Texas Rowing's Dave O'Neill on Coaching, Culture, and Development

Longhorns launching in San Diego

The Texas Longhorns rowing program has come a long way since longtime Cal women's head coach Dave O'Neill arrived in Austin. In 2015, not only did O'Neill lead Texas to its first-ever NCAA Championships appearance, but also the Longhorns placed seventh overall. And, most recently, the Longhorns came within roughly one second of sweeping San Diego Crew Classic, winning the novice eight, second varsity eight, and varsity eight events, only to fall just short in the varsity four.

Here, we catch up with Dave on his approach to coaching, changing team culture, and program development.

RR: Something that appears to be a cause for some confusion for people is what is meant by 'coaching,' with folks chiming in from the international circuit implying that coaching is little more than sitting in the launch. But that's not how we've come to understand coaching in the U.S. context, and that difference filters all the way up to the highest level. I know it's a big question, but how do you think of the term 'coaching' in this context?

Dave O'Neill: I think, yeah—good question. [Laughs.] I think it comes down partially to that discussion we were having on Twitter recently. I certainly think that for national team coaches, the role of a coach is different from my position [at the University of Texas]. And never mind that the age of the athletes, and issues you have to deal with there—you have to deal with issues regardless of how old they are. If they're a little bit older you might have work and family issues, whereas here we've got more growing up issues, etc.

But take for example the New Zealand system. They have selectors and coaches, and the selectors say to the coach, you're going to coach this crew. The coach might come up with the workouts or the technique. Whereas in my position, it comes down to... I'm basically the CEO of a multi-million dollar organization—who gets a scholarship; who doesn't get a scholarship; what's the schedule going to look like; what's our uniform going to look like; who's going to be on staff; what does the equipment look like. It's not just technique and training, it's also marketing and branding. And, to be honest, that's part of why I like my job, because it's different from the national team job. Even if you're coaching the national team, it's still about building the culture, but in many respects we're building the brand with what we're doing here. So, it's not just the technique and the training, and using sport science—it's also about how we are going to represent and market ourselves, and build a culture and brand around Texas Rowing. And those are real discussions that we have with our staff—about what direction we should go, and what image we want to project.

RR: From the CEO standpoint, do you feel that because we don't have the same level of funding or structure that some other rowing federations have, that USRowing must be more of a blend of the college experience and the more 'normal' national team experience. 

DO: I think it's too easy to be like, yeah, we don't have as much money. But I do think that if you try to do too many things, you don't do anything. I think that when you stay focused on what you're really looking to do, it's amazing what you can accomplish. Sometimes, there's a cultural thing that you have to get right, and that doesn't cost any money.

RR: So, looking forward to you coaching the USRowing U23 men's team this summer—that seems like a perfect example of this blend of international and college coaching experience. How are you planning to build that culture and put your own stamp on this year's team?

DO: I've thought about it a little bit, but I think the main thing is just to meet the guys and say here are the goals for the next six, seven, eight weeks. Here's the short-term goals, and here are the long-term goals—laying that out, and going over how we're going to do selection. Here's what we're collectively going to be trying to get done as a group, and hopefully that can help you as an individual.

And, you know, I think people are drawn to that. A lot is going to be expected—I'm going to expect a lot of them, and I imagine they're going to be expecting a lot of me, and the experience. So much of it is that people respect when you're making something a good experience. That might sound a little too 'kumbaya,' but it's more like, have a productive workout; have productive practices, day after day. People are drawn to that, and it's amazing how far you can get just by having one good practice, followed by another good practice, followed by another good practice. They can see the process, as well as their own progression, and where people stand.

Part of it—and I don't want to give too much away—will be, there will clearly be some goals for Plovdiv 2017, but also so much of the success is going to be determined by how many of the guys on that team are winning medals in Tokyo in 2020.

RR: Speaking of having good practices, and thinking of the 'Best Rowing Drills' we've put together here on RR over the past couple years, are there any go-to things that you use to structure your training sessions? 

