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The Road Ahead

BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY SPORTGRPAHICS

At most of the big junior championship regattas, the venues are typically filled with collegiate rowing coaches. Most are there to watch the student athletes they are in the process of recruiting. Or they’re hoping for one-on-one time when the racing is finished—not just with the athletes, but with parents and coaches as well. And the students are looking for the same thing.

It’s a familiar scene, and for athletes in the hunt, especially those wrapping up their junior seasons and about to become eligible to have extended contact with college coaches in the recruiting process, spring racing is an important opportunity to showcase abilities and self-market.

But not this season.

With the entire regatta season shut down in the battle to contain the spread of COVID-19, those big opportunities do not exist this year. There are some juniors who really don’t have much to worry about—the kids who have already established themselves as top recruits.

For the many more who are not already on the top of the recruiting lists, these are missed opportunities. 

But that does not mean recruiting has stopped. It has not. And there are more than a few ways to gain the necessary attention and maybe land a spot on a collegiate roster, or a prized admission slot and scholarship at the right school.

To help junior rowers navigate this unexpected challenge, we asked some of the top coaches in the country for their advice on how to help fill the unprecedented void of the lost 2020 season.

Coaches interviewed include Boston University men’s coach Tom Bohrer; University of Washington men’s coach Michael Callahan; Virginia women’s coach Kevin Sauer; Cornell University lightweight men’s coach Chris Kerber; and Wisconsin lightweight women’s coach Dusty Mattison.

Much of what they had to say would apply to any recruiting season, and include some basic principles of contacting coaches, self-marketing, relationship building, selecting the right school and the right program, and demonstrating a capacity for determined growth in both academics and athletic performance.

Each of those elements of recruiting continues to apply today, but without racing and live results, there are holes to fill and ways to fill them. Here is what they said:

Pick the Right Program

One of the most important, if not the most important aspect of the process, is knowing what you want. Decide what kind academic program you are hoping for, the competitive level you want, how much time you want to commit to rowing, and what you want out of your college experience. Even if you think you want to row for a certain school, make sure it is the right fit for you. Make a list of the schools you believe best fit your goals and then rank them as they apply to you.

“You always want to make sure you are a good fit for your university,” said Washington’s Mike Callahan. “I think the biggest mistake we can make in recruiting is trying to talk a kid into coming to our program thinking he can fit any personality type, or any kind of person, at Washington and that’s probably not true.”

Callahan said the responsibility for deciding whether a recruit would succeed in any given program is not just the athlete’s. “I think the next level for our recruiting after the first introductions is drilling into who is the student, do we have a good match? If it’s not good for them, it’s not good for us,” Callahan said.

Cornell’s Chris Kerber agrees: “You have to link up with the programs that you like, the schools that you like, I think that’s more important, finding the right academic fit. The icing on the cake is the rowing program, the athletic program, that’s for sure.”

Market Yourself (And Don’t Cut and Paste)

Once you’ve decided what you want and where you would most like to go, fill out the online questionnaire and follow it up with a direct email to the coach. But remember always to make sure you have done your homework. Be able to talk knowledgably about the program — it’s history and results and why it appeals to you. And by all means, be careful to proofread your work. 

“When we do our summer camps, we do a seminar on this,” said Dusty Mattison of Wisconsin. “(Assistant coach Karly Laney) is point blank with them. Do the questionnaire, but then follow up with an email and proofread the email. We understand, we’re contacting many recruits as well, and we cut and paste, but we get these cut-and-paste emails, and some are addressed to the wrong coach. So take a moment, check your font, maybe don’t send it in pink lettering, make sure it’s the correct coach, it’s the correct program, say something unique about the program, show you’ve done your research,” he said.

If you want a return email, say or ask something specific about the program.

“The kids who stick out, they write to say, ‘I know this about your program, I saw this result, I was in Boston and I love the city,’” added Boston University’s Tom Bohrer. “It just shows that they did a little bit more homework on you, and they can say these are some reasons why I am interested in your program. BU has a really good engineering program, that’s what I am interested in. Then you can see that this kid knows something about the program.”

Provide Easy-to-Find Details 

An initial email should contain all the pertinent information a coach needs to judge whether an athlete can meet the standards of the program. The most competitive schools are looking for the most competitive athletes, but that doesn’t always mean they will overlook a candidate who is not quite there yet. So do not shy away from including your most recent test scores. And don’t bury the information in an overly long email.

