Coaches' Corner: Managing Team Dynamics

Isis trains in Putney (Photo © Bryan Kitch)
Taken together, coaching team dynamics and dealing with different personalities form a very important aspect of coaching in any team sport, and rowing is certainly no exception. With so many people from a variety of different backgrounds, high school, collegiate and national teams always contain a large mix of personalities and abilities. Teammates who might have different approaches and different motivations must find a way to work together and have a sense of cohesiveness if they are to succeed. Finding a way to walk the line and balance these differing individuals is the difficult task of the coach. While a large part of coaching in any sport is taken up with the "Xs and Os" and technical aspects, it is as important, if not more important, to be a great leader. To be a great leader, one must not only have the charisma to teach and inspire, but also the ability to understand and facilitate the creation of team chemistry. This is why the best athletes who have tremendous knowledge of the fundamental and technical aspect of a sport don't always make the best coaches. To be a great coach, one must also have superior understanding of the human psyche.

Managing different personalities within the team
Not everyone is cut from the same cloth; every individual is unique in some way. There are certain psychological characteristics that make each person who he or she is. These variations in psychological makeup mean that coaches cannot treat athletes like robots. It is why, if you have two crews coached by the same person with the same training program, and with the same erg scores and boat moving ability, it does not mean you will get the same results in competition. There are lots of variables in team and individual mentality and team chemistry that have a lot to say about ultimate success at the end of the day.

On almost every team, in every sport, as well as in most work environments, the spectrum of different personalities extends from those who are laid back to those who are high-strung, and everywhere in between. Not only are there different temperaments among teammates, but there are lots of other significant differences that will play a role in the creation of team chemistry, such as different views on politics, different religions, different ethnicities, different class and family backgrounds, etc. In rowing, there is another, quite unusual, team dynamic that is present on many men's teams and that is the phenomenon of having female coxswains on male teams. This can be very difficult as men and women have certain important differences and often approach things in different ways. What is important to remember is that everyone on a team is in it for the same fundamental reason at the end of the day. The problem is that this may be not be readily apparent at first and may be difficult for athletes to understand. Now, one athlete might be involved in rowing because he/she loves competition and testing his/her limits, one might be rowing because of the camaraderie, another might be rowing simply in order to stay in shape. The list could go on and on, but the key is that somewhere deeply rooted there is a similar, fundamental, unifying connection among all athletes on a team. The key is to discover that and to get everyone to understand that. Everyone on a team does not always have to agree with everyone else, and everyone does not have to be friends with one another, but what there must be in order to be successful is a mutual level of respect and an understanding that there is a common, unifying force among every member of the team.

To illustrate this point: I'm sure everyone can imagine a very intense, dedicated, blue-collar athlete on the same team with a laid back, 'class clown' athlete, who is very talented and likes to win but has a certain disdain for hard work. These two athletes could run into trouble and become frustrated with each other in a situation where the intense athlete is always demanding more work and thinks of his teammate as lazy or not passionate about winning. On the other hand, the laid back athlete could find himself very easily annoyed with the intense athlete and think that athlete is too highly strung. It might be difficult for these two to gel together because of their different approaches and strengths and weaknesses. Instead it would be beneficial to themselves individually as well as the team if they could learn to embrace the other for what each brings to the table and adds to the team. They should be allowed and encouraged to complement each other rather than cause conflict and tension within the team.

While it is certainly important for coaches to understand and influence these things, it is also important for the individual athletes on a team to be able to recognize that others are different and be able to embrace them for their strengths and what they bring to the table, rather than focus on their shortcomings.

Creating the right environment
It is the coach's job to create an environment in which all can understand that they are all fundamentally on the same page and foster an environment in which trust is created. Trust is of the utmost importance in rowing. Not only does the work of your teammates affect your ability to succeed, but it can also affect your own attitude and motivation. For instance, it can be difficult to train your hardest if the teammates surrounding you are not committed to working hard, and cannot be trusted to complete training assignments. But, if an athlete believes that everyone is on board (or, alternatively, that someone not buying into the training/coaching will not be given a seat), then that individual can feel completely comfortable training hard, because the fruits of his/her labor are likely to matter. It doesn't matter much how hard one individual trains if the rest of the squad cannot be trusted to complete the training program as laid out by the coach.

'Rowing doesn't build character, it reveals it.' While this is an oft quoted phrase in the rowing world, and can be very helpful to a certain extent, I believe rowing can also help build character if managed the right way, and if the right environment is created. It is the coach's job to manage his/her athletes and sense problems before they arise, quickly dealing with any problems in a manner that allows everyone to understand the common thread that unites the team. Rather than force non-compliant team members to adapt to a certain philosophy, it is often helpful to 'kill them with kindness.' In other words, create an encouraging environment based around positive reinforcement that indirectly alienates and discourages negativity and strife.

-Justin and the RR Team

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