Winter is finally over.
In the United States, we were very lucky to have such a mild winter. I am very excited to watch the spring and summer racing seasons unfold.
On-the-water racing began yesterday in Philadelphia. Colleges and universities start officially racing over the next few weeks. Olympic hopefuls begin their quest at the 2016 US Rowing Olympic Trials in Sarasota, FL over a month from now.
With the massive shift from ergometer and land training to on-the-water training, there should also bring a focus on athletes learning to move a boat together.
“Rowing is the ultimate team sport…”
Not so much.
It has become apparent from our rowing society and even the World Rowing Federation, FISA, with their recent proposal to eliminate boat classes (and add more small boats) from the 2020 Olympics Games, that rowing is shifting away from the ultimate team sport.
Isn’t that what we rowers pride ourselves on?
Nine individuals (coxswain included) attempt to get into a boat and pull as hard and as straight as they can to win. Each athlete focuses on what he or she can do to make the boat go faster. However, when the boat fails, athletes and coach look for the individual or individuals that are to blame.
In the United States, we only celebrate the team aspect of sports after a team wins a major championship like the Super Bowl or the Women’s World Cup. Most of the media focus is still on the individual and their own personal journey.
“What is your role?”
I do encourage my athletes to use their own personal journeys as a foundation for motivation. I am realizing more that in order to have success in a team sport, the focus must shift to how my athletes can contribute and support the team.
“What is your role on the team?”
Athletes may describe the position they play, and their how their focus must be on the jobs that position is responsible for. They are a pitcher; they focus on balls, strikes, and pitch count. They are a wide receiver; they focus on running routes, getting open, and moving the chains. They are a power forward; they focus on rebounding, posting up, and playing defense.
Rowing should be very simple because athletes are repeating the same task over and over again. Yet, it becomes complicated because athletes and coaches seem to approach this simple task differently.
“What is your role on the team?”
Many rowers have difficulty answering this question. The usual response is, “Pull as hard as I can.” When I ask why they have to focus on pulling hard, their response is, “So I can keep my seat in the boat.”
“Boat line-ups are never final until…”
Coaches spend an enormous amount of their time, effort, and energy on pitting athletes against each other during winter training.
“You need this erg score to compete at the varsity level…”
Therefore, high school athletes and their parents end up obsessing over their status on the team, and stressing over erg scores because of college recruiting. Collegiate athletes are tested weekly, even daily, to the point that “keeping their seat” is more important than studying.
Boat line-ups might not be set until the final championship regatta. By that time, the athletes do not trust each other anymore. Half the athletes do not believe their teammates should even be in the boat. The other half wish they were in a better boat.
George Pocock said that rowing is a “symphony of motion.”
I understand that internal competition teaches athletes to be competitive. It makes them tougher. It helps them understand they have to work hard to get what they want in life. However, it doesn’t teach them to “play nice” together.
“United we stand; Divided we fall”
I can be critical. I have first-hand experience.
As an assistant coach at the University of Pennsylvania, I forgot to teach my freshmen lightweights how to row well with one another. The goal should have been preparing them to compete at the varsity level, instead of seat racing them week after week to find the “best” line up.
I should have allowed my novice rowers to stay together and learn to row, because novice year is a special time that will either make you a rower for life or make you quit. I was too focused on making a great impression as a first year collegiate coach.
Before that, my failure in training for Beijing in 2008 was not developing real relationships with any of my training teammates. We were united in our quest to make the US National Team, but our coach was only focused on making the fastest line up. Competing against each other made us lose sight of why we were at Penn AC Rowing Association in the first place.
The legend of Penn AC was born from Coach Ted Nash’s ability to bring “rejected” athletes together for a common cause. That was the brilliance of the “Killer B’s”, the United States Men’s Four without Coxswain, at the Olympics in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. Four different men who were taught by one legendary coach to trust each other just enough.
How do we build trust?
It is much easier to attract and convince athletes to trust in a new training program, winning results, or cutting edge technology and facilities. It is one of the main reasons coaches attend the US Rowing Convention every year. We flock to seminars that promise to reveal “secrets” of how top rowing programs are making their boats go faster.
There are no seminars teaching coaches to inspire and communicate better. If you happened to attend a seminar on building team culture, it eventually morphs into a round table on how athletes today are “entitled, disrespectful, and do not know how to work hard… and their parents are worse…”
Not all US Rowing coaches are like this. Cornell Lightweight Head Coach, Chris Kerber is one coach that gets it.
I know he does. I sat next to him last summer and observed and listened to how he coaches athletes. Rowing News writer, Jen Whiting, wrote an article about him as “The Innovator.” Much of the article focuses mostly his individual accolades as an athlete and his success as a coach. But you can read between the lines. Kerber emphasizes team and athlete accountability. There is no mention of individual effort.
Moral of the Story
Why has the team aspect of rowing in the United States begun to fade?
Even if a coach can create a team culture of “athlete accountability”, it still requires all the athletes to believe in that culture. As an athlete, I can hold myself accountable. I can also hold my teammates accountable. It doesn’t mean that I am going to overextend myself and help my teammates achieve their own personal goals.
This type of “team” culture can still fail.
I read rowing websites and rowing message boards, and everything covered still focuses on the individual – their achievements, their stories, their rowing “secrets”. Individuals are judged based on their ability to perform or their failure to step up to the plate.
The athletes need to believe in the team culture, AND they need to believe in each other. They need to appreciate each others’ strengths and weaknesses and support each others’ efforts.
Trust is the missing component for boats that fail to cross the finish line first. This includes coxswains. This includes Masters athletes. This includes Olympic hopefuls. Talent, ability, and desire only takes us so far.
Until rowing coaches begin teaching athletes how to trust one another, rowing may no longer be a “team” sport in 2020.
So much for the symphony…
For more information on Strength and Conditioning for rowing, rowing technique, Kettlebells, Clubbells, AthleteDISC, and the Process Communication Model® follow my blog or like me on Facebook at RUFO OPTIMAL WORKOUTS.
This week, I launched my “Balance” Page. In order for athletes to learn balance they need to understand themselves. Understanding themselves and trusting themselves allows them to trust others and their teammates. For teams that wish to learn more about themselves, and find that edge, click on “Balance”.