Virginia’s Kevin Sauer has a habit of looking at real estate ads on Sunday mornings. It has nothing to do with recruiting; it’s just something he likes to do. But if he sees an ad for a property or home that looks good and the ad does not have an MLS listing, he moves on.

It can be the same with athlete emails, Sauer said. “If there is no MLS listing, I can’t look it up. So make sure that the email has all the information. I don’t want to read a long email and get to the end and think, ‘OK, but where are the erg scores, where’s the juice?’ Don’t be afraid to say what it is. 

“If it’s not something that will gain strong interest from us, but it’s in there, I’ll write back and say, ‘Good for you, keep working at it, and if it comes down, contact us again. But make sure it is in there,’” Sauer said. “If you send an email and it’s five pages long, people are not going to read it. The email is like a resume and it has to have all the particulars in it, including the erg score,” Sauer said.

“That first email just needs to be a snapshot,” said Mattison. “It doesn’t need to be an enormously long email, giving their life story. It just needs to say, ‘Hey, these are my stats. Include a 2K score, 6K score, height and weight, your most prominent racing results, and maybe a contact for a coach. Having that all in one email just shows that they have taken the time. If they have a rowing resume, they can attach it, or a transcript, they can attach it.”

Build Relationships and Check Back In 

Coaches are going to spend time trying to select who they want to recruit, and there are a lot of athletes vying for attention. Once a line of communication is opened, it’s important to build the relationship and send updates. 

“We’re looking for people who want to continue to improve and are willing to show that it’s something they want to do,” said Mattison.

“Follow up with the coach and say, ‘This is the plan I have moving forward. These are the different times I will be testing. I have this goal for this time, and the next time I have this goal,’ showing that they are intentional with where they are doing and the goals they are setting. And then check back in: ‘I did this time for this date, or it didn’t go as planned, but I have a plan for the next one.’ Show you are intentional in your thought process,” Mattison said.

“I’m looking for engagement,” said Kerber. “I’m looking for people who want to create a relationship, especially at the higher end. What I find is the A-list kids, the ones who know they’re going to get recruited, they are going to attract attention easier.”

It’s the candidates who are not at the top of those lists who have to work the communication harder, Kerber said. “Those kids who are in the hot seat, maybe the kids who are trying to stand out and there is more urgency, or it’s just not clear if they fit, they’ve got to hustle, they’ve got to work the sidewalk. 

“They’re going to have to do more work to get recognized. And that is, maybe not be overly communicative, but appropriately communicative. Maybe ask, ‘Can we arrange a call, what do you think?’ I would imagine that every individual who sends a coach an introductory email will get one back, and in that email will be the standards the team is looking for in a recruit.

“And maybe you fall a little bit outside of that. But I think that’s an opportunity for a recruit to speak on his own behalf, advocate for what they are doing right now, what steps they’re taking to close that gap.”

Send Videos and Visuals

Videos are always welcomed by coaches in the follow-up process. And this season there are opportunities to make unique and interesting clips.

“I like videos a lot,” Bohrer said. “If they have video of something they can do right now, if they have an erg at home, they can send in a 30-second or one-minute video of them on the erg. There are a lot of things coaches can pick up on. If you watch rowing enough, you can see how they apply power, or how their body packs up, and the mobility that they have, just little subtle things. You can tell if the kid rows long on the erg, or short, opens their back, does or doesn’t have slide control. There are a lot of things you can tell from the erg,” he said.

And it doesn’t have to be an erg video, said Mattison.

“I always like to see well-rounded athletes, and I am sure I am not the only coach who says that. So if I can see that they can do a push-up really well, or a squat really well, their movement patterns are on point, that can tell us a lot about the type of athlete they are. Just after seeing so many athletes over the years, we can see that that person knows how to brace their body really well and they’re probably going to be able to move the boat really well. 

“It doesn’t always go hand in hand with rowing, but it can be a pretty good indicator. We’ve told kids to send us a picture of themselves doing a circuit, or doing a push-up and so we can see that they are working on form, that their attention to detail is going across different disciplines. I would want that in any year.”

Understand the Process

Being recruited and gaining attention can be rewarding. But once you are on a coach’s radar and are possibly in line for a home visit or an invitation to an official visit, the process actually becomes one of coaches selecting athletes.

