“TOO MANY SECRETS” – 5 Mistakes US Rowing Coaches Make


Coaches in every sport make mistakes.  I am passionate about rowing. As an independent rowing coach and fitness professional the biggest challenge I have in guiding my rowing athletes and clients is dealing with rowing secrets. What are “rowing secrets?”

They are the things rowing coaches won’t share with athletes or other coaches.

Rowing is not a complicated sport. However, training and managing athletes can be complicated. In the United States, the role models for rowing coaches are the high profile coaches of the four major sports – football, basketball, hockey, and baseball. They are role models because they are accessible and analyzed 24-7 on local and national sports networks.

I do not know why high profile rowing coaches are not willing to share the methods and process of their success.

When asked to share their coaching and training secrets, high profile rowing coaches tend to shrug and provide some general guidance. At the  2015 US Rowing Convention, a high profile coach was asked to talk about his recent campaign and I was amazed how packed the room was just to hear him speak. It was definitely out of great respect for what this coach has accomplished in his career, but I wondered if many, like myself, strained to sift out any valuable information from what he presented.

It may be one of the many reasons why rowing coaches in the United States continue to make mistakes in coaching their athletes. I cannot speak for coaches in other countries.

Here are 5 mistakes that US rowing coaches make:



“Too Demanding”

Rowing coaches can demand too much of their athletes. The sport requires an enormous time for training, and athletes do their best to enjoy and do well at the sport. However, rowing coaches always ask for more. It is important to challenge athletes and encourage them to improve themselves.

Yet, standing between two athletes during a “steady-state” workout, and demanding them to “pull-harder” may be a little overboard. Wait,  is it a steady-state workout or a race? I’m confused.

“Too Conservative”

Rowing is a challenging sport. A coach is asking eight individuals to propel a 90-100 kg craft over a mile and a half, while a 50 to 55 kg person is screaming in their face, as fast as they can. By the way, there are 4 to 6 other crafts next to them that a coach wants them to defeat.

Athletes should not go into an Olympic race feeling tentative. They may get hurt. Not physically because of all the years of training, but mentally if they don’t understand that to win they have to push themselves past their limit.



“Too Emotional”

There has been change in American society. Parents want their children to feel happy and safe all the time. I am a parent myself, so I understand this. However, making sure everyone is happy may not be the best thing.

Athletes have to learn how to fail in order to accept defeat in life. Rowing coaches are teachers and should teach athletes how to both fail and succeed. That means telling them when they are doing something wrong even if the athletes and parents do not like it.

“Too Withdrawn”

Yet, we need to connect to our athletes.  Rowing coaches are  teaching a very intense sport. If coaches focus only on the sport and not on their athletes they may find the athletes will never put forth the same effort that the coaches as rowers were asked to give.

Rowing is emotional. A rower wears their heart on their sleeve with every stroke. Either it is broken in defeat or it will propel an entire boat to victory with the trust created in the team culture. If needed, a coach must be able to access their own emotional side for the sake of their athletes.



“Too Consistent”

I believe you have to be consistent. However, building a program without any effort or ability to modify the structure to the type of athletes may hurt a coach in the end. Coaches should be adaptable, because as great planners they should be able to plan around all unforeseen obstacles.

Coaches that do the same thing year after year may become stale. Athletes and team culture will always  change, therefore the coach needs to be able to change with it. Otherwise they may find themselves “out-of-date” or out of a job.

“Too Impatient”

On the other hand, a coach cannot be erratic. Athletes are children or in some cases “child-like”. They depend on their coach which means the coach needs to provide some kind of structure for them to follow. Coaches that are constantly “shaking things up”  are putting the athletes on edge.

Erratic means 2k tests on the Monday after a regatta. Do coaches really expect everyone to pull a personal best right after they raced? Do they enjoy watching their athletes’ potential failure? Are they really trying to make their athletes tougher?



“Too Precise”

Rowing demands precision. Every rower is striving for that perfect stroke and perfect race every single day they are on the water. However, there are some things rowers and coaches cannot control. In their quest for perfection they may stumble.

A coach may be able to handle a setback,  but their athletes may not. The pressures of perfection may be too much to handle. Athletes already need to be perfect in all other aspects of their life. Perhaps rowing could be the sport where they are not perfect but simply successful.

“Too Rebellious”

At the same time, successful rowing coaches and trainers do have a formula for success. Advanced training concepts are more accessible, rowing equipment is cutting edge, and there are more genetically-gifted athletes. Rowing coaches continue to strive in thinking outside the box and introduce new ideas to the sport.

