The musings of a high school coach…….
I have a real job as owner/CEO of a medical software company. We have users in about 30 states. We have an good growth rate. Our users are physicians, a rather demanding group. They keep me busy…..real busy. I’m in the office 7 days a week, at least until regatta season starts. That’s when I get Saturdays off and just another reason I love regattas. My point: coaching is not my profession; it’s my release from the workaday world. It’s my stress reliever. It’s my passion. It’s what I look forward too as the small hand inches toward 4:00 p.m.
The constraints of my business impose a burden on coaching. I must coach as effectively as I can in the time allotted. I don’t have a second chance. Worse, I coach 3 eights of high school kids. I have no assistants. None have rowed prior to joining Westerville Crew. They don’t automatically bring a bag of tools with them, such as a great work ethic, emotional well-being, a feeling of duty in achieving rowing greatness, or even a sense responsibility in doing their part to make a boat faster. Some, by their upbringing, are convinced that the rowers in front and behind them are THE ones responsible for loss of power maybe 4 minutes into a piece, loss of set, inattentiveness to detail, rushing, and a host of other complaints. I’ve got the job of creating a sense of ownership, not only at a personal level for each kid in each boat, but at a boat and team level.
This sense of ownership is, I believe, the most important aspect in making boat speed.
Sure, it’s hard for me to argue with all those coaches who live and die by seat racing, and there are plenty of successful coaches who will replace a kid in a boat due to a 1/4 bow deck lead in a seat race……….as fast as they’d flick a bougar. That’s not for me. I don’t seat race. More to the point, our lightweight men’s eight was fourth at Youth Nationals last year. Our heavy men’s eight did well in petite finals. I could have made the light eight faster by cannabolizing the heavy eight, taking two faster lights out of the heavy boat and putting them into the light eight. Sure, we might have medaled, but it’s not my nature. Only one graduated out of that light eight. They’ll have a chance to do better this year. But it’s their boat, it’s their responsibility to achieve. They truly have ownership of that boat; they are empowered. My job is to provide guidance and coaching.
Guidance comes in the form of understanding physiology– what workouts do we do today, tomorrow, next week, next month. How do we peak at the right time? How do we achieve maximum physical fitness in the kids of each boat? I enjoy that part of coaching. Each day I hand a plastic laminated card to each coxswain of my boats and my wife’s (the varsity women’s coach). It details each piece, rest intervals, rating, and whether the piece starts with a “start”, for example. I like the plastic laminated cards (which I construct at the office)– their preparation gives me a chance to record what workout we do each day, to think about tiredness, about water conditions, about what physiologic improvement we are trying to muster today.
My other job is to provide coaching. Let me preface it by saying that I have spent days in the launches of some very good coaches– NCAA top 3 and men’s IRA champions. I marvel at how they very often talk about the boat…..the boat…the boat. As a far less experienced high school coach, I privately sat thinking that rowers in those boats were thinking the same thing my high school rowers think– “Coach must be talking about 4 seat and 6 seat, but certainly not about my seat, 5 seat.” That inclination at the high school level is pronounced– “Coach can’t be talking about ME!”. My tact is very different– I hardly ever talk about the boat. Instead, I go from bow to stern and talk about individuals. And usually I get hung up with bow for minutes on end, trying to fix this or that hitch in his stroke. I’d love the luxury of talking about “The boat”, but I can never get over the details of each rower.
When I leave the dock, I pull the trigger on my megaphone and pretty much have it pulled for the 2 hours that we’re on the water. So I keep an extra 8-pack of batteries in my coaching bag. Being on the water with the kids is my opportunity to pick out defects in their stroke and let them know those problems which require fixing. It’s also a time to congratulate them for their successes in slaying another dragon. My paradigm is to pick out a fault, bring it to the rower’s attention, and provide some guidance in fixing it. That rower is often my center of attention until they show some improvement in the problem. When they do, I go to the next rower.
Coaching is, by nature, iterative. My suspicion born out of lots of coaching is that secretly each rower believes that he had it right before I made any comment, that it was a small problem (if any problem at all) and that if he reverts back to his old way, I really won’t notice. By this time, I’m coaching another rower. Sure enough, looking back to that rower most often reveals that he reverted. Convincing a rower that his hitch in the stroke is important to fix is a significant part of coaching. I’ve tried humor, many-different-ways-of-explaining-the-same-thing, yelling, cajoling, and mimicking the error. All provide some help. It’s still a slow process, one that makes me wonder when I can just sit and marvel at their great form. I hope by Nationals!
My twin brother and I are close. We rowed the pair and double together in competition, but more importantly, until our married lives tore us asunder, we were pretty much joined at the hip…..not unusual for twins. Bruce (my twin) used to coach for Westerville Crew. He can no longer do that due to back pain with neurological involvement. Even the bumps of hitting wake in the launch would cause him to grit his teeth and shed a tear or two. On Friday evenings, we usually sit on his front porch smoking good cigars and talking about the things that interest us most- rowing and the financial markets. During these musings, we talked about a paradigm shift in coaching. How could I become more effective as a coach and how could he participate in it now that he can’t go out in a launch. Those musings led to his building software that would allow very rapid “coaching of a film”. That is, a web site where rowing videos could be uploaded, easily coached, and then viewed by the rowers of each boat in the comfort of their home…..any time….with a simple Internet connection. Called CoachMeSports.com, Bruce brought it online a few weeks ago, just in time for our first day on the water.
True to his predictions, it has allowed me to quickly review films after workout and post these to the Internet. Our kids review them when convenient. In a unmistakable way, each is able to see his lack of rotation, or late body over, or rowing into it, or any of dozens of other faults we talk about in every day of practice. The kids have bought off on it in a big way. The most frequent comment is, “Matt, you were right about my…..”. Jeez, how many times would I have had to say it without supporting videos? Whether it will enable us to be a faster team, I do not yet know. It certainly seems to accelerate the process of accepting a fault…..the first step in fixing it.
I’ll keep you updated…………..the little hand is approaching 4:00.