Reflecting on Rio: Fast Boats and Good Team Culture Require Athletes to Buy In, Says Mike Gennaro

In light of our recent opinion piece on the chatter surrounding USRowing in the wake of Rio's results, there has been a lot of back-and-forth about what 'coaching' means, and about how that relates to the athletes, and the wider culture of a team.

While our position in the opinion piece was founded on the idea that the athletes were 'bought in' and executing the program as laid out by the coaches to the best of their abilities, U.S. national team veteran Mike Gennaro believes that some doubts crept in along the way, creating cracks in the team-wide trust that later became rifts.

"As athletes, some days we didn't give the coaches a chance and thought we knew better," Gennaro says. "There is not any one person to blame for the downfall of our culture, but I can tell you that as athletes, there were times when we didn't buy in and trust our coaches. As a result of that, I don't think you can accurately asses the quality of the coaches towards the end of the quadrennial."

He continues: "Luke [McGee] knows how to coach. He's a good coach and has proven that over the course of his career. He also has this incredible knowledge and capability of making everyone stronger and faster on the erg. Bryan [Volpenhein] is also a good coach. He has this confident way of describing what he did as an athlete in a very uncomplicated and pure way. He has also achieved the one thing in this sport that none of have and all of us need, so it's easy to listen to him and believe in what he's saying.

"As an athlete, it is not your job to waste time trying to figure out if what coaches are telling you is right or wrong or if there was a better way to do things. The athlete's job is to listen, learn, and synergistically think and work together. And in my opinion, there were times when we failed at that and that contributed to a poor culture.

"As athletes, we could have done a better job trusting our coaches and executing the plan that they put in place—believing in the plan they put in place.

"If you're going to point fingers at the coaches, don't be naive and forget to point a finger at me, because I dropped the ball in the repechage at the 2015 World Championships and failed to qualify the eight."

What Gennaro is doing is admirable and serves as an excellent example for what athletes at every level should be doing—that is, examining ways in which they can positively contribute within their roles on the team. There is no chance of any coach being successful if his or her athletes do not trust, believe, and execute the game plan. However, while Gennaro is searingly honest about his personal role and what he sees as his own shortcomings, it seems difficult to assign blame to him, or the athletes in the crew with him, for not achieving their goal of qualifying the men's eight. In other words, I don't think it had anything to do with people not trying to execute to the best of their abilities—athletes or coaches alike.

In that sense, the same can be said of the earlier opinion piece—it's not a judgment saying that the coaches did not try hard enough, at the same time as it's not about the athletes 'not being skilled enough/not having a sculling background.' I have no doubt that everyone was trying to get the job done. It's the Olympics. No one says to him or herself, 'yeah, well I felt like doing it this way even though I knew the results wouldn't be that great.' Everyone wants to perform on the grandest stage. Without a doubt, Luke McGee and Bryan Volpenhein were trying to produce great results—even if you disagree with their methods of getting it done, can it really be argued that they intentionally did things poorly knowing that the results would be subpar? What purpose would that serve? In the end, it would only reflect poorly on their abilities—again, the same is true for both athletes and coaches.

So again, Gennaro is absolutely right to reflect on his experience with the attitude of 'how could I have been better?' More emphatically, that is exactly the right attitude to have as an athlete. However, it seems more like a simple failure to execute, and as coaches, the ultimate responsibility for execution comes down to you—I'm positive that McGee and Volpenhein would say the same thing. They gave it their best shot, and missed the mark. There's no shame in that.

At the 2015 Golden Oars dinner, Brown head coach Paul Cooke recalled some advice that he was given in his early career by Steve Gladstone. It was, more or less, try as hard as you can to get it done, but if you aren't getting it done, then get out of the way and let someone else try. That seems to be exactly what's going on at USRowing right now.

Whoever takes the reins will be under a ton of scrutiny, but that's the nature of the job—and I'm betting that he or she will be doing everything possible to succeed.


Image source: Pixabay

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