Thursday, September 8, 2011

Op-Ed from the RR Editorial Staff: Reflecting on the 2011 World Rowing Championships

All right, so there is good news, and there is bad news. We all know the bad news, which is that the US men's squad has just competed at its second straight World Championship regatta without bringing home a single medal, leaving the tally for the three years since Beijing at 1 (the coxed pair in 2009). That's a pretty startling statistic, but it's not a true reflection of the talent that is latent within the system, which leads me to the discussion of the good news, and the true focus of this article.

Disclaimer/Warning: There are many rowers/readers out there who took issue with the piece that we published here on RR prior to Worlds, which indicated that selection procedures might not be geared correctly to produce satisfactory results on the US men's team. Some of the many comments on the discussion board on Rowing Illustrated cited the fact that I did not interview athletes or coaches and include their thoughts in the article. This is because an opinion piece/editorial does not typically include interviews or quotes, but rather presents an argument, citing data where necessary/relevant. This will again be the case here. If it's interviews you're after, please check out the over 40 interviews with athletes and coaches that I put together for Rowing News' online coverage of the 2011 World Championships. Also, for those who suggested that everything wait until after Worlds -- well, in my opinion, that doesn't make for very interesting reading. Anyone can look at what just happened and tell you that it just happened.

Okay, now that we're all on the same page, here is the good news: there is enough talent already within the US system to medal in at least two events on the men's side at next year's Olympic Games.

Feeling better?

The same 'Compare and Contrast' principle that we applied to the last article can again be used, looking at the way that USA women's head coach Tom Terhaar goes about manipulating the existing system to produce results across multiple boat classes versus the way that Tim McLaren has attempted to do so. And, once again, the key is talent identification.

USA women's head coach Tom Terhaar appears to be very aware of who are his top athletes, and which athletes have what it takes to medal at the Olympics or World Championships. He makes sure the right people are in the right boats, based on that awareness, which comes from his involvement at various levels of development. And the results speak for themselves -- he wins medals at the World Championships and Olympics. This goes all the way down to collegiate development camps, freshman camps and U23 National Team camps. Terhaar is heavily involved in not only the selection of those athletes and who can go, but also in monitoring their training program and preparation very closely, so that it mirrors what he does with the Senior National Team. It is a very systematic and consistent approach, which always puts the top talent in the important seats when it counts.

This differs from what McLaren has done over the past three seasons, as McLaren's ability to identify talent appears to be constantly challenged by a misplaced egalitarian notion (generated by the atmosphere surrounding the men's team) that every move must be justified by objective data, rather than an eye for athleticism -- so much so that I can't even discuss how good an eye for talent McLaren has. He is not blameless here, as he has allowed himself to be dominated by the system, rather than the other way around. Also, it is difficult to discern any consistency in selection methods, which would limit the amount of flux from year to year (indeed, the rate of turnover in the top boats from year to year may be unparalleled internationally, as I discussed in the original article).

Yes, we live in the land of the free, and there is no more important right than freedom, in my opinion, but athletics are akin to the military, not to civilian society. In order for any team to be successful, there must be someone who makes the decisions and leads the way, without being second-guessed at every turn. In order to appear transparent and even blameless when it comes to selection, the men's coaching staff has carefully constructed complex data measurement systems and matrices, comparing crews to one another in training too often and too early, resulting in what we've seen yet again in Bled. Here's the deal: if you are going to pay a guy $150,000 to coach, then let him coach. That is why he is in the position. Let the coach make the decisions, which can be, but do not necessarily have to be justified by objective criteria, so that he can operate at his full capacity and not be forced to be on the defensive throughout the process. By kowtowing to the idea that every decision must be based on objective data, the coaching staff is failing both itself and the athletes.

Not only does it weaken any coach's ability to manage the team, it also weakens the team as a whole. We've seen this for three years now, and many people on the outside still don't understand what is happening. Each year, McLaren seems to collect a group that is talented and have them training together. Then, some of the boats underperform early in the season, because certain athletes are closer to their physiological peak than others, and decisions about lineups are made based on seat races in March and April, which mean very little if you are preparing for an event in August. Mark Hunter is clearly one of the most talented lightweights in the world, but earlier this year he placed fourth at the April 16-17th GB Rowing Team Trials at Eton/Dorney, and Zac Purchase missed Lucerne entirely with an illness, yet the two were once again placed in the LM2x for the 2011 World Rowing Championships. And, of course, they won, in one of the deepest, most competitive fields in all of world rowing. If these two were in the current US system, they may have been at risk of not making the team, as they were defeated by their teammates when they were not peaked for top performance. Early season results cannot be the barometer for the entire year, whether they are inside training camp or on the World Cup circuit.

This is how we got into trouble following Lucerne. Taking a fourth place finish in the M8+ in Lucerne as a solid result, we were reluctant to make any changes to the lineup, and ended up finishing eighth at Worlds, less than one second ahead of the Czech U23 boat (the exact same lineup) that the USA BM8+ defeated in Amsterdam earlier this summer by two seconds in very fast conditions. None of the athletes in the USA BM8+ made the senior team this year. What can we take away from this? First, that Mike Teti is an excellent coach, and second, that results in Lucerne mean very little.

The bottom line is, if you want to win Olympic medals, then the camp system will defeat the open trials system every time. If you disagree with that, then you don't have much knowledge of what it takes to peak physiologically for a singular event at the height of any given sport. Like it or not, if you want to win, you have to put all your faith in the guy running the show, and allow him to make unilateral decisions. The Romans knew this, which is why, during the time of the Republic, they would elect a temporary dictator during periods of military emergency to expedite decision-making and allow the force to operate at full capacity, for better or worse (in case you're lost, here's a link to the Wikipedia entry on Cincinnatus). The open trials system forces athletes to try to peak twice, as everyone knows, with all the athletes desperate to earn places on the squad doing whatever it takes to make the team. I do not think that it is possible to peak twice in three months and perform to your athletic potential in rowing, but this is what the national team athletes are being asked to do, and the results seem to agree with my viewpoint.

So, it all goes back to talent identification and management of physiological development, which is more than having two guys race each other in singles, or in pairs matrices, and then writing down a number. Should McLaren keep his job? That's not up to anyone but USRowing. But if he does continue as head coach, then we need to accept it and let him lead the way without constant micromanagement. In other words, while there are many reasons to be skeptical, if USRowing decides to continue with McLaren, he needs to be the boss. Who are the best athletes? Whom do you want in the boat when you are down by a seat coming into the last 500m? It is up to the coaching staff to decide, and make further decisions about lineups based on the above. Otherwise, we could just save $149,950, and buy a fancy stopwatch.

-RR

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