazine for most of my journalism career. I got pulled back into sport by AthletesCan, an organization I volunteered for five years. When their Executive Director went on maternity leave, I filled in on it and I realized at that moment that I could do things in sport, just given my experience in it that I couldn’t do in other industries and I guess I moved the needle on things that I thought were important. And so as soon as I’m in there, I realized that this is what I should be doing with my time. That was that and not that long after, the Game Plan opportunity, appeared. 

Is sport something you have always been interested in, and are there any career paths you would consider? 

Oh, sure. I mean journalism for sure. I love writing and you know the cool thing about the job I had with Canadian Geographic Magazine was I got to interview some of the most interesting people in Canada. And I learned something during that job that it doesn’t matter, if you are pursuing an Olympic gold medal or, studying deals.

If you’re passionate about something you should have an interest in it then, that passion is continued. So, I would go back to journalism or writing or if, if there are other industries I’m interested in, but certainly, for now, its sport. It’s an interesting time for sport in Canada with everything that’s going on. And frankly, the world. There are global movements with athlete rights and human rights around sports. Which I think is great.

Who or what has had the biggest impact on your career choice? 

I can draw a pretty streamline for how I wound up in this job, there are 3 people actually. So, going back to 2009, I was invited to be an ambassador at the Canada games in 2009 and I was invited by AthletesCan to go as an athlete ambassador to just talk to the younger athletes. And it was there I met Ashley Labrie and Jasmine Northcott who was the operations director at the time.

Thomas Hall | Olympic Medalist | Canoe Sprint | Game Plan | CPC & CPC
Thomas Hall captured bronze for Canada during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in C-1 1,000 metres canoe sprint.

They at that time convinced me to run to the board of AthletesCan. And without a doubt that experience on the board and the people I met on the boards over the five years I was on helped shape my view of sport and, and my belief in what I could contribute to sport. So, for me, if there was anything very specific, that’s what it is. And then in terms of Game Plan, I think I’d have to say, Eric Myles, the current Chief of sports at the Canadian Olympic Committee, someone I knew. He was instrumental in convincing me to throw my hat in the ring to this role. 

What are some of the biggest challenges you faced starting your sport business career? 

Sure yeah, [laughs] it was easy! Someone who was a big advocate for athlete rights and fairness, you know as an athlete you think things are happening for a certain reason or that the people making decisions don’t care about you or they’re just taking the easy decision or them actually in some cases they have it out for you and they’re trying to get in your way. No doubt there are cases where that’s true.

What I learned working in sport, was just how passionate 99% of the people in the industry are about athletes and sport and doing the right thing and how constrained they are by whether it’s financial constraints or administrative restraints such as policies and what they need to do to satisfy their funding partners. So, for me, the surprise was learning just how committed people are to sport and the athlete’s journey. I know that it doesn’t always seem that way. It’s all perfect. It doesn’t excuse bad policy and bad selection policies. But regardless, I think the amount of passion people bring to sports is impressive. 

If you could have a superpower to help you in your career, what would it be? 

If I could have a superpower, what would it be? Oh my, that’s a great question. What would I change? I think while having more experience and perfecting French…although that’s not a superpower. My superpower would be to become a billionaire and not have any worries.

Thomas Hall | Olympic Medalist | Canoe Sprint | Game Plan | CPC & CPC
Thomas Hall captured bronze for Canada during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in C-1 1,000 metres canoe sprint.

Otherwise, the ability to not sleep, because sport can easily be a 24/7 job. And I have close friends who burned themselves out and lost their passion for sport because of the demands of it.

What are three words you would use to describe your sport career? 

Fun, fulfilled and community. I am one of the few lucky athletes who I think couldn’t have done much better. And it took a long time. Everything eventually fell into place and Community! The one thing I miss, I don’t miss the competitions, I don’t miss the training, I miss hanging out with friends especially at training camps. That’s what I miss.

What I’ve learned is, you know, you can get pressure situations in any job, in any industry. You’re doing whatever you want and you can have deadlines and you can work really hard. And sometimes sure sport is a little more type dry. Whether or not you achieve it, but the things that are really special or at least was for me is the people and the friendships you make for sure. 

How did you maintain a positive mindset through tough situations? 

Yeah, during the lowest point in my career in the early 2000’s probably. I was in my early 20’s and I got help. I wasn’t feeling happy…I wasn’t feeling thrilled that I went in and I talked to a psychologist, got help there and then after that the realization that no results or outcomes are worth being miserable about. I surrounded myself with people that I could work with and have a good time with. Results would come if I was happy. And that was more important to me. Yeah, it was about enjoying myself.

What advice would you give to aspiring athletes? 

Don’t sacrifice your dignity, don’t sacrifice your happiness. It’s all I want to say. If you’re not having fun most of the time, yes, training is hard and the individual practice. It might be hard, you might give out too. You might get upset.  All those signs, that’s part of the lesson. But overall if you aren’t having fun, it’s probably not worth it. 

