Coaches' Corner: Coaching Rowing is Hard, So Get Started Right

The view from the boat bay (Photo: B. Kitch)

Coaching is difficult. Success depends on the right mixture of soft and hard skills, in many cases unique to a particular group of athletes, program type, or other circumstance. Examples abound across all sports and professions. It’s not uncommon for a successful coach at one program to move to another and not see the same results.

Why does that happen? Did they forget how to coach? What makes for success at one program and not at another? These are difficult, if not impossible, questions to answer. What is possible, though, is to better understand the challenge of assuming a new leadership or coaching position. First up, the evaluative and preparatory steps.

Know the Level

This applies to any new situation, for both veteran and novice coaches alike. Before you can hold athletes, coaches, and programs to a standard of performance, it’s imperative that you understand how that standard relates to success at your level. In rowing, moving from a smaller conference to a larger one, from high school to college, and even from elite to college rowing implies a change in standard. The fact is, holding an athlete to an unattainably high standard can be just as harmful, or even worse, than a bar set too low.

Analytics is taking over the world, and while not as prevalent in rowing (yet), data remains extremely important. Who is successful at your level? While gaining access to the data can be difficult, it’s important to know as much as possible. Team size, training volume, erg averages, recruiting, technical skill, and other factors are all part of their success and must be considered. And it’s just as important for your athletes to understand the level, especially as part of the goal making process. This annual rite of fall wherein coaches ask their athletes to establish goals for the season can be a valuable process, but it’s only useful if the athlete can relate the goal to what it will take to get there. As Tom Landry said, "Setting a goal is not the main thing. It is deciding how you will go about achieving it and staying with that plan." Be realistic with yourself, your athletes, and your supporters. Success takes time, understanding the goal and how your program will get there should be part of everyone’s preparation.

Understand the Challenges

Every program and situation has challenges. Yes, even the ones that don’t have the usual challenges have others—including, institutional pressure, program expectations, conference or league difficulty, and athlete commitments (national teams, clubs, etc.)—that can be just as impactful as others. See UCLA basketball (post John Wooden), and Alabama (post Bear Bryant and pre Nick Saban) and USC football (post McKay/Robinson and pre Pete Carroll). Successful coaches, while retaining much of their system and coaching philosophies, still need to adapt to new surroundings.

At Cal Steve Gladstone didn’t have to worry about ice on the Oakland Estuary; at Yale it’s more of a concern. External factors that seem less important than internal ones—prevailing weather conditions, proximity to the boathouse, athlete transportation, traffic during practice times, the academic standards of the institution—can have a large impact, especially if not properly considered and adjusted to. In Los Angeles, traffic conditions on the freeways can make afternoon on the water practices difficult and potentially less efficient, while at Princeton afternoon practice could be a short walk to the boathouse. Higher academic requirements can make recruiting more difficult, but might mean walk-ons have practiced excellence before they step foot in your boathouse. None of this means automatic success or failure and every challenge can be overcome or factored in, but it’s best to be proactive and evaluate before training plans, race schedules, and performance standards are finalized.

Understand Your Plan

In this context, plan includes training, technique, culture, and any other elements you’d like to implement in your program. Given that the next suggestion in this series is to make a plan, it might seem odd to ask that it be understood before its creation. In rowing, and every other sport, it’s common for new coaches, and even veteran ones, to borrow heavily from mentors, former coaches, or successful programs in the shaping of training plans, technique styles, and team cultures. These sources can be valuable, but it’s imperative to understand the context in which they were used, the level of athlete, their effect, frequency, and relationship to the overall picture. Without this understanding it’s very possible you’re missing the point. The workout you did your senior year at a top collegiate rowing program might not be right for your novice high school team. A painful workout valued for its difficulty doesn’t necessarily mean it is or was effective. Integrating a workout with pain as the primary end game often ignores the quality and effectiveness of the training stimulus and may do more harm than good.

Technical styles borrowed or observed from other crews can be similarly difficult to integrate effectively. And with apologies to Peter Mallory, this includes the Schubschlag vs. Kernschlag debate. For example, a particular crew might be successful in spite of their technique, or even more commonly have evolved into a style of rowing that matches their body types, strengths or weaknesses, and/or body of water. Is the extreme lay-back typical of Mike Spracklen’s crews, or the low recovery handle height of Steve Gladstone’s Cal crews the reason for their success? It would seem many think so, as these characteristics became much more prevalent across all levels of the sport after these programs experienced their success during the early to mid 2000s. Knowing the reasoning behind these distinctive styles, and the ability of your crew to maximize them, is the important deciding factor, not merely the successful parroting of them.

None of this is to say that learning from others isn’t important. It’s just essential that you either learn the complete picture from the person you are borrowing from, or implement something that you have adapted to serve your needs. A workout taken from another program, but scaled to fit yours is an example of the latter practice, as is the technique style that fits the makeup of your crew.

But First... Have a Plan

Most new coaches have plenty of information bouncing around in their heads—from drills to workouts—but how all of those small pieces fit together to make a cohesive whole is a challenging proposition. Providing a rewarding experience to a group of masters rowers, successfully taking a novice athlete from an on-campus recruiting meeting to the ACRA finals, and getting nine high school athletes to the top step of the USRowing youth national’s podium all require well-designed, progressive training and technique plans. Understand why you want your athletes to row a certain way. If you can’t articulate to yourself how you want your crew to row and how to get there, it’s difficult to imagine that they ever will. The same is true of a training plan. How each type of workout fits into the periodization of the year should be part of the process of putting together a plan. This will greatly enhance the possibility of success, but also position a coach to adapt as variables require.

Create a Culture

The right culture, successfully created and maintained, begins to perpetuate itself to the extent that athletes know the level, understand the challenges, and believe in the plan. No program is successful without a positive culture wherein athletes motivate each other, themselves, and value the input of coaches. These positive cultures are not a simple byproduct of good athletes, they have to be intentionally created and maintained by a coaching staff, program, and/or institution to be successful. 

A strong culture doesn’t mean that issues will disappear, it just makes them less prevalent and when they do occur, less damaging. Consider the case of the winter break workouts: It’s not just the coach who motivates the athlete to understand the importance of putting in the time to maintain or increase fitness during this critical time, it’s often the positive peer to peer influence and team culture that does. If the athlete who does all of the work that the coach asks is regarded as the “teacher’s pet” and not the standard to which all adhere, the team isn’t going to be very successful.

While many teams have created successful cultures, perhaps the one best on display (and communicated effectively outside of the program) is that of the University of Washington men’s team. It would appear from the outside that Mike Callahan, while he may have inherited elements of what exists now, set out to create a culture that encompasses every member of the team.

Did the culture beget the success, or was it the other way around? I would argue the former.

The suggestions above aren’t presented as a blueprint for success, but hopefully as part of the part of the process in preparing for a new challenge. As a coach, I too often learned through my mistakes, and while that can be valuable, I would have liked to learn some of those lessons before my crews were taking the shirts off their backs. Maybe this will help you keep your laundry at home.

-The RR Editorial Staff

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