“TOP CHEF” – RIO 2016

My wife and I really enjoy the show, Top Chef.

We enjoy it because we love watching talented individuals compete to create something amazing under difficult conditions. Every chef is talented, but the show is about overcoming the variables and completing everything on time. Chefs on Top Chef are  sometimes given all the same ingredients, and the chef that cooks the best wins immunity and may eventually be deemed “Top Chef.” Each chef that fails to execute, either through their ability to perform or failed concept (what did you just make?) is sent home.

In some cases, the judges just don’t like them.

RIO 2016

I enjoy rowing banter (my wife could care less).

I have especially enjoyed the recent debate and build up toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and the plans of the US Olympic/Senior National Team and the “Selection Process.” A large group of talented individuals competing to create something amazing under difficult conditions. Every athlete and coach is talented, but proper selection is about overcoming the variables and completing everything on time. (Olympic Qualifier)

For 2016, I hope that our top two “chefs” have been given the right ingredients. The pool of athletes in the United States is very large, and many have earned their pedigree over the last 4 years. They are like ripe vegetables or high quality meats that you wake up and wait in line for at the local farmer’s market. There is absolutely no reason that they should “go bad” because you bought them fresh, and you plan on preparing them shortly.

Why all the drama then?

“Quick Fire Challenge”

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On Top Chef, the chefs are initially dropped into a competition where they are a given a few ingredients, and told to make something in 30 minutes or less. It tests their quick thinking skills and ability to create a concept in a short amount time. Only recently, did Top Chef start having chefs going home after a Quickfire; at least in the first few seasons the chefs got another chance to prove themselves later in the show.

For Rio, our US athletes are working hard to get noticed, and when they are finally invited to camp, they only have a short amount of time to impress our “chefs”. Either they are either included in the recipe or tossed aside for something else (it is only 30 minutes). Deciding whether they are  worth the time or not, is up to the judgement of the coaches. US Rowing will not fund athletes that are not in the system. Athletes must re-locate on their own, find jobs, and deal with the stress of knowing or not knowing whether they are going to remain on the team.

How do we know if our “ingredients” are no good if we don’t use them?

“Elimination Challenge”

The “meat” of Top Chef is the Elimination Challenge. The chefs actually have ample time to plan a meal according to the judges’ criteria and standards. In the early seasons, the challenges were pretty straight forward – make a lot of delicious food for a lot of people. As the seasons have rolled on, the challenges have become more an more interesting:

“You need to make a 4-course meal for over 300 people using only solar-powered microwave ovens on a cloudy day. And you need to walk backwards the whole time…”

Reality shows need to continue “raising the bar” to attract viewers, but it is still about making delicious food. Many of us will never be able to cook or prepare food the way these chefs do, but they are not performing under realistic circumstances.

For Rio, the US National Team Coach Staff are put under a lot of stress, and asked by the US Rowing High Performance Staff and Board to create boats that meet the world time standards. If they are unable to produce a boat that will qualify for Rio, they may go home. I thought producing an Olympic caliber boat would be an honor and a privilege, not a career life or death situation.

Everyone knows how fast you need to go to get a gold medal. It should be pretty simple to put eight athletes in a boat, at particular training time during the year, and start the stop watch. The Men’s 8+ boat has to go at least 5:20; the Women’s 8+ at least 6:00. It should be clear who is moving the boat and who isn’t. The time trial row may be sloppy, but isn’t that what practice is for? Yet, rowing “experts” and aficionados may disagree, “It isn’t that easy to put an eight together…”

Are our judges making this selection process a little too complex?

“Judge’s Table”

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On Top Chef, the Judge’s Table is made up of a potpourri of master chefs, food critics, and a rotating group of celebrities. The stables are Tom Colicchio, Padma LakshmiEmeril Lagasse, Gail Simmons, Hugh Acheson, and Top Chef, Richard Blais.

At the beginning of each episode, it is apparent which chef is going home because they either screw up the concept or the execution.  As the season continues, the food gets better, and it becomes more difficult for the judges really to make any logical decisions. They don’t seem to let on though. To create drama, the judges will invent new standards or change things in the middle of the Elimination Challenge.  Chefs believe they are making one meal, and a judge arrives to inform that now they have to cook using one hand.

