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Coaching for the future to find success in the present.

Rowers are extremely competitive people. Every rowing team starts out each season wanting to win every race.  However, if the focus is purely on results, your season can unravel pretty quickly.  To be successful with consistency, especially at the junior level, winning has to be a byproduct of what you do and not the only objective. When the top priorities are development and improvement, the appropriate results on the water begin to take care of themselves.

The Novice Coach

What is the number one job of a Novice Coach?

The number one job is to prepare athletes to become contributor’s on the varsity squad the following year.  If you take that approach and execute it well, you are doing your job at a high level every year.

So what does that mean? Well, lets start with something obvious. To be a contributor on next year’s varsity, the novice rower has to physically come back to the team the following year.  Win or lose, they have to like the team and the sport.  It is important to create a culture of enthusiasm by getting novice rowers fired up and setting them up for success.


If they are miserable, they will not come back. Be realistic about your training plan. Novices should not be doing workouts like 3 x 20min on the erg or the water.  As their coach, you should show them how to use the basic mechanics of a rowing stroke and focus on teaching them how to row hard with control on the recovery.  Whether on the erg or in the boat, as soon as they are no longer rowing hard or with some semblance of ratio, you should stop them.  Letting a novice crew row sloppy for long stretches, even in the interest of fitness, is likely allowing them to develop terrible habits.  Instead, you should be building in a lot of short rests.  They are new to the sport and building in these breaks to let them mentally reset their focus is very helpful to their development.  For example, doing 3 by 1min on, 2 min off can be a much better workout for teaching power per stroke than doing a straight up 9 minute piece.  While the 1 minute on isn’t a lot of work initially, it is an easy amount of time to keep full focus for a novice rower.  It also gives you two whole minutes between pieces to check in with the athletes and reinforce what they did well and what they may need to work on in the next piece.  As the crew gets better at executing, you can lengthen the pieces and shorten the rest.  While doing this, you are developing a culture where these new rowers understand that they have to go hard but should also be thinking about how they are applying the force.  These short sample sizes will help them understand what is working and what is not.  Once they can see the difference, they will crave doing it the right way.  This sets them up for success.

By the end of the year, you want to have as many kids as possible who are having fun going hard every piece, while at the same time thinking about how their effort will work with the rest of their crew.  If you do that, your novice crew will be a force to be reckoned with on the racecourse, but even more importantly, you will have prepared a group of young athletes to advance to the varsity level the following year.

The Varsity Coach

There is often a feeling of more pressure on varsity oarsman and varsity coaches to produce wins.

While this is natural, just because there is only one team crowned the champion at the end of the season, this does not mean they are the only team that has had a successful year. Regardless of the final result, your team will benefit if you keep the focus on development for the next level.  If you do this, the wins will start to be a byproduct of the process.

Think of it this way. If you have a crew of athletes, all of whom are about to contribute to a competitive college team when they graduate, how do you think that crew is going to perform on the junior level?  Odds are, really well.

To be clear, this is not to say that getting your athletes recruited is more important than winning.  There is a significant difference between being a recruit and being prepared to contribute at the collegiate level.  The latter is more likely to be a consistent producer of success.  Coaches will not recruit your athletes based only on the stats they produced in high school. They will also recruit on their projected growth as oarsman. Too often, I have seen coaches turn to “more mileage” or “more practice hours” as the answer to chasing better results in their current season.  While there have been times where this approach may have worked, I think it is a bad strategy.  When you do this, you jeopardize the athlete’s future for potential small gains in the present.

Quality will always trump quantity when it comes to training at the junior level.  Think about it from the college coaches’ perspective…

Who would you want to recruit?  A girl who goes 7:31 and practices 5-6 times per week and really enjoys rowing, or a girl who goes 7:26 who practices 12 times per week?  While I can’t speak for everyone, I would take the 7:31 any day.  The 7:31 athlete is not overworked.  She is mentally and physically fresh and still going pretty fast.  The 7:26 is likely pretty close to her ceiling.  It is also very possible that her body is worn down and, if she is not someone who just generally loves working out nonstop, she is probably mentally worn down as well.  In this example, the 7:31is much more likely to improve and contribute for 4 years at the collegiate level.  The 7:26 is more likely to be mentally burned out or sustain injury from wear and tear. Who wins between these two hypothetical athletes when they meet on the race course at Youth Nationals? While there is no clear answer to this question, do not assume the 7:26 wins every time because that may not be the case.

Remember, these are 15-18 year old athletes.  If you are devaluing or ignoring the intangible effect of positive energy and physical health, then you are leaving a lot of speed on the table both in the present and the future.  Coach your athletes with this in mind.  Set aggressive but realistic goals.  When pursuing these goals, the focus should be about the athlete’s development and setting them up for success in the future.  If you take this approach, the wins in the present will come and your athletes will be set up for longer careers in the boat.

-Mike Wallin

Mike Wallin is a regular contributor for Rowers Choice and the Director of Rowing at Chicago Rowing Foundation.  

He rowed at St. Joe’s Prep in Philly, Cal Berkeley, and was on the US Junior National team.