On Pace

By Jen Whiting | Photos by Peter Spurrier, SportGraphics, and Hunter Martin

Rotterdam. Netherlands. USA Coach, Wesley NG. 2016 JWRC, U23 and Non Olympic Regatta. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

You know this moment.  Your boat glides under your seat as you let your feet come back toward your body. Your hands are ahead of your feet now, fingers restraining—ever so slightly—the oar that is looking for water. You wait, balanced above the surface, as the boat glides as far as possible before slowing down. “Patience,” you remember to tell yourself.

This moment is the opportunity to sense what could be better, what micro-adjustments could give you more speed, what millimeter of difference could cause you to be more in sync with your boat. This moment, as you hear the whisper of “patience,” is what creates speed.

Wesley Ng, the head women’s coach at the University of Pennsylvania, has the build of a lightweight rower, even now, 15 years after winning the IRA championship in the Yale men’s lightweight eight. Ng is direct when he speaks, with a meter that makes you lean in to hear what he has to say. A history major at Yale, it’s as if his natural propensity for critical analysis is a magnet, causing you to stop moving and listen, lest the sound of movement might cause you to miss something; he delivers his message in soft, almost muted, tones.

Ng is in his second year as the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania and by all accounts he and his team of assistants are on the right track. He arrived in Philadelphia in the summer of 2015, after having been at the helm of the women’s program at Trinity College for nine years. But it’s not the years of coaching that define Ng’s success as a coach. It’s his use of those years, and the tools he’s embraced to find new speed for each of his crews, that builds the picture of Ng as a coach.

University of Pennsylvania Women’s Rowing Coach Wes Ng.

“I got interested, first off, in taking more on-board video—that goofy GoPro tripod that connects to the stern of the boat.” Ng explains how he started shooting this footage of his rowers at Trinity in 2010, long before cameras and deck-mounted tripods became commonplace. “I ended up finding a whitewater rafting company that had the stuff I wanted. They said to me, ‘Why would you ever want to do this?’ I really wanted to be able to measure what was going on in the boat. Rowing is more of a closed system than we expect. If we can measure it, we can adjust it. If we can adjust it, we should be able to get better performances.”

Ng goes on, the meter of his speech doing what I had first felt: causing me to be patient, to wait. “I’m not satisfied with the age-old axioms, ‘She makes the boat go fast,’ or ‘She has good rhythm,’ or ‘He just makes the boat go.’” Ng’s rowing career at Yale was more successful than many collegiate careers, with three undefeated seasons culminating in an IRA title, and yet he says, “Maybe it’s because I never was a boat-mover.”

Ng goes on, describing what has become so important to his coaching. “If I can show what actually is good rhythm, if we can look at it and be able to analyze it, then we can link it together.” Ng turned Trinity crew into a NCAA Division III championship program, winning the team title in 2014. Says Ng, “When I think back to my time at Trinity there were three real highlights: In 2008 we won the NCAA DIII varsity title and then won the senior eight at Henley Women’s Regatta. Trinity was the first and only DIII team to win a Henley event.”

Ng goes on, “In 2014 and 2015 we won the [NCAA championship] varsity eight back-to-back. The 2015 varsity was particularly sweet because eight of nine athletes were different from the 2014 varsity.” Ng emanates that introspective quality most successful coaches possess. It says, “I see you, and I see how you’re improving.”

I ask Ng about the progression of coaching he’s seen in the sport over the past 15 years, and how it’s influenced his own approach. “I think there’s been a tremendous progression, a professionalism, that has gone throughout the physiological training and the technological piece. I think that what everyone is doing seems a lot more similar now than it was back then.” I ask him to explain. “Ten years ago it seemed like there were ‘secret’ approaches. There was such a smaller window into what teams were doing. Now we have a more common approach. I think a huge portion of the change is the availability of video and with that you get a little bit of the flavor of how people do things, via social media.” He chuckles, “Sometimes it’s a rosy and sanitized version of what they’re doing, but you can see it now.”

Ng has been a college rowing coach since his own rowing career ended. “I tried out for the Canadian national team after college.” Ng is Canadian, something, he tells me, that most people are surprised about. He slows the story here and laughs a little. “At the trials in Victoria I found out how ill-prepared I was for what it would take to get good at rowing a small boat. When I didn’t get selected I said, ‘Wow, now what do I do?’” What he did was, slowly, and with the curiosity that comes naturally to him, build a successful coaching career.

“Will Porter [the head coach at Yale] had a second assistant position open and he took a flyer on me,” says Ng. “I’ve always been very appreciative of that.” I ask him if that first job offer from Porter affects how he hires assistant coaches.

“I always look for somebody who sees their role as helping others, instead of trying to do it for themselves. It’s easy for us to get caught up in our records, but our competitive time is over. Now it’s our turn to help others, to create the environment for them to succeed.” Ng gets animated when he talks about this, as if the opportunities offered to him, both as a rower and as a coach at Yale, positioned him to see the importance of passing the torch; he seems acutely aware of the responsibility that comes with opportunity.

“I don’t want to work with people who just do what I say. I want people who are interested in trying out what they see, finding what works. We might find new things. That’s what I want.”

When he got to Penn, Ng hired two assistant coaches, Libby Peters, who rowed and coached for Columbia University, and then went on to international success on the national team, and Andrew Blum, who rowed and coached for the University of Rhode Island and then, as an assistant coach, helped Bates College win a DIII championship. “Libby and Andrew are both the kind of coach that finds what works,” he says.