Be ready for coaches to look at who you are as a person, to check references, and to determine if you fit really their program as they envision it.

“I think in the bigger picture, talent is very important, of course, but there are underlying character and values that are also important,” said Callahan. Schools like Washington see hundreds of emails every year, and a lot of those potential recruits are qualified athletes, but not always the right person for an individual program.

“You look at the letter for what it’s worth, and then you dig in. Some of the mistakes we’ve made in recruiting is we didn’t dig in around the student enough. Maybe a person we should have interviewed is the janitor at the high school. Does he treat that guy with respect or not,” Callahan said. “You have to figure out if the [junior] coach is just telling you what you want to hear. You have to figure out who you can ask for the kids’ references. Are they a team captain, yes, no, why not? If they aren’t, are they a leader in other ways. Do they strap down boats when you walk away at the end of a regatta?

“We’re looking to find out how they deal with adversity, how do they deal with hard work. Do they love rowing? How do they respond to being taught? Do they like authority, not like authority?

“You’d be surprised,” Callahan said. “Sometimes I wonder if in our own marketing whether we attract the right person, or do we just attract someone who wants to come because they want to win. I don’t really want guys who just want to win, I want guys who want to work hard and get better. It’s not always about winning. It’s about the journey of winning, the process, and that’s a big thing.

“When we come to visit, yeah, you’re excited, you’re being recruited, but we’re also interviewing you. You always see kids excited when you come, and then you see them sit back in their chairs and think, ‘Oh wait a minute, I’m being evaluated.’ It’s interesting when a parent is in that meeting, too. You can see parents’ eyes widen, and then they realize we’re not just recruiting, we’re selecting, too.”

Show Progress Where You Can

There is no question the cancellation of the 2020 season is a bad situation for kids hoping to be pulled aside by a recruiting coach at the end of a regatta. That will not happen this year, but coaches want recruits to know there are ways to stand out. Every coach interviewed said basically the same thing: show progress where you can. 

“It seems like a lot of programs are still doing some type of organized training,” said Bohrer. “They’re doing Zoom workouts, or they have had goals for a 2K at the end of the season. I encourage kids to continue with that, if they have an erg at home, to continue to develop themselves. If they don’t have access to an erg, get better at running. If you have some weights at home, get fitter. Do something to show some improvement. 

“The kids who will stand out this year will be the kids who find a lot of fortitude in the solitude. I think a kid who’s not motivated is probably not going to become more motivated without the team environment. But I think you’ll see kids I’d be interested in saying ‘I’m locked at home, I don’t have my teammates, but I’m going to figure out a way to get fit.’ Those are the kinds of kids who will pop up on the radar of coaches. Kids who like doing the work and can handle the work and can do it in an environment that’s not what they are used to,” Bohrer said.

Control What You Can and Let the Rest Go

Much of what was discussed in the interviews can be applied to nearly every season. But this is not every season. No one knows when the COVID crisis will pass, or how and when life — and sport — will return to normal, or even what that will look like. That is not something athletes can change or control and stressing about the loss of a recruiting season will not help.

Action will. Set achievable, demonstrable goals.  

“I say the same thing to recruits that I say to my athletes: control what you can control right now,” Kerber said. “You can control your academics. You can control the number of minutes you’re training. You might not be able to control your ultimate erg score, or anything like that, but I think making forward progress, increased trajectory in all those departments, that’s where you can do it,” he said.

“Race results are clearly helpful,” added Mattison. “But I’m not too stressed. I don’t see it as a huge negative necessarily. I think kids could actually differentiate themselves a little more during this time. 

“This is a good time to see how you are going to react. Use this time to make moves. So what can you do? Yeah, maybe your coach is sending you workouts, and you’re doing workouts as a team, but have you checked in with your high school coach on what your individual goals are? 

“Maybe this is a good time to work on some weaknesses, or strengths, or the mental aspect of your sport, and those things I think are the kind of things that can differentiate a kid right now.”

Sauer puts it simply: Don’t stew. Do. 

“What I would say to kids who are having a lot of anxiety about not being seen is to take control of what you can. The season was canceled, you can’t control that. You can’t give race results, you can’t control that. But I had a kid just email me and say, ‘Coach, I just PR’d on the erg. It was a six-second PR. I said, ‘Way to go, kiddo.’ And then I thought, ‘Note to self — that’s the kind of kid I want in this program.’” 

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