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Staying On, Off the Water

BY BILL MANNING
PHOTO BY ED MORAN

The hardest time for coaches is typically when their athletes are away. Coaches crave control but lack it when rowing is out-of-season and during vacation periods. These times of year often make or break competitive seasons. Coaches need to guide their athletes to behave advantageously when away to produce healthier, happier athletes, increased speed, and better racing results. 

The most valuable vacation period coaching is telling athletes to rest, recover, and recuperate. The more rowing done during the school year the more important it is to take time off when possible. Rarely does it serve a young junior well to row sweep four seasons a year. Individual needs do vary. A university athlete training seriously for 10 months needs time off during the summer while a scholastic athlete rowing only the spring season can easily row all summer long.

The break is often needed more mentally than physically and coaches must respect this. Sometimes they do their athletes the greatest service by simply leaving them alone for a period. If there is a niggling injury, the kind that interferes with rowing but doesn’t stop an athlete, prioritize sorting it out. Some athletes resist scaling back their training for fear of falling behind. The more experienced coach gives permission for this by making it clear that good health comes before fitness and is necessary for long-term success.   

Coaches determine how competitive athletes behave with the incentives they create. By testing their fitness with a planned running race when they return they will have done more running. It’s the same with the erg, up to a point. Having a fit group in September that’s burned out on the erg in October is a short-term gain with tremendous long-term cost.

Time away also encourages greater athleticism and allows rowers to develop new skills without fear of failure. Emphasize the fun of these activities. Create a sculling regatta for September to encourage small-boat skills.  Similarly, let it be known that for the first three weeks of the new year everyone will row the opposite side and you’ll get more versatile athletes. Encourage non-specific training too—running, triathlons, biking, or hiking. 

The most valuable coaching encourages rowers to attack their weakness while away rather than merely building upon their strengths. All of us prefer to work on our strengths. It’s easier doing so even when the work is hard. The gains from making our strengths marginally better are nowhere near as significant as improving a weakness. Coach the weak to build power, the tight to expand their mobility, the stragglers to get fit. The confidence athletes gain by improving their weakness is as beneficial as the improvement itself.

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