I ask Ng if he still uses deck-mounted cameras to capture the details of the rower’s motion. “Four or five years ago I felt a little more on the forefront of it. It’s exploding now and I find I have to work pretty hard to figure out what’s useful and not just what’s available.” Ng describes his early experiences with video, “In 2010, I tried putting a camera on a PVC stick that was drilled through a vent cap,” he says. “There was always a funny blend of hamming it up for the camera for the first 30 seconds and then the rowers forget it’s there. At Trinity, it became a little bit a part of our identity.”

Ng says he felt like a football coach when reviewing the video he would get from practices. “It was always one piece of the puzzle. I’d find one or two things in a practice. I had an inkling from my eye. The video would either confirm or deny it. At Penn, we use it to shape the learning process. For the rowers, if you can’t visibly see something change, then why are you doing it? And the audio is really good for the coxswains.”

After coaching for two years at Yale, Ng was hired as the men’s novice coach at Trinity College, a DIII school in Hartford, Connecticut. After his first two years at Trinity coaching the men, he took the helm of the women’s program. Nine years later, Trinity was the NCAA champion for the first time in school history.

I ask him about his decision to take over a Division I program. “I think my mind had opened up to DI in 2012,” he says. “I had coached at Vesper [Boat Club’s high-performance camp] during the summer and it was really fun to work with Division I athletes.” Ng pauses, remembering fondly this period in his career. “I saw that some of the approaches we were taking in DIII could help them. Then I got really fortunate and had a conversation with Curtis Jordan [USRowing’s former high-performance director] and he said, ‘Why don’t you come to Korea with us?’” Again, Ng lets out a soft laugh. “I had to swallow hard and say, ‘You mean the world championships?’”

Ng did sign on to coach at the 2013 worlds in Chungju, South Korea. “I had a chance to help the women’s lightweight quad, rigging, race planning, helping them to execute workouts a little better. They ended up winning a silver medal. It was really serendipitous.” Ng speaks as one who doesn’t boast, doesn’t make a fuss about his successes.

I ask Ng to back up and elaborate a comment he’d made before his story of going to Korea. “What did you mean when you said that the DI athletes at the high-performance camp at Vesper could benefit from some of the approaches you use in DIII?”

“DIII is challenging in that the time the athletes have to spend is so limited. It’s such a restricted practice and playing season. In DIII, there’s a coaching moratorium from the first week in November to the middle of February, no organized practices. The challenge was not the workout, but getting them to understand what they needed to accomplish in the workout. There’s an amazing dose of responsibility that DIII athletes carry. If they want to be successful, they have to implement. There is no hand-holding.”

“When it goes wrong, they go very slowly. When it goes right, it’s very special. Success is for the very-mature, highly-motivated athlete.” He switches gears. “What I’ve found at the DI level is that when I see people wanting to be told what to do, then I know I haven’t given them the right picture. Maybe that’s the OCD side of me coming out, but your time is so valuable, it takes away some of the athletes’ autonomy if they think the only way to do it is the way the coach has spec’d it out. In DIII, we had to make crews competitive much more quickly. There wasn’t time to actually teach. That’s what is so enjoyable here at Penn.”

Ng shares a quote that guides his approach to teaching as a coach. “Larry Gluckman once told me, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher will come.’ It’s the responsibility of the teacher to make it as easy as possible for the student to absorb it. Maybe that’s another development in my approach. Before I would worry about if everyone is ‘getting it.’ Now I don’t worry about it. I’ll just look for a different way of teaching it.”

I ask Ng if he was surprised by any particular element of taking over the Penn program. “I didn’t expect to see how much the team loved each other. The team structures and team traditions are so cool. I give a lot of credit to the coaches who came before me. Penn emphasizes what the university really means. We think about it all the time, ‘How do we blend that into the improving identity of our team?’

“The expectations are to try to get better every day, but not only to look for incremental changes. We look at what the best teams are doing and make our own version of that. Within the Ivy League there are some amazing coaches and team cultures. We look at those traditions and challenge ourselves. One of the reasons I came to Penn is because there’s no reason why we can’t be successful. There’s nothing standing in our way. We want to represent the Ivy League incredibly well.”

Ng stops here, and I can feel him inching toward what drives him. “I think it’s hard to break out of the idea that your identity is what makes you fast. How each individual performs is what can create speed. When I think about the teams that win, they’ve done an amazing job of committing to their process. It’s full speed ahead at their one thing.”

Ng recalls a moment in his first fall season at Penn when, after a long-sought win, a rower said to him, “That’s one of the first races I’ve won in a long time.” He smiles, knowing his traits. “My initial response was to move on to the next thing, but you’ve got to let the athletes have that moment. I thought to myself, ‘We don’t have to rush through this, let’s learn from it.’”

I can feel Ng itching to get back to his coaching, but he explains one more element that’s been affected by technology since he started coaching. “Success is meant to be shared much more now. There are very few things where success is private. I felt, as an athlete at Yale, that our success was very personal.” He remembers that “If you got one picture in Rowing News it was pretty darn special.” Ng tips his hand on his generation just a bit. “Now, I’m as big a fan of Instagram as the next person, but even before the boat is dry people are sharing their success with everybody they can find. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.”

Ng stops in his tracks then speaks in those soft tones he started with. “The people that matter most are only the ones that are in our huddle. We can’t listen to anyone else. We can notice them—friends and family and social media—but the ones that matter have to be only our voices.”