Yet, coaches that drive their athletes to stay ahead of the curve with physiology, technology, and recruiting may be going down an unnecessary road. It has been proven over and over that the sport really hasn’t changed that much in over the last 100 years. Perhaps the real key to a coach’s success may simply be learning how to connect to their athletes and peers better.


As a collegiate rower, I never knew what the workout would be day to day. My coaches would only inform the team session to session.  My only job was to show up and “push/pull” as hard as I could. As  a post-grad this lack of knowledge and understanding caught up with me. My performances began to steadily decline because I had no sense of how hard I was supposed to be working, and I found myself very over-trained.

As a young coach, I achieved early success because I was motivated and willing to work hard. However, eventually mistakes do catch up with you, and you find yourself looking for guidance. It became apparent that true coaching mentors in the sport of rowing are difficult to find. Mostly because the masters do not want to be outshone by their students.

This script has not changed.



I understand that sometimes revealing  too much information is not a good thing.

If  a coach hands out their entire training program  the athletes could become overwhelmed or anxious about what they have been given.

If a coach reveals all their coaching secrets, they may find themselves losing to their former assistant coaches the following year.

Isn’t the goal to set our athletes and coaches up for success?

If the United States wants to develop as a rowing nation, it mean understanding what each athlete and coach needs to be successful. In some cases, that means opening up to give them guidance on what they are about to do, and setting the right expectations.

I just watched the movie Pride the other night. Two coaches, Terrence Howard and Tom Arnold get into an argument after a meet:

ARNOLD: “You want respect in this game, then you’re gonna have to earn it…”

HOWARD: “Why don’t you teach your kids something?”

ARNOLD: “Yeah, he made a bonehead move…it didn’t affect the outcome.”

HOWARD: “You want respect, you give it.”

ARNOLD: “…You EARN it.”

Are we waiting for our athletes and coaches to earn our respect before we teach or tell them anything of value?


We may find that we leave this sport and this earth without leaving any kind of legacy.

And so the cycle continues…

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.






You can’t row and hope.” A great man once said.

I use this quote often with my athletes. Every time I use it, I ask them where it came from. I still have not gotten an answer.

Do you know? (Special prize to the first that emails me)

This quote carries a lot of meaning in the sport of rowing. Simply put – you can’t go out on the water hoping that you will win if you have not done all you possibly can.

I believe this quote applies to strength and conditioning and rowing. Rowers and scullers that refuse to train for strength will be at the mercy of the athlete who does train for strength.

One of my favorite quotes from one of my Masters athletes was, “What good is lifting weights when there is six miles of open water to row on…” Fine words from a fine athlete. However, this athlete no longer competes at a high level.

Rowing is an “Aerobic” Sport

My experience as a rower and sculler has taught me that you just cannot go fast if you never train fast. Athletes must follow an organized training program that will build their aerobic capacity and aerobic power over time to peak at their particular event. However, how do rowers and their coaches project speed if they have never physically raced at that speed?

Many young athletes begin with raw strength and power. There is a definitely a genetic advantage to the former football player that decides to pick up an oar and race against you. Give that athlete time to put in some aerobic capacity training and you might be in trouble.

I was at a disadvantage. I gravitated towards rowing because I came from another aerobic sport – cross-country running. I was blessed with the lungs and patience to race the full 2k distance multiple times, however if you put me on the rowing ergometer against some of my bigger, stronger teammates, I would usually lose. If a training session called for 6K test or Hour of Power then I usually could come out on top…

…but the Olympic racing distance is 2000 meters.

In 2005, I lost to my younger brother on a 90 second erg piece. He is 6’6” and can probably still dunk a basketball. As we began the ergometer piece, he went out way too fast. I purposely would bide my time, so I could level him with my sprint. As the clock ticked down, I realized I was going to run out of race course. He defeated me in my prime…

Did he go to the Olympic Trials? No, but I would never have the power that he had.

Unless I trained for it.

There is no time to lift weights

There is not enough focus on strength and conditioning in the United States specifically for rowing athletes. I am not writing about “CrossFit”. There is definitely a place for CrossFit in the world of fitness. Athletes like Erin Cafaro were successful with CrossFit because they found brilliant coaches like Kelly Starrett and Brian MacKenzie to train them individually and correctly.

Every collegiate athlete that I have ever worked with said that their rowing coach did not have time for lifting weights or did not “believe” in it. The strength and conditioning coach at their college or university did not understand the sport of rowing.

Is this really true?

There is no time to program strength and conditioning for your athletes?