I trained through 3 Olympic cycles – 2000, 2004, and 2008.

The standards back in 2000  were pretty clear – pull this time on the ergometer, and you might get a look. Have a good college coach, that brings you to an ID camp and you might get a look. Compete and train for a top rowing club like Penn AC or Vesper and you might get a look. By 2008, US Rowing had added the National Selection Regattas (NSR)  to identify on-the-water talent early. If you didn’t perform well you still had the opportunity to compete at trials.

This did not stay consistent.

A few years ago you had to place at NSR’s to be allowed to compete at trials or the World Rowing Cup .  It required athletes to double or triple peak for completion, with no guarantees that they would make the team. As an athlete, I would believe that my mindset should be more focused on peaking for the Olympics, but our judges may have felt it important to eliminate any “flashes in the pan.”

Why change the standards each year?  

“Food Critics”

TOP CHEF -- Episode 1014 -- Pictured: (l-r) Padma Lakshmi, Emeril Lagasse, Hugh Acheson, Gail Simmons, Sean Brock -- (Photo by: David Moir/Bravo)

Photo by: David Moir/Bravo

On Top Chef, the food critics make their living tasting and writing about different restaurants and the food they serve. Initially chefs were “wowed” by their presence, but with each new season the food critics have become a part of the show. To the point, that they have become the show. The chefs and ingredients remain the same, but the food critics keep driving new “techniques and tastes.”

There is only so many ways you can make ceviche before it isn’t about the cooking anymore.

Chefs on the show struggle to come up with something new, however there aren’t any new concepts. Just because a meal does not look a certain way or taste or feel the way you wanted doesn’t mean that somebody else will not enjoy it. Maybe your palate is off.

For Rio, our judges continue to control all the variables.  Changing venues the year of the 2016 Olympic Trials is important for the long term development of the sport in the United States. However, it does not really help the coaches or athletes as they need to find transportation, lodging, and have the money to do so. Changing the selection standards each year makes for exciting racing, but preventing athletes from competing internationally because they did not meet a time standard on a choppy racecourse prevents athletes from gaining valuable international experience. It isn’t necessary to “wow” anyone. It is about winning a gold medal, and if you have the ingredients let the chef cook their food and create the best meal.

Whoever said they had to do it all by themselves?

“The Old Guard”

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The Old Guard on Top Chef is Tom Colicchio. He has been on the show since the beginning, and he is regarded as the “top” chef on the show. Colicchico is fair but firm. Lately he has been a little more unforgiving, probably to add drama, but he still tries to provide constructive criticism and advice. Emeril Lagasse is the proven, sympathic, grizzled, old veteran. Richard Blais won Top Chef: All-Stars back in 2010 . He brings a youthful style and “flavor” to the judge’s table. My wife doesn’t like him, but Colicchio may retire from the show at some point, so it must go on.

Lately, the rowing message boards are full of Old Guard who know what it takes to go fast. They did it, and they have nothing left to prove. A lot of energy is focused on talking about the old days and how they went about accomplishing things. Meanwhile, the standards for Rio are different, but not on the world stage.  On the US stage. Most of the online banter is criticism towards these fluctuating US standards, but there is a lot of criticism towards the athletes too.

“In my day, we didn’t have all these new-fangled boats, heart-rate technology, stroke analysis technology, and sunny California/Florida venues. We trained in Princeton, NJ, went to TAMPA and we liked it!”

Congratulations Old Guard, we know what you did, and I am always sure to ask for autograph. Perhaps you could be more like Tom Colicchio and actually help some of these athletes understand how to row a boat. Create a support system. In the end these “youngins” are doing their best. They want to go to Rio.  Help them go to Rio if you know how to do it. Otherwise, let them be. Rowing doesn’t have a lot of press, so when athletes read your criticism it just adds to their stress.

Coach Mike Teti told us all that we “suck”. Guess what we still do, and I am sure he will still tell us that today.

“Padma”

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Padma…the person on Top Chef that knows nothing about cooking.

Padma is very adamant about being critical about things she knows nothing about. She makes it very it clear what food she likes and what she doesn’t like. Chefs on the show are more upset if Padma spits out their food than if someone that has a trained palate critiques their cooking technique. My wife hates her because she adds no value to the show and is just there to keep the drama going.