How do you handle media, public speaking, etc. and confidence? 

Be true to yourself. So certainly, if it’s unexpected and you’re dealing with media, I think it’s good to be true to yourself and don’t say too much. Less is more. But in general, for public speaking and confidence, I think preparation is key. Typically, I will spend even material I know inside and out, I will look at the audience I have and I will spend a lot of time writing drafts of at least the first 15 or 20 minutes of the presentation to be clear. And then I will read that out loud over and over and over again. 

I think there’s a perception that good speakers wing it most of the time…but that is not true. I mean some people can and it depends on the audience. Every once in a while, I’ll wing it, but usually, I have something prepared, even if it’s a five-minute intro. If you can prepare it and nail it, and it’s got a good message across then you’ve got the audience. You buy yourself at least half an hour if you can tell a really good little thing. I know stories are what people are interested in. 

Do you ever find it difficult to keep motivated and how do you overcome this in your current role or even as an athlete?

As an athlete? Motivation came and went… for me. Key for me again was surrounding myself with people that I enjoyed being with and having clear goals and working towards them. I think from 2004 to 2008, I didn’t achieve one of my goals in those years, I achieved some along the way, but I never achieved like my goal for 2006 which would have been the race at the World Championships in the 1000-meter final. I didn’t, you know. But I had other things along the way that motivated me and I was having fun, so it was fine and I could keep on doing it. But going through the motions is one of the worst things you can do in sport.

Presentism is I think the HR term for it. It’s when you show up to work but you’re not actually engaged in it. And it’s the same in sport, I did that when I wasn’t doing well and that was bad. You don’t get anywhere and your frustrated cause you’re putting in time but you’re not getting results because you’re not actually putting in the time. I think you have to have a clear goal and have fun with it.

The motivation will follow and, and fun includes really hard work. In life, outside of sports, my motivation comes from challenge. All the jobs I’ve had, have had an element where I’ve had to learn something quickly or do something that isn’t clear. At AthleteCan because it’s a smaller organization, there’s always something to do and learn and you can make that your own in a really interesting way!

Whenever I know for a fact that when I have figured something out and it’s dialed in and it’s going to work now for the next X years, then I can hand that to someone else and be confident that it’ll be good. I will move on…because I won’t be passionate about it anymore. 

Going back to your bronze medal at the Olympics, was there anything significant that you remember from that day?

Thomas Hall | Olympic Medalist | Canoe Sprint | Game Plan | CPC & CPC
Thomas Hall captured bronze for Canada during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics in C-1 1,000 metres canoe sprint. He displays it while on the podium in this photo.

Coming into the coach and into the dock after the race. When I finally got to see my coach after the races, one of my really good friends, Mike, he’s someone I used to race with and he was only about a year or two older than I was. He was such an instrumental part of that churning. So, seeing Mike, um, who earned 50% of that battle, no question, and giving him a hug at the end was just incredible. 

What advice would you say for students who are aspiring to come into the sports industry?

Try to spend time with athletes. Volunteer! AthletesCan forum or the Game Plan Summit where you can hear the athlete’s side of things, the unvarnished…unfiltered is probably one of the most invaluable things you can do. In my experience, most sport admin grads are quite confident and really good at their, day to day kind of issues. But I think what can set people apart is whether or not they understand what’s going on, on the ground.

As you’re starting a career out, you’re going to be working with teams as a coordinator. And you might be on the receiving end of some angry emails from some athletes. But if you have an understanding of where they’re coming from, what their issues are, I honestly think, it’ll make your career better and actually make the sport better. Because the athletes will trust you more. And I think that’s a key piece. 

Why is sport important to you?

That’s a great question. And I think about it a lot and a lot of people need to think about this. What are we doing in a world where climate change is going to significantly alter the lives of billions of people around the planet, not just Canadians. I think we have to be really careful as sport admin people that we’re not just caught up in the idea that an Olympic medal or a Paralympic medal is, is some great thing that will change the fabric of Canada or the world because it won’t.

I think our issue right now is access to sport and the environment. And so, what is sport doing there? I guess for me to find an issue that you think sport can help change. And the number one thing these days I think is the environment and also access to sport. We have to be getting more kids involved in sport. It’s awful right now.

Final Thoughts From Naeem

Thomas’s life has revolved around sports for the past 20+ years, from being in the back seat of the roller coaster to now having hands on the steering, he hopes to use sport as an instrument that is capable of achieving so much to the sporting world. Inspiring and motivational words from the Olympian. To follow Thomas Hall’s continuing journey in and out of sports, follow him on Twitter, on Instagram and his personal website!

You can read more about Game Plan at www.mygameplan.ca


Thomas Hall

Interview by Naeem Ahmed
Posted October 1, 2019 in Your Career in Sport

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