I learned everything backwards. I was a  competitive rower  at the end of my rowing career that became a strength and conditioning coach. As a CSCS*D through the National Strength and Conditioning Association I have the ability to train athletes in any sport. I understand how the body moves and how weight lifting affects it. I do not claim to know more about football, basketball, baseball than people who play them competitively.

I do understand rowing.

I know that successful rowers are strong. Athletes like the Sinkovic brothers and Olena Buryak train for months to build large aerobic capacities to travel fast over 2000 meters. Multiple times. Do they also do strength training? If they do, you better get cracking…

Diagrams show that a rowing race is mostly aerobic.


“Energy Systems in a six-minute race”

That is true…provided that all the athletes in the race can produce the same speed and have similar aerobic capacities. An 2000 meter Olympic race is basically a  “drag race” to see which athlete can maintain their racing speed  and cadence and outlast the competition. That requires Aerobic Capacity and Aerobic Power.

However, when you watch a 2000 meter high school or collegiate race, it is more like watching a prize fight. Some boats start out fast,  and some boats cannot even get off the line with everyone else. Usually a winning boat requires one or two “moves” to knock out other boats. That requires Peak Power and Anaerobic Power.

To improve Peak Power and Anaerobic Power you have to do strength training.

Mobility, stability, flexibility, and strength  for rowers is just a “fad”

Volker Nolte published Rowing Faster in 2005. It is a must have for all rowing coaches.

Rowers must be able to do three things:

  1. Start fast
  2. Maintain
  3. Finish Faster

Ed McNeely, who wrote a fantastic blog on Peak Power contributed the chapter on strength. It’s on page 87, Chapter 8:


It’s in the Second Edition (2011) as well! Chapter 12, page 163:


The data he provides is simple:

There are three lifts that each racing class must be proficient at – Deadlift, Bench Pull, and Squat.  Basically  a “Hinge”, “Pull”, and “Squat” exercise.

And for each lift he provides the recommended standards at each level.

Coaches may argue that athletes that they have trained as rowers were successful without having reached those physical goals.

That is wonderful…those athletes are the exception.

Whether I was an elite rowing coach or Masters coach,  I  would want make sure that my athletes had all the tools for competing in their racing class.  Our athletes should be proficient in all of these lifts, and close to the recommended standards if they want to be successful in this sport.

It was true over 10 years ago, and it is still true today.

 Get Screened or Get injured

Before putting weights in your athletes’ hands, have they been examined by a fitness professional or physical therapist to make sure there are no underling physical issues?

In November, I wrote an article for Rowing Recruiting about the “Next Evolution” in rowing training. In the article, I interviewed some top, well respected, and qualified coaches that felt that coaches need to take a step back when it comes to  implementing their training programs.

It isn’t really an evolution. It is more bringing awareness to coaches that if their athletes are not being screened at a young age then a “specialized” training program may be sending down the road for poor performance and potential injury.

Building a solid foundation of mobility, stability, and flexibility for our athletes will allow a coach to successfully implement  a strength training program. Athletes will get stronger, and will less likely get injured.

Collegiate coaches need to decide if their goal is to win races or develop athletes that may have a future at the national, World Championship, or Olympic level.

If  athletes continue to focus just on Aerobic Capacity and Aerobic Power, then they will continue to manage rowing slower than their opponents for a long period of time.

Moral of the Story

The 2015 USRowing Convention was full of smart, capable coaches. Here are a few questions for them:

  1. Will all coaches ever get together and decide a single training standard for the United States and follow through?
  2. Why are our athletes – from high school up to Olympic hopefuls – spending so much time on the water and not any time in the weight room?
  3. Are all of them able to Squat, Bench Pull, and Deadlift well?
  4. Or will they wait until after selection to focus on this?



Until then, athletes will continue to be left figuring these things out on their own.



“’You can’t row and hope.’ Row and hope. All we did was row and hope…”

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.


Nolte, Volker (2005). Rowing Faster (2nd Edition). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, Inc. Ed McNeely, “Building Strength”. pg. 89, Chapter 8.

Nolte, Volker (2011). Rowing Faster (2nd Edition). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, Inc. Ed McNeely, “Training for Strength”. pg. 165, Chapter 12.

Davenport, Michael (2000). USRowing’s Coaching Education: Candidate’s Manual, Level II. Church Hill, MD: SportWork. “Training, Conditioning, and Nutrition.” pg. 102. Chapter 7.

Rowing Recruiting, Next Evolution in Rowing Training, November 2015