For Rio, the complaints are also dramatic.

The latest complaint is that US Rowing does not have the budget to fund athletes. When I was training, I lived with my parents, then my in-laws, and I have a very supportive wife. It allowed me to train full time. It wasn’t ideal. I understand it is difficult to find a job and train full time, but there are real Americans that have multiple kids, work two or three jobs, and barely have time to sleep. I worked at Dunkin Donuts when I trained. The night shift. I would have done the same thing if I had to move to California or Florida. I would make it work if going to the Olympics was my goal. Was it stressful, yes? Make your choice, because you can always take the easy path.

Funding. If gofundMe.com will allow someone to seek funding to make a peanut butter sandwich,   then I am sure we can find a person or sponsor to send athletes to Rio. Maybe if the boats were selected earlier, and we could demonstrate (Time Trial anyone?) they had a shot at winning a gold medal, then maybe someone would open up their wallet or purse.

“Moral of the story”

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I failed in 2008.

I didn’t go to the Olympics. 11 other M2x competed at the US Olympic Trials that year. The M2x that won trials finished 13th in Beijing. None of us were fast enough. We can walk around and pretend that we are great or we can admit the fact that it takes a special coaching and athletes to make something special happen. As the next few months unravel, all I can do is sit and watch, and cross my fingers that the United States is successful. As an athlete, I secretly wanted my opponents to fail, but now that I am out of it I really want someone to root for at the Olympics.

The young athletes I meet remind me of me. “Chips” on their shoulders, but ready to shoulder the burden of become Olympic hopefuls. It doesn’t matter what school they rowed for or who their coaches are.

They have a dream, and if they want help I am here to help them.

I haven’t been asked. Instead I write.

On Top Chef, the chefs are trying to win money for their business, their family, their prestige, and to just inspire people. No one chef is better than the other. We all root for our favorites, and we understand the chefs eliminated were very talented. We wish them all success.

For Rio, there are a few Olympic hopefuls whose dream will end in the next few weeks.   No consolation prizes, and hopefully solace because they tried their best. If we are willing to help them, it might make sense to remind them that they will be able to move on to bigger and better things.

Their dream is over, but not their life.

That is the difference when you cook with love…

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I hate you Padma…

 

For more information on Mindset, Strength and Conditioning for rowing, rowing technique, Kettlebells, Clubbells, AthleteDISC, and the Process Communication Model® follow my blog or follow me on Facebook at RUFO OPTIMAL WORKOUTS.

 

There is no “TEAM” in “Rowing” Anymore…

straight four

Photo/Video Credit: Gus Rodriguez, 1988 Olympic Men’s Rowing 4- Final

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…”

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Photo Credit: John Graves, Twitter, Trinity College, 2005 Henley Royal Regatta

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…”

Photo Credit: Viking Books, The Boys in the Boat

Photo Credit: Viking Books, The Boys in the Boat

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.

 

“Building Trust”

 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.

Photo Credit: new.com.au, Australian Men's Four without Coxswain, London Olympics 2012, Silver Medal

Photo Credit: new.com.au, Australian Men’s Four without Coxswain, London Olympics 2012, Silver Medal

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”.

 

“Superman, it’s not easy…” – Cam Newton

I don’t know Cam Newton. I have never played in the NFL. I don’t claim to know about football more than any other sports analyst or beat writer out there.

However, as an athlete and coach, I have spent an enormous amount of time observing athletes going through physical and mental stress.

“I’m only a man in a silly red sheet…”

The visceral reaction of the national media, social media, and my even my wonderful mother-in-law over Cam Newton’s behavior after the Super Bowl really made me think.

Why do we expect athletes to act and behave a certain way?

There are definitely good behaviors and bad behaviors. We are taught to know the difference as children, and we grow and experience them over time. In the moment that Cam Newton had lost the biggest game in the course of his career, everyone expected him to know how to behave.

Losing the Super Bowl is no different than an Olympian falling short of an Olympic medal. Yet, the NBC Olympic coverage will never pan the camera over to the Olympian that finishes in 4th place. The camera will never follow them for the next 4 years as they begin again, or try to move on with their life.

I have watched athletes fail and I have also failed myself. I remember exactly how I felt in that moment when I realized I was not moving on to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

I love and adore my wife. I would never have been upset with her attempts to console me about losing. However, there were definitely people in my life that I would not want to see or speak to at that moment.

