RR Interview: Matt Lehrer of Community Rowing's Institute for Rowing Leadership, Boston

Community Rowing, Inc., Boston (Photo: © Essdras M. Suarez)
As one of the country's top rowing clubs, and with a tremendous membership, Community Rowing, Inc. in Boston is often among the first to test new and innovative ideas. And, foremost among those ideas is the Institute for Rowing Leadership—a graduate level program founded at CRI in 2011that integrates classroom study of all aspects of the sport with on-the-water training. Matt Lehrer, who teaches at the IRL, is also the Director of Coaching Education at CRI. Here, Matt shares some of the background on the IRL, how the program works, and what the big picture looks like as CRI continues to push the boundaries with the aim of improving rowing as a whole in the United States.


Bryan Kitch: A lot of people in the audience will probably already know about the Institute for Rowing Leadership at CRI, but for those of you that don't know about it, we've got Matt Lehrer on the line—Matt would you mind giving people a little background on the program and what it took to put it together?

Matt Lehrer: Yeah sure—thanks Bryan for having me. First, it's a really cool thing to be a part of what you're building as well. So, the Institute for Rowing Leadership is housed here at CRI, and the reason we started it, honestly, was that the biggest thing that we see as important for the growth of rowing to continue is the development of good leaders. And that's really what set the context for everything else that we did, and we realized here at CRI, with the largest program in the world, that we have a staff of roughly 50 coaches at all times (which is sort of a crazy thing to say, but is actually true)—we realized two things, that one: we needed to give our coaches better tools to equip them, so that they could be more prepared to do their job well; and two: we also wanted to develop something where we had folks coming in from all over, who could also learn, and then take those tools elsewhere. So that was really sort of the first step for us, in developing the program. 

To go through a couple of the things we do in terms of coaching education—we do a monthly coaching education series, we do an annual conference, but really the fundamental thing about the IRL program is our fellowship program. So people come and study with us for a year, they spend half their time on the water (roughly), and half their time in the classroom. Really, it has been game changing, in terms of what we can do. The crazy part is that actually rowing is the only sport to have anything like this at the graduate level, so to have a graduate level program is something that no other sport in the country has, which is think is really special, but also speaks to what the level of commitment is and how much we really believe that rowing is going to change lives more than anything else. So, that was sort of our genesis. We're here with our fourth class in [session] right now, and our fifth class on its way come July. 

BK: The second question I was going to ask you was about how it was organized, and sort of how much ratio, what the ratio of on-the-water to classroom time is, but it sounds like it's about 50/50—is that what you said? 

ML: Yeah, I mean it depends a little bit. The fellows do all sorts of things. The cool thing about the program is that there's not sort of one type of person that we have—we have people who want to be collegiate coaches; we have people who want to be high school coaches; we have people who want to build a club, who want to build a 7,000-person club like CRI; and there's space for that in every class. Honestly, that's what makes it really interesting. When we look to put together a class, we want to put together a class that is not all the same—we want people who have different perspectives, and come from different levels of experience; we want people who come in with no coaching experience, and those who come in with three, four, five, or we've had people with over a decade—decades—of coaching experience, and all of those things make it so much more fun. 

When you put the program together (I teach at the program too), it's just a lot more fun to have that diversity of perspective, and then while they're here, you know, all the fellows do different things. So, while they're here in the program the way it works is we match them with a coaching practicum that is of their interest—so, if they want to be a high school coach or a college coach, for example, the fortunate part about being in Boston is that you can have a[n NCAA] DI women's coach; you can have a lightweight women's coach; you can have a heavyweight men's coach; you can have a lightweight men's coach; every variation possible. And that's been great for us to be able to build bridges with all of those different places. So the fellows spend half their time working with someone generally not at CRI, and that transfer of knowledge and that mentorship outside of the program is a really key aspect, because those are the people who are going to be peers and colleagues for years to come. 

Within that, it varies a little bit. We have people who are coaching in the morning somewhere else, and who come to class in the middle of the day, and then go home; we have people who are coaching in the morning and evening and going to class in the middle of the day; we have people who are still looking to train and want to make the senior [USRowing national] team, so maybe they're training in the morning, going to class during the day, and coaching in the afternoon. The mix is really different but I would say that the minimum per week is between 16-20 hours coaching, and 16-20 hours in the classroom. So, it's full on. You've got to be really committed to do it. But the opportunities are here, and what you can make of it is so much greater when you've got all of those different aspects to the program. So yeah, it's a little different, but kind of the same.

BK: So does that mean that the schedule, not to harp on that, but it sounds like it's pretty flexible depending on what you're coming in with, as far as how you're able to organize your time.

ML: Yes, yeah. I mean, you know, you can't have a 9-5 job—we generally schedule classes from 930am to 230pm. It varies a little bit, but then, it's like college, where your taking classes within that 930am-230pm window, and a lot of our instructors are pros, they're pros at whatever they do. So that might be sport psychology, that might be nutrition, that might be biomechanics, right, so we work around trying to find a time that works around the instructors' schedules as well, because, honestly, the reason that this program works (and works here in Boston) is that we have a lot of talented people and they know about rowing. That's something we look for in our instructors—we look for talent first, and then if they've got the talent, if they have a background in rowing. That's really what makes coming here different from getting a masters [degree] in coaching. 

When you get a masters in coaching, you're in class with volleyball players and power lifters and sprinters. And as great as that is, if you're a rowing coach, it's not going to make your boats go any faster. What you want is to be in a biomechanics class talking about the biomechanics of the rowing stroke. If I change the rigging this way or that way, that changes entirely the biomechanics of the stroke, right? That's more what you care about than running economy. So, what we do in our classes is take the curriculum and bend it all toward rowing.

When the talk about physiology, they talk about how to make people fast for 2,000 meters. When they talk about skill development, they talk about the kind of skills that you're trying to develop in rowers. So it's all very specific, which really means that you've got to have a lot of talent. Finding those talented instructors makes all the difference. When you find people who are the best at what they do, it's amazing what you can get out of a 10-week quarter.

BK: So, is there anything over the last couple of years that has stuck out to you as a highlight, during your time with the program?

ML: I think the biggest thing that sticks out is that it actually works, which was totally not something that we were sure of. We felt very strongly about it, and we pursued it with great passion and vigor, but no one has ever done this before. Being the trailblazer, we thought it would work—it made a lot of sense. It's been really cool to see, you know, we only have three classes of graduates out there, but what those people are doing. When people come to the program, they come here as part of their journey. These are people who are going to be career coaches—they're not making a one-year investment, they're making a 30-40 year investment. That's a really different context. I think in some ways, the best is yet to come, because as this continues to grow, we feel really strongly that it's going to change our sport, and how coaches are educated. Also, you wind up with six or eight fellows every year who come out of this program, and you end up with this really tight group within that as well as an ever-growing alumni network of people who have really thought about the sport at a super deep level. And I think they other point is that any of our graduates who come out of our program, the thing that I attribute as being the biggest hallmark of their success is that they don't think they're done. They realize how much more there is to learn, and that process is part what being a career coach is all about. It doesn't stop after you're here—it continues, and builds, and builds throughout your years [in the launch].

I think every individual class has its high points, and going back to our instructors, we have some of the most talented people in Boston—our sport psychology professor who has been with us from the beginning, he's a sport psychology professor at BU, he works with Northeastern athletes, he's a consultant. And Adam [Naylor] knows [about rowing]—Adam's going to talk about the '2,000-meter boogeyman.' And it's true. As a rowing coach, you totally know what that is. It's not a '2,275-meter boogeyman' that doesn't have the right context. In every class, it's hard to remember, because there are so many good moments, so to pick out one individually is unfortunately really difficult—but I think fortunately really difficult, too.

BK: So then, as far as where the program is going, one: is it continuing to kind of take shape and evolve over the last couple of years, or do guys have a way of going about things that's pretty set at this point? And secondly, for the guys that are getting out into the job market, are they finding success, and how does the program adapt to that job market as it changes?

ML: So I think, on the first point, how we're going to continue to grow—I mean, I think we have learned a lot. We've made changes with every class. And what I mean is the structure of the program and how we put it together, so not only what content we address, but sometimes addressing the new content in a different way. And I would imagine that that will continue to evolve. I think the tweaks [that we're making] are becoming finer tweaks, and less sort of big tweaks and changes. And a lot of that has been attributed to the classes that we've brought in. The fellows who are in there, they're spending 20 hours a week together for a year, so their perspective is also really valuable and has really helped us become better. It's a partnership. That's the cool part about my job, is that I get to meet these people who going to be around and are super passionate about our sport, and they're going to be doing it for many years to come. So I get to talk to some of the people who are thinking creatively both within the program and as alums, so that's been really helpful. That's one piece that will continue to evolve.

Being where we are, in Boston—place is really fundamental to making it work. The program doesn't work if you don't spend the time both in the classroom and on the water—applying that learning and going back and forth. If you spend a year in the classroom, and then you spend a year applying it, it's not the same as that continual reinforcement, because if you look at educational research as well, they talk about how skills actually get encoded in your brain—it gets encoded by that cycle of learning and application, learning and application. The more we can emphasize that in our curriculum, the more we'll do it.

Now, where it goes—I think the graduates are going to make their own way in the world. We've found some people who have had some really great success—we've had coaches who have won their league championships: Brendan Mulvey, one of our graduates in the first class, his team at Boston College won the points trophy at [the NERC] for the first time ever, and he also is working with the Head Of The Charles as well. Katie Lane, who was also in our first class, who's now at Fordham, took Wentworth Institute of Technology to a silver medal at Dad Vails—from a program that really never existed on the massive rowing scale. And I think every one of those graduates would talk about the fact that what came of their program was not just a product of them, but when you start to look you start to put the pieces together. Again out of that first class is Brenda Balenger in Manchester, starting RowAmerica Manchester up there in that partnership, so you've got Brenda, you've got Judith Vogel, who's down at Riverside working with their high performance women—I mean, just that first class was crazy. Katie O'Driscoll, in that first class, too, Katie was out at the University of Washington for two years, and now she's down at George Mason. And I could go through and just tick off in every class, every single one of the alums—it's really, it's a special thing to be a part of that, and to see really how that is going to continue to grow is, I think in some ways has to be unknown. I think we have a vision of what we think the sport is going to be, but those guys are going to be the ones who bring that to life in their coaching jobs.

Two things I hear from coaches all the time: One is, 'Where was this when I started coaching in ...,' fill in the year; I can't tell you how many times I've had that conversation with really successful coaches who are out there now, who made their own way. And I think that the best coaches that I've talked to, at every level, mostly in rowing, but outside of rowing too, are the ones who want to keep learning.

And then the second piece is, we also want to find a way to engage those coaches who are out there, who may not be able to come and spend a year of their lives here in Boston, doing the program—how can we reach those coaches, and how can we take some of what we do and give them a meaningful way to get better where they are? We realize that's a really big need, and it's something we're thinking about and planning on, but we're not at a point where we feel like we've got something fully hatched enough to roll that out.  But it's certainly something on the near-term horizon that we're really working on.


Thanks very much to Matt Lehrer for the interview. To learn more about the program or to get in touch with CRI, please visit the Institute for Rowing Leadership's website, www.irlatcri.org.


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