Stop Seat Racing: The Future of Crew Selection, with Virginia Head Coach Frank Biller

UVa men training on Rivanna Reservoir (Photo courtesy of Frank Biller)

For any coach, often the most difficult part of the job is selection. And, it's an area that is in need of innovation. While seat racing is the most commonly accepted means of determining the fastest crew, it is inherently flawed, given the number of variables at play in any given piece.

Just think about the number of unknowns when coaches look to seat race athletes (shudder) in eights—not only are there 16 other crew members (including coxswains) involved, but also issues of current, wind speed, water conditions, etc. These problems are only somewhat reduced when it comes to seat racing in fours. Another way that coaches look to build lineups is through pair matrices, but again, the different dynamics involved in moving a pair versus an eight can skew results (especially when athletes lack experience in small boats). So how can we move this process forward? Virginia Men's Rowing head coach Frank Biller has a few ideas.

RR: Seat racing has long been used as the be-all, end-all tool for selection, and it's commonly accepted as an appropriate means of accurate measurement, even though it is clearly flawed. How have you gone about changing your approach to selection at UVa?

Frank Biller: When I arrived in the U.S. in 2002, it was the first time I experienced seat racing (as a masters rower, ha!). 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do,' so I adopted it. In Europe, we simply developed line-ups through the training cycle; they sort of fell in place. In the U.S., I witnessed much drama around it at literally every level. It seemed like nobody was ever satisfied with the results.

When I started at UVa and finally could do as I wanted, I didn’t change anything immediately. Changing the ways of crew selection also requires a change in culture, and that requires time and patience. In 2013, for example, we had a lot of talent and an overload of seat racing to sort it, resulting in a group of guys at each other's throats. No one wanted that again, so last year was the right time for that change and I dropped it. We didn’t do any seat racing in spring 2014. We finished with our best season yet (given the relatively small and young team) and the culture adaptation came to full fruition. But you certainly can't just walk into the boathouse one day and drop seat racing. The athletes have to understand the change and support it.

I can understand that coaches are looking for an unbiased and transparent selection process. However, it is exactly the coaches’ job to do that. We are in charge of telling rowers when they didn’t make the boat, explaining why, and, most importantly, helping them improve in the process. And yes, that is hard, but we owe it to them. We can’t outsource that by trusting a flawed system.

RR: As a result of the selection procedural changes, have there been additional, even unforeseen benefits to the individual athletes or to the team as a whole?

FB: Absolutely! They guys have trust in each other and the system. We as coaches are confident and we don’t shy from tough questions. Our job is to carry, lead, and mentor the athletes. Our guys know and trust our unconditional love for them and their efforts, and they know that we always give our very best. Everyone wants the team to have the fastest boats possible and we're entrusted to sort that out. We coaches feel blessed for having this opportunity to serve our athletes and we are not afraid of failure. When athletes don’t feel like they are constantly being judged and selected on everything, they are able to open up, take risks, make changes, and react intelligently to illness or injury. It’s our job to provide comfort so they can get out of the comfort zone. The boathouse is a place where they can go to get away from stress, not have more pressure added on top of them.

RR: If another coach or program were going to start looking into new methods of selection, where would you recommend that they begin their search?

FB: In order to make an eight, you start with the top five athletes. Studies have shown that if a team is polled for the top five guys, not only do most agree on who they are but, moreover, they agree on the ranking! Athletes know each other very well; they suffer, fail, and sometimes win together. They have intimate knowledge of one another. Clearly, we can figure that out as coaches.

After the top five it gets trickier and here is where mistakes are made: Let’s say you have five or six guys that are close in making one of the remaining three seats and, typically, things are tight. Many of these athletes can go either way, depending on the day of the week (including race day). It is our first instinct to give all of them a fair shot, right? Hence, the “transparency” of seat racing is very convenient for coaches. The fact is, however, that you are now taking away time in the race lineup from the top five guys. Effectively, this makes the three guys who don’t make the eight more important to the top boat than the other five (top) rowers—why? Plus, the “experience” of seat racing is of little value, although some coaches like to present it as “competitive training”—I call BS. It does nothing that another piece in the race lineup couldn't do.

And there are other aspects; for example if the seat racing yields very close results between the three remaining candidates, how does a decision based on that make it a better coaching decision? Are we really boiling down a rower’s value to a margin in few pieces on a given day? Are we weighing the quality of one marginally faster “snapshot” more than other factors such as mental strength, leadership qualities, development stage/cycle, personality, etc.? If we do a seat race, we have to commit 100% to the results regardless of other considerations. It’s nuts! You find yourself sitting in the launch, knowing that the “wrong guy” might win the seat race. Who are we kidding here? Or do we care so little that we roll the dice and let a snapshot decide?

A coach knows his athletes, knows their drive, goals, desires, backgrounds, potential, personality, etc. We have the privilege of mentoring and teaching them. We see them fail more than anyone else, we help them get back up and return stronger. We know how they row—and when we “give them a shot” in different combinations on different days (1x, 2-, 2x, 4x, 4+, 8+), we see how they improve—be it technically on the water, or their physical ability, including erg tests. We do our job right and we know what we are looking at. In addition to the technical compatibility, we pay close attention to mental harmony and personalities—the boat just has to go smoothly. I believe most coaches have a perfect handle on most of their decisions, but somehow feel the need to find confirmation through a flawed method. Yes, row them in different line-ups and try combinations, but be mindful why you have a certain feeling about a lineup or athlete. It’s OK to leave your top erg out of the first boat if he/she doesn’t fit.

Sometimes the line-up is clear cut; you often observe that weeks before decision time, so why waste time and run through the motions of seat racing? Also, a “seat race” is not an athlete’s God-given right. It’s a privilege at best (if you were to choose that method). If you really feel like you don’t have a choice, at least do it technically correct: No side by side racing—instead use a time trial with a calibrated SpeedCoach in neutral/steady conditions, comparing average splits and stroke rates.

The bottom line: Initially, the athlete that is not selected is always unhappy. I have been puzzled to hear the list of reasons and rationalizations of why he should be in the boat. The procedure creates anxiety for everyone and is a distraction from training. As a coach, I have to deal with these aspects regardless of whether we seat race or not, so I may as well skip it all together.

This, however, is only scratching the surface. There is so much more to it. We have invested a considerable amount of resources (time, money, expertise) for the cultural changes we are currently experiencing.

We have an ongoing relationship with an outside adviser and dropped training time to demonstrate the importance of this culture to the athletes. We’ve developed some very rowing-specific philosophies and strategies that go way beyond winning races, but serve as a solid philosophy for life. It all starts with being the best you can be. This eliminates most of the anxiety that young athletes develop, as they correlate their “value” with a seat in the first boat. This is an easier, tangible metric of value, much like winning (see John Wooden’s TED Talk on success versus winning). It brings certain patience to the practice atmosphere, which allows athletes to find more happiness through learning and practicing. If you truly give your best and are still in the 2V, congratulations, you've accomplished something way harder than making the 1V: being the best you can be.

Thanks very much to Coach Biller for taking the time!


Popular posts from this blog

The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 3: The Top 10

"I Row Crew" — Rowing in 'The Social Network'

Video Of The Week: Holland Beker 2013

The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 1

Best Rowing Drills: 5 Favorites of Olympic Champion Esther Lofgren