There were also a few I may have punched in the face.

 

“Digging for Kryptonite on this one way street…”

Did anyone see this picture? A smile. I re-watched the entire game to observe Cam Newton’s facial expressions. He was not allowing himself to have fun in the moment. He was playing the Super Bowl against one of the greatest quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen in Peyton Manning. A quarterback who at the potential end of his career realized that he just needed to do what was necessary to win, and not try to win the game all by himself.

This is how an athlete matures over time. No doubt after Peyton Manning lost his previous two Super Bowls we all sympathized because he was still ‘classy’ enough to stand up in front of the world and talk about what just happened. But remember, he didn’t shake hands after losing the Super Bowl to New Orleans. Peyton Manning eventually learned to come to terms with his declining abilities, just as he learned to swallow his pride and be a good loser.

Peyton Manning is not Cam Newton. Cam Newton is not Peyton Manning.

If Cam Newton were to take the AthleteDISC behavior profile, I would guess that he was a high “I” for Influence and a high “D” for Dominance. Being able to enjoy the sport of football with his teammates and be super competitive is what has shaped him as a young man, and what he continues to live for. If you take those things away from him, then you are left with an athlete struggling to be something he is not.

 

“Only a man in a funny red sheet, looking for special things inside of me…”

Cam Newton must now spend the entire NFL off-season trying not to read and listen to the national media, social media, and fans who believe they know what a football should be and how they should behave. Younger athletes are different.

Our parents and their parents’ generation were extremely hard workers; they endured to provide us with the best things in life. Now I have begun my dual career as a parent and coach, and I realize that the next generation is different.

People are calling Cam Newton a 26-year-old child.

He is a child. He is 26 years old. I can say that now because I am close to 40. I remember how I behaved when I was 26. All of us should remember how we were when we were 26. We thought we knew everything. We learned from those mistakes. If we want the next generation to trust us then we need to stop following the script of:

“Why can’t you be like me when I was your age?”

I struggle with that right now with my own daughters. I try to impose some of the values that I learned as a child on them, but I need to realize that they are not me. I hope that one day they will see the best in me.

We model good behavior for our children through our own behavior. Not by shoving it down their throats…

If we call a person ‘classless,’ a ‘punk,’ ‘petulant,’ and ‘a baby’ then we are just reinforcing the behavior.

We are not helping. We are judging.

If we believe we are better than everyone else then maybe we should start using that knowledge to start teaching instead of sitting back pretending that we know exactly what the person is going through.

Oops. I’m judging.

 

“I’m only a man in a funny red sheet, I’m only a man looking for a dream…”

Dec 13, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers celebrate going 13-0 during the second half against the Atlanta Falcons at Bank of America Stadium. Panthers win 38-0. Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

We cannot blame his teammates, even if they blame themselves. Each of them perceived that they had to behave a certain way during the Super Bowl. The difference is that the national media does not care and will not analyze what was going through the mind of his teammates. They will only focus on Cam Newton’s behavior.

Each of his teammates will still have to look at themselves in the mirror and try to understand what they were missing during that game. Two NFL teams were playing at the highest level. Both teams came ready to play, and the game was always within reach. Only one team could win.

Did the Carolina Panthers fail? Yes, but finishing second is not the worst thing in the world.

Our “mature” American society made “winning” the most important thing.

 

MORAL OF THE STORY

“I’m only a man in a silly red sheet, And it’s not easy…

Photo Credit: www.bleacherreport.com and Getty Images

Photo Credit: http://www.bleacherreport.com and Getty Images

At this point, now, I am invested. I want to see him succeed. I am tired of watching athletes fail because I already know what it feels like. When I watch my athletes and others fail, I am reliving my own athletic failures with them.

The process of recovering from that takes a very long time. Someday, I will share that journey with everyone, but my focus now is to help athletes move passed and overcome that.

Cam Newton, I’m ready to believe. I know you did the absolute best that you could. You will learn from your mistakes and become a better athlete; a better person. You have already come forth and admitted that your choice of behavior might not have been the best one. It wasn’t. Do not let people change or sway you from who you are.

 

Superman will rise again…

“…It’s not easy to be me…”

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.