DO: I don't think there's any magic drill. What we do consistently are pause drills, finish-to-catch (starting at body forward)—we probably do that four or five times a week at the start of practice, and then go through the gamut of pause drills. And the other thing we do two or three times a week is the pair add-in drill, starting off slow and then changing the speed—keeping the connection and learning how to blend, I think that goes a long way. But I don't think it's the magic of the drill—it's the focus on what you're doing. And the stuff about deliberate practice—there are kids who might do the drill every single day but that never get better because they're not really paying attention, they're just going through the motions. And then there are other kids who are really intent and focused on what they're doing, and they're going to get better.

So, I look at my job as coach as setting up an environment where they're all going to be focused, and get the most out of what they're doing. Otherwise, they can do a drill but it's going to be a total waste of time if they're not paying attention.

The drills are more determined by how you envision the stroke—what you think is important. It's not just about addressing what might be 'wrong.' Sometimes it's important to correct things, but you have to go into it thinking, okay, this is the kind of stroke that we're looking to achieve, and these are the drills that will help us get there.

RR: Something that has been very much of interest to us of late is the idea of going into an environment where the expectations or achievement level weren't where they needed to be, and do what it takes to elevate those expectations (and have the kind of success that you've had at Texas) without alienating too much of the existing team, or perhaps better put, maintaining continuity to some extent, and yet produce such a huge change in performance.

DO: Two things—one, a big part of our team, and a big part of my coaching philosophy, as it were, is that rowing can change the world. [Laughs.] Rowing can change the world. Because what you learn in rowing in terms of goal-setting, collaboration, delayed gratification, dealing with failure, dealing with pain, compromise—all of those things happen in a team environment in the pursuit of being really good. And we focus on that a ton, and will be doing that with the U23s this summer. So much of it becomes, 'be the best person, the best teammate you can be.' So then, if you're going to be the best teammate you can be, then yes, you're going to be focused on this workout; you are going to push hard on this workout when it's tough; you are going to make the most of every practice.

And second, knowing what the standard is, and raising the standard. The best kids on our team—the most is expected of them. When we first started here at Texas, kids on the team thought going sub-7 minutes on a 2K erg was amazing. But I was like, "yeah, 7 minutes is good. It's not great, but 7 minutes is good, 6:50 is really good, and 6:40 is great." So people who may have been going 6:58, they know that they still have work to do. And now it's cool to see the kids getting better—going sub 6:50, and sub 6:45, and they're the same kids that were, a couple years ago, happy to be around 7 minutes. They're holding for their 30-minute erg—what they were holding for 2k, two or three years ago, they're now holding for 30 minutes at controlled rates of 22, 24, and 26. So, I think it's just about raising the bar, and being challenged. And I think as high performers, people want to be challenged.

I think that first year, some of the kids thought, it's going to be 'here's some magic technique, here's some magic training,' okay poof, we're going to be really fast. Then they realized, oh my goodness. Every day is hard. It's hard day, after hard day, after hard day. And I think now, thankfully (and we're in year three)... I think last year we still weren't able to do the amount of volume, the amount of work that we needed to do. But I think this year we're able to do the volume.

It is a matter of getting the culture right, early. There are some kids who say hey, I can't do this, I need to focus on this, that, or the other. And I have to say, okay, well, I'm sorry, but there are other kids who are able to be All-Americans, Olympians, or Olympic medalists, and still go on to medical school, and be really good. So, if you're saying you're not that person, okay. But it is possible to do everything. So part of it is getting people to understand that it's about being the best person you can be.

RR: It's interesting how much of it can be attributed to learning what the standards of excellence really are. 

DO: I was a club rower at Boston College—it was an ultra-club at the time, just getting started. And I coached there for seven years. And at the time, I felt like, 'we work just as hard as those other teams—the only reason we're not as good is that we don't have X.' But, no. We didn't work as hard. Looking back at some of the workouts we did as a team, versus what we're doing now—it's impressive. So, I think, as a coach, I've certainly evolved. And even this year, we're pushing ourselves, and some doing things differently to try to get better. So, we'll see. You can't stop growing.

Thanks very much to Dave O'Neill for taking the time to connect! You can follow the Longhorns on Instagram and Twitter, and catch up on the Best Rowing Drills series by clicking the links. Photos by Bryan